5 ways to use virtual reality in the enterprise

With Facebook executives focusing so much of their F8 developers conference on virtual reality, last week, people are wondering how the technology will affect gaming and social networking.

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With Facebook executives focusing so much of their F8 developers conference on virtual reality, last week, people are wondering how the technology will affect gaming and social networking.

But good virtual reality -- the kind that makes you feel like you're really part of an experience -- will have a huge impact on business.

For enterprises trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors, trying to connect with customers, trying to better show off their products and even make potential customers feel like they're trying out everything from a new car to a new iPhone before they buy it, virtual reality is likely to be a game changer for the enterprise.

"Probably in the mid-part of the next decade we'll see the major part of this impact on the market," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "You need the technology to mature enough and that will probably take about five years, and then you need another five years to adjust to it. So enterprises might really be putting this to work for them in the mid-to-late 2020s."

Virtual reality is getting a lot of attention this week because the keynote during the second day of Facebook's annual F8 developer conference was largely focused on Oculus, a company that has built a virtual reality headset. Facebook bought Oculus in March 2014, and now the social network has big plans on developing not only virtual reality games but ways for Facebook users to communicate and share experiences using virtual reality.

Facebook executives want users to even create virtual reality experiences for their online friends. Google is also known to be developing virtual reality products, though it hasn't specified exactly what it's doing.

"Virtual reality done right truly is reality as far as the observer is concerned," said Michael Abrash, chief scientist for Oculus. "It enables us to create new realities. If it gets good enough, it should be able to create any experience we're capable of having."

If Facebook's vision becomes a reality, that will mean big things for gamers flying virtual fighter jets or fighting in medieval times.

What might it mean for the enterprise, though?

Well, it should mean better communications with customers, a better way to show off new products and even a better way to work with employees.

At this point, though, it's all about visions of how virtual reality might come into play in a business setting. Nothing is known for sure, but industry players are eager to try to figure out what might be coming.

"Today, all the talk about virtual reality is just that, talk. Talk and speculation," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. "And it will be several years before the first generation of virtual reality becomes real. Even then, it'll just be the first generation of virtual reality. It will be like bear skins and stone knives compared to what we will be using five years from then."

And before an enterprise will be able to dive into virtual reality, there will be not only a learning curve but possibly a substantial investment to be made.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, noted that companies will have to think about how they will support their virtual reality experience. They'll need to invest in the headset hardware, along with new software, likely upgraded computer power and an expanded datacenter infrastructure.

However, with the wait and the investments needed, industry analysts say enterprises will be eager to see what this emerging technology can do for their business.

"Like everything else, this would start as a competitive advantage for those early adopters," said Kagan. "Then, over time, it will become the way we do things. At that time, companies who don't do it this new way will be behind the eight ball."

Here are a few examples of how the enterprise could use virtual reality in another five or 10 years.

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