C-suite executives explain why virtual reality is a boon for business

emerging technology - virtual reality [VR] / augmented reality [AR] - virtual display / GUI

HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA – Virtual reality, augmented reality and the overall field of spatial computing may be more typically seen as topics for academic researchers and those in the entertainment market. In fact, the technology is being used by businesses today that are finding measurable value deploying it.

During a session here at the recent Connected Enterprise conference, executives at two very different businesses --  a construction company and an online travel site, explained how they use VR today and why they’re excited by its potential moving forward.

Virtual reality impact is building

Bradd Busick, CIO at MacDonald-Miller, a Seattle-based contractor and facilities solutions provider, made it clear that his company doesn’t dabble in new technology. Rather there has to be a good reason to make any kind of serious investment.

connected enterprise Constellation Research

Bradd Busick (CIO at construction campany MacDonald-Miller) and Luis Cabrera (CEO of travel  site Lonely Planet) talk about the real value of virtual reality.

“If I asked for a few million dollars to build a VR lab, it would be a quick conversation (Answer: No). I’d have to show how it can help us lead,” he said.

The reason the idea became so appealing is that MacDonald-Miller was able to give customers a virtual look at buildings before they were finished and make changes interactively to see how they looked – changing carpet for a wood floor for example.

Busick said the investment in the VR lab paid for itself in a year and the customers love it. “People don’t want to go the basement and look at floor plans, they want to see what is being built and that it’s what they want,” he said.

One key consideration is that architectural and other plans are only as good as the people who make them. “A 3-D design that is crappy looks really crappy in VR,” said Busick.

On the other hand, seeing a clear design can help spot problems. Busick said one customer was able to see that the virtual hallways weren’t wide enough to run a gurney through its medical facility, so they were made bigger before any construction happened. “We can keep showing customers how to save money using the same thousand dollar device and not hiring more people,” said Busick.

A Virtual Adventure Vacation

If you think nothing’s new in travel, you haven’t talked to Luis Cabrera, CEO of the travel guide and bookings site Lonely Planet. “Travel is moving away from being location-driven to being experience-driven,” said Cabrera.

What he means is that with virtual reality you don’t have to travel to remote geographies – or despair that you’ll never get to see them. “We believe we can help people go to amazing places that are considered inaccessible like that dream trip to Machu Pichu,” said Cabrera.

As technology advances it won’t just be a visual adventure. “You’ll feel the wind around you and have that experience of being there,” he said.

Lonely Planet plans to leverage local guides and experts he calls “pathfinders” by using immersive videos and pictures they take to augment the company’s content. Video is important because there is only so much content most people will explore on their mobile device. Cabrera notes, for example, that Lonely Planet has information on over 20,000 destinations that each have a description that’s seven- to eight pages long. 

“You need curated content so you don’t have to go through 7,000 Google results,” said Cabrera.

Lonely Planet recently added a paywall to some of its content, a move Cabrera admits received some “push back” from longtime visitors to the site. “But overall it’s been a success. Our evidence is that if you give people good content, they’ll pay for it,” he said. “In less than five days we had a thousand subscriptions of recurring revenue.”

Cabrera speculates that VR may someday let people virtually join their friends and family on real life vacations. “I’m excited by the idea of consumers being able to virtually join their friends on a cruise ship or their dream trip. I think we’ll get there.”

Some of the company’s other challenges are more mundane. “The younger generation thinks “Lonely Planet is a dating app,” he said.