How can CIOs develop a business case for virtual reality?

Virtual reality is a hot technology, but can tech chiefs build a business case for using it yet?

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Claranet CIO Wilton: "While the benefits of VR can easily be found in any sector that can find a direct application, to vaguely adopt the technology as a stand-in for an already effective process lacks as much sense now as it did in 2006."

Image: Sergey Nivens

Analysts expect virtual reality (VR) to be one of the key trends of 2016, with big vendors set to launch an array of related technologies. The consumer market for VR is evolving quickly, but how will such devices be used in the business? We speak to the experts and find out how CIOs can create a business case for VR.

1. Find a genuine reason to deploy the technology

For many IT leaders, VR remains a nascent area. Yet Alex Smith-Bingham, head of digital at consultant Capgemini, says the latest headsets are already sophisticated enough to transform how businesses engage with consumers.

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He says good examples include British theme park Alton Towers using VR in its latest rollercoaster and the introduction of a virtual reality tour at Buckingham Palace. Developments are not just confined to entertainment, either.

"There's huge potential in the B2B space," says Smith-Bingham. "One of our oil and gas customers has developed a new training tool whereby workers step into the 3D virtual world of a real oil platform. They can learn to deal with dangerous situations without being put at risk."

It is a burgeoning trend that leads William McMaster, head of virtual reality at production company Virtualise, to suggest companies that employ VR now will become drivers for change. "How exactly the technology will manifest itself in business is only partially known, but there are some good example of how VR is being used currently," he says.

Claranet CIO Andy Wilton also notes how VR has found its use in specific sectors, such as engineers simulating their designs and surgeons training for operations in a risk-free environment. Yet despite the potential power of such cases, Wilton issues a word of warning.

A few years back there was huge excitement about the potential of virtual worlds like Second Life -- which failed to be realised.

"While the benefits of VR can easily be found in any sector that can find a direct application, to vaguely adopt the technology as a stand-in for an already effective process lacks as much sense now as it did in 2006," he says.

2. Develop a strong business case in a real-life scenario

The good news is that some organisations are successfully exploring the opportunities. Late last year, mapping specialist Ordnance Survey (OS) created a 10km by 10km recreation of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain. OS has now released a VR tour of the mountain scape for Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, which can be used with both iOS and Android devices.

David Haynes, software developer and VR expert at OS, says the team's work is mainly experimental at the moment. "We're taking our 3D terrain information into a virtual environment in order to get a feel for how to present maps on screen, rather than simply on paper," he says. "We want to play with VR technology and capture the possibilities."

Haynes and his colleagues have taken the technology to trade shows and graduate events and received positive feedback. "The biggest surprise was the impact on people -- they were blown away," he says.

Technical considerations are key. Haynes says it takes effort to push existing data formats into the 3D environment. Reduced frame rates, particularly on lower-end mobile devices, can decrease the quality of the user experience. Yet despite these issues, Haynes encourages other CIOs to experiment.

"Google Cardboard, for example, aims to make it easy for businesses to get up and running quickly with VR," he says. "The technology is at a nascent stage but it's much cheaper to test than a few years ago, so organisations can afford to tinker. The bar to experiment with VR is now much lower than before."

So, which firms should test the technology? Haynes says potential beneficiaries are CIOs at organisations with readily transferable information. The OS, for example, had large amounts of off-the-shelf data it could use to create 3D maps.

Haynes points to the potential of the technology in heavy industry, where it can help bring computer-aided design to life. "Lots of manufacturing firms are looking at VR because it can create a vivid experience for users," he says.

"I'm fairly confident that VR has lots of potential applications. We've already talked to some of our partners about use cases, such as helping businesses to view a location virtually before a physical site visit. We're still at the start of the journey but the possibilities are endless."

3. Take security into consideration at the earliest possible stage

Paul Roehrig, global managing director at the Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant, says judging the development of the technology now would leave most people to conclude that VR will have little or no impact. Yet change is in the air, backed in no small part by Roehrig's suggestion that total funding for VR by investors is now as high as $3bn to $3.5bn a year.

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"For most traditional industries, it is not yet time to make bet-your-brand investments in VR, but using technology to enhance experience and performance is one of the key value drivers of the digital age. Savvy leaders should begin piloting business processes where knowledge in context could have a big impact," says Roehrig.

"When augmented reality connects with the Internet of Things, and can be seen and acted on by workers, entirely new businesses and jobs will rise. Just imagine what highly focused knowledge in context could mean for a surgeon confronting an unknown situation, a police officer searching for a criminal or a teacher providing individualised instructions."

CIOs looking to successfully embrace virtual technology, however, are likely to encounter a number of challenges. Bob Hoogenboom, professor of forensic business studies at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, is an expert in VR and draws particular attention to the increased external threat.

"Sterner actions must be taken to manage cybersecurity risks, and to invest in core safeguards. With the increased use of VR, it is even more crucial to ensure that everyone in an organisation can understand these measures, how they operate, and how to work safely within them," he says.

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