Tech Innovation

Simulation Nation: How Companies Use VR to Create the Future

virtual reality
by Deb Miller Landau
iQ Managing Editor

Auto, architecture and retail industry innovators show how virtual reality technologies will change the way companies do business.

One of the best things about virtual reality (VR) is that in it, anything is possible.

For entrepreneurs across many different industries, that means new opportunities for offering better, more accessible and personal products and services.

“Because VR is a very immersive, interactive way of doing things that would normally be much more expensive, it has the capability to disrupt many existing markets,” said Mike Premi, business development manager of new product innovation at Intel.

“Commercial applications for this technology are endless,” he said.

Innovations in computing and visualization technologies are helping VR developers create simulations that could revolutionize industries by increasing creativity, relevancy, efficiency and even safety, while also bringing cost savings and new revenue generating opportunities. Goldman Sachs estimates the market for VR and AR could grow to $128 billion by 2025.

For many people working in VR today, the tech is just beginning to dip its toe into the well of possibility.

Take a Break, Mannequin

“In retail, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed in the last 30 years,” said Josh Hansen, managing director of PixelPool, a digital interactive company that helps retail brands use VR to design and plan their stores.

VR Motion
VR Motion uses virtual reality technology to simulate real-life driving experiences.

Hansen said retailers traditionally spend valuable resources building mock stores, creating and shipping sample products in every color and style, designing and re-designing, dressing mannequins and photographing scenarios.

“We can create all of that now in virtual reality,” he said. “We give store planners all the pieces and parts in 3D assets. They can build out stores, walk through the space, and be able to view everything within the store exactly how it’s supposed to be.”

With PixelPool’s software, retailers can drag-and-drop every item in a store – from clothes and racks, to light fixtures and wall paint. Retailers can mock up a store in a variety of ways – if it doesn’t work, they simply change it until they land on the perfect set-up. Retailers can create “virtual showrooms” in 3D to sell seasonal assortments into their wholesale accounts.

“What’s great about virtual reality is that it’s limitless. You can design for things that don’t exist yet,” Hansen said. “You can make decisions not only based on what things look like visually, but how much revenue a particular setup would bring in.”

Hansen said digital disruption across the retail industry compels brands to get more creative in order to stay relevant.

Josh Hansen of Pixel Pool
Josh Hansen of PixelPool uses VR to help retailers easily design store layouts.

“You either adopt technologies and be innovative or your multi-billion dollar company is going to go out of business,” he said. “If you look at some of the biggest companies in the world, they’re all investing heavily in the VR.”

“The technology is finally there,” said Hansen, whose office hums with high-end workstations and more than 30 servers running Intel Xeon processors. “Because the processing and compute power is available today, we’re able to actually develop on it.”

A New Way to Drive

For Keith Maher, developing in VR meant marrying two passions: technology and race-car driving. The co-founder and CEO of VR Motion developed a professional race car simulator that helped Dominic Dobson win one of the world’s toughest races.

“It’s like a gym for drivers,” said Maher. “There’s a lot of sports psychology that shows that if you visualize perfection you can improve your performance.”

Dobson, who’s had seven starts at Indianapolis 500 and is something of an Indy car legend, longed to conquer the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, one of the world’s most arduous courses. It’s raced on public roads, making it impossible to conduct practice runs.

Maher created a PC-based simulation of the course based on the exact car Dobson would drive – incorporating things like the physics of the weight distribution of the car, how it changes in traction as he goes up the hill, even as the gas tank depletes.

Dobson, in his 50s, who had never competed in Pike’s Peak before, won the 2015 event.

Intel’s Mike Premi saw what Maher was doing and encouraged him to take his technology into larger consumer markets.

“I saw so much potential in the segments of the retail experience as well as driver safety training,” Premi said.

Keith Maher
VR race courses designed by Keith Maher are like training gyms for drivers.

Using Unreal, a development platform used in VR game design, VR Motion created a virtual showroom where prospective car buyers could select the trim levels, color options and wheel options. Consumers can even “test drive” whatever model they’re interested in, without ever leaving the showroom floor. They simply put on a VR headset and strap in for the ride.

“A lot of the economics of running a dealership is carrying a lot of inventory,” said Premi. “I think what we’re going to see over time is the retail footprint decreasing and the dealerships will go to where the people are, rather than having a big lot with a lot of inventory.”

The next step for VR Motion is creating simulations for driver education – anyone from first-time teenage drivers to police officers and first responders – all of whom can experience the rigors of real-world driving challenges in a safe VR environment.

“I’ve got a young daughter, and I know the day that I hand her across the keys to drive a car I want to make sure she’s fully prepared,” said Maher.

A Better Whiteboard

For architects and builders, the days of relying on whiteboards to evaluate ideas could be replaced by VR experiences, according to Gabe Paez, CEO of WILD. His VR startup in Portland, Ore. is developing a design tool for architects called Massit.

“Massit enables an architect to take an idea from thought to form in real-time so it can be evaluated not only by how it looks but how it feels to be in the space,” Paez said.

Traditionally, architects share ideas through sketches, blueprints or two-dimensional renderings. Paez said Massit lets designers create a building and then step down onto the street level to experience it at life-scale.

“You have to think about creating for virtual reality in an entirely different way than creating for the web or mobile because virtual reality is an experiential platform,” he said. It’s about not only producing digital content to be seen, but understanding how it will be experienced.

Gabe Paez
Gabe Paez uses VR to help architects experience their buildings before they’re even built.

“You have to find inspiration not only in books but in the world. You’ve got to go to the mountain and try to figure out how it feels when I’m taking a walk through the woods,” he said. “How does that feel? How can I replicate that in a digital world?”

Paez said Massit helps solve a professional dilemma all architects face, which is how to effectively communicate their ideas with others. He said that technology has finally caught up to make these experiences seamless.

“It’s amazing what the hardware we have now can do,” he said. “VR is having its heyday because the GPUs, the CPUs – all of that technology really needed to mature to the point where we could handle the intensity that virtual reality demands.”

For people working in all industries, VR is no longer just a whisper over there, according to PixelPool’s Hansen. It’s actually happening here and now.

“Humans are hard-wired as visual creatures,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of the neurons in our brain that are dedicated to sensory information are dedicated for vision When we experience things visually, then we understand them better than anything. I think that virtual reality does a better job of that than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Editor’s note: Simulation Nation is part of iQ’s special video series on VR creators. 

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