A look at virtual reality’s recent past…and its promising B2B future.

After so many false starts, it seems virtual reality has finally come of age. But how far can the technology go? Will we be walking to the shop wearing VR headsets anytime soon?

To understand the future of VR, it may be instructive to take a closer look at its past. So here’s a very brief history lesson (No, don’t leave!). This particular lesson just might reveal the future of B2B marketing.

Although the term “virtual reality” did not appear until the 1930s, the idea of a kind of virtual experience has existed since the mid 1800s. In Europe, America and beyond, individuals were fascinated by stereoscopic viewers—small boxes that used two images to give people of the time a “realistic” sense of perspective. These viewers were popular well into the late twentieth century (Who remembers the View Master, a toy which did the exact same thing with very little change to the original idea?).

The Sword of Damocles

Fast-forward an entire century—1968 to be exact—to a laboratory at the University of Utah where researchers Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sprout created the world's first head-mounted Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) display system. The device was wildly primitive; compared to the sleek headsets of today, the user interface was basic and the graphics were mostly wireframes. The headset itself was translucent so that the user could see through it, and it was so heavy that it had to be attached to a mechanical arm suspended from the ceiling of the lab. Its nickname? "The Sword of Damocles."

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the consumer buzz around virtual reality started gaining momentum. Around that time, films like Tron and The Lawnmower Man started to hype the potential of VR in the media. In 1990, the Virtuality games machine was launched. The unit’s massive size and cost—over £50,000—left home users out of the market. However, behind the scenes, software had been created that would help to power the future of the medium. A kind of HTML for virtual reality on the web, VTML, promised a powerful, virtual future.

The big players are behind VR

The dawn of the new millennium ushered in the next transformation. Oculus Rift launched in 2010 with a fully immersive VR experience, including head-tracking technology. The emergence of Oculus, and its acquisition by Facebook for $2 billion, served notice to the world that VR wasn’t simply part of the future, it just might be the whole deal.

Oculus isn’t alone. The new HTC Vive headset not only offers head-tracking, but also positional tracking within a room—allowing wearers to actually move into, around, and through virtual environments. Samsung licensed the Oculus technology to create the Samsung Gear VR headset, which combines the Samsung smartphone as the headset viewer with Oculus technology to monitor head-tracking.

Smartphone technology has advanced to the point that it’s currently possible to enable a true virtual-reality experience with a modern smartphone and a low-budget VR product, such as Google Cardboard. The technology is now so freely available that anyone with programming experience can create VR applications—from games and activities to virtual shopping tours—for any of the currently available devices.

Real-world applications of virtual reality

VR may not be in the mainstream, but it’s getting close…quickly. Theme parks around the world are creating roller coaster experiences without the roller coasters—allowing headset-wearing “riders” to experience an old-style wooden coaster one moment and a sleek, modern thrill-ride the next. Films are releasing trailers in full, 360 degrees—literally transforming the theatrical experience. And personal VR applications are beginning to emerge learning and training, such as preparing for a speech or practicing complex or unfamiliar tasks virtually before doing them for real.

One particularly important example of virtual reality innovation is the immersive VR platform called The Void. Combining a physical set with real-time interactive effects and virtual reality technologies, these powerful hyper-reality worlds meld the digital and the physical. So, instead of a blank wall, you could experience the inside of an alien spacecraft or a battle station you must defend.

The Void may create its own reality, but that’s not the case with all VR experiences. Microsoft’s HoloLens is an augmented reality headset that overlays VR-style imagery onto surrounding real-world environments. The built-in cameras recognize objects around you, which means the system can map virtual items onto surfaces (think Pokémon Go). The market-changing possibilities for HoloLens are almost unlimited, especially within the commercial sector. Imagine taking a complex mechanical item and (virtually) breaking it apart to help users and engineers understand its inner workings. Or allowing surgeons to view a live 3D scan of a patient as they operate.

Our partner agencies within the Mission Group have already created a variety of impressive, VR-based experiences. Big Dog worked with Mazda to create a highly successful virtual showroom, allowing shoppers to design the car they wanted—and sit it in—before the car was ever built. Most impressive of all, the virtual tool drove a 6:1 increase in pre-order sales.

So, is VR for real? And is it truly relevant to the marketing needs of B2B brands? In a word, absolutely. With major players including Facebook, Sony, and Microsoft betting on its future, the tools and experiences of VR will only get better (and smarter). For technology marketers seeking to engage prospects in bold, new ways, virtual reality is the next reality.