In the past few years, virtual reality (VR) has gone from a niche topic to a staple of mainstream media. Whether businesses are ready or not, virtual reality is set to be one of the hottest trends in 2015. Because this technology is so new, there are numerous questions surrounding it—the most pertinent of which involve its current and potential uses.
Before meeting professionals can understand the capabilities and benefits of VR, they need to know why there is so much hype about a technology that has received little attention since it exploded into relevance in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Virtual reality’s re-emergence can be traced to Oculus, a California technology company. In August 2012, Oculus launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Rift, a VR headset. The fledgling company had hoped to raise $250,000, but within 24 hours brought in $670,000. By day three that number ballooned to more than $1 million, and when the campaign ended, Oculus had added more than $2.4 million to its coffers. A year and a half later, social media giant Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion.
Since the Oculus Kickstarter campaign, a number of companies, including Samsung, Sony, HTC and Valve, have produced or started to develop virtual reality headsets. Additionally, Google created the low-cost Google Cardboard VR headset, while Microsoft announced HoloLens, an augmented reality headset. In short, small and large companies saw the public’s interest in the Oculus Rift and moved to capitalize on this newfound fascination.
What makes this go-round different from the ’90s is that the technology has drastically improved, making it faster and easier to create compelling digital content. Many virtual reality headsets work in conjunction with smartphones, meaning there is a vast audience of potential consumers carrying around one-half of a VR device in their pockets.
The Benefits of Virtual Reality
One of virtual reality’s most discussed uses is immersive video games. However, innovative businesses, colleges and universities, and other early adopters are using virtual reality as a marketing and educational tool to attract prospects.
Virtual reality’s most obvious benefit is that it puts prospective clients, including planners, into any physical location—without viewers having to be physically present. Businesses are using VR in two major ways: They are handing out inexpensive branded VR headsets to potential clients. These headsets work with smartphones to allow viewers to easily browse the location, destination or event of the headset distributor. The goal of this type of giveaway is to stay at the top of clients’ minds by virtually connecting them to a physical place or experience.
Businesses and institutions also are using VR to show off their best amenities at trade shows. By taking VR headsets to events, businesses and universities have reported an increase in one-on-one interactions and long lines of people wanting to experience virtual reality based purely on the novelty of the technology.
Ultimate Jet Vacations (UJV), a Miami-based boutique tour operator that customizes travel itineraries to luxury hotels and resorts, is among the growing number of hospitality companies that have adopted virtual reality.
Steven Kadoch, managing partner at UJV, says the company is using virtual reality to market luxury hotels to travel agents.
“We very quickly saw a great sales tool for us that differentiates us from our competitors—and is a unique, fun, innovative way to present our hotels to our clients,” Kadoch says. “The way that we’re using virtual reality is that we’re working with our hotel partners and getting them interested in using this innovative tool to promote and present their hotels to their luxury clients––whether it’s on their website or at trade shows using the VR goggles.”
Kadoch says he realized virtual reality’s capabilities almost immediately—especially for hotels. As a tour operator, Kadoch says he sees multiple hotel reps each day.
“They come with an iPad, they show a boring presentation with a few pictures and they try to get everybody to see it,” Kadoch says. “We made them see the value of being able to walk in with a few of these VR goggles and literally put travel agents into the hotel.”
UJV has a small section in its office set aside to show clients virtual reality experiences and is in the process of creating a virtual reality booth, dedicated to introducing people to VR.
“We want to put every hotelier who walks in here into a little dark corner, shut the lights off and have them put on the VR headset and really get immersed into the property,” Kadoch says.
The Future of Virtual Reality
The most common question businesses and intuitions ask when considering virtual reality is, “How do we get virtual reality into our customers’ hands?” This is a fair question, but one that is becoming irrelevant.
Myriad VR headsets are hitting the market. For example, Oculus announced that Rift would be available in the first quarter of 2016, which industry insiders are pointing to as the tipping point for virtual reality and the time when businesses will need to fully adopt this technology. After all, it’s better to lead than to play catch up.
Abi Mandelbaum is co-founder and CEO of YouVisit, which creates virtual tours and virtual reality experiences for a variety of industries, including hospitality, real estate, travel, events, education and factories.