Not just a game: Virtual reality is already seeping into the real world

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Virtual reality is no longer confined to sci-fi novels and gamers(Credit: Maurizio Pesce, remixed by Emily Ferron)

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Until recently, virtual reality (VR) technology has almost exclusively been used to explore the fantasy realms of the gaming world. But a few new developments strongly indicate that VR has outgrown games and is on the verge of becoming a practical, real-life tool for experiences, enterprise and education. Let's recap some recent developments in this quickly-expanding field.

We've already imagined potential non-gaming uses for VR and pondered how far the technology can go, but in some areas there's no imagining or pondering required: All you have to do is follow the steady stream of virtual reality headlines.

Entertainment

Not long ago it seemed like a novelty to eventually watch events in VR, but that's already becoming a reality.

California-based NextVR is on the leading edge of broadcasting live events in virtual reality. They've already partnered with top media outlets like CNN, HBO, and LiveNation to broadcast sporting events, concerts, and a presidential debate. NextVR believes that the necessary technology for compelling VR experiences is here, and all that's missing now is content. Investors seem to agree: NextVR just announced that it has garnered over US$80 million in funding to date.

Live event broadcasting (which NextVR isn't alone on) isn't the only part of the entertainment world that VR is dipping its toes in. In addition to more traditional video streaming services, like Netflix, which is available on the Gear VR, Oculus has its own movie-producing division (if you own a Rift, you must check out Henry) and multiple Hollywood studios now have dedicated VR divisions.

E-commerce

Screenshots from the Ikea VR Experience

2016 has seen many first forays into VR shopping, including a few notable entries into the market by international retail giants.

Swedish furniture giant Ikea launched a pilot version of the "Ikea VR Experience" last spring. With an HTC Vive, it's possible to explore a test kitchen firsthand. Change the appearance of the cabinets, experience the room as a short or tall person, and maneuver within it as if it were real. The test version of the app will remain supported until December 2016; after that, it could turn into a remarkable visualization tool for potential buyers. Ikea also just made parts of its 2017 catalog available in VR.

In May, eBay launched the world's first "virtual reality department store." It partnered with Australian retailer Myer to offer an e-commerce experience where top products can be viewed in 3D. They jointly gave away 20,000 Google Cardboards branded as "Shopticals" as part of the promotion.

China's largest e-commerce site Alibaba is also a driving force in expanding VR shopping options. In March, it announced Gnome Magic Lab, an in-house VR research laboratory dedicated to helping Alibaba sellers offer their inventories in 3D. In July, it launched the Buy+ virtual shopping experience at the Taobao Maker Festival in Shanghai.

Enriching experiences

There are several informative 3D and VR experiences already available, such as Google Street View, Oculus' sculpting tool Medium, and several different kinds of medical tools. Proprietary wellness apps include exposure-based therapy for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a population for whom mental health solutions have proven elusive.

Even apps that have yet to catch on in the virtual world are fertile with possibilities. Just this week, British blogger Aaron Puzey made headlines for his present attempt to bicycle the entire length of the United Kingdom virtually. His VR adaptation of Street View coupled with an indoor stationary bike lets him tackle the task in segments, one day at a time.

This has been only a brief roundup of VR development. The sheer number of multidisciplinary advancements hint that VR is the next chapter in mobile and remote technology.

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