Virtual reality and augmented reality are twin technologies that focus on enabling people to interact with computer-generated environments as though the environments were real. The two are closely linked, so we’ll use ‘virtual reality’ here to refer to both, but they are not identical.

While virtual reality such as the Oculus system creates a complete artificial environment and seeks to fully immerse the user within that environment, augmented reality like that offered by Microsoft’s Hololens simply augments the existing environment. To illustrate the difference with established technology – advanced flight simulators are a form of virtual reality, while a Heads-Up-Display is a form of augmented reality.

Virtual reality research and development

Some of the fundamental research into virtual reality was funded by NASA, the Department of Defence and The CIA, but the true timeframe for the development of the virtual reality framework spans more than 70 years.

When VR first found consumer popularity in arcades during the early nineties it was accompanied by hugely mismatched expectations. Films like Tron and Lawnmower Man suggested that realistic virtual worlds were not far from being a reality, but the technology was simply not able to keep pace with the creative vision.

“The fear is that if a really bad VR product comes out, it could send the industry back to the ‘90s”

 

Oculus-Rift-8With Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of Oculus Rift for $2bn, and Google’s backing of Magic Leap, virtual reality is once again starting to drive expectations, a VC’s ears will almost certainly prick up if you mention VR. Processors, screens, accelerometers and 3D graphics have all significantly improved, and it’s clear that some feel virtual reality has the potential to be as transformative as the telephone, internet or personal computers.

The boom and bust of VR during the early nineties, has almost certainly encouraged caution this time around, with more appreciation for the fact that if your first virtual reality experience is a bad one then it won’t be something you’ll be keen to repeat. Painstaking research has gone into efforts to combat motion sickness and for good reason. John Carmack, chief technology officer at Oculus justified the leisurely pace of development saying: “The fear is that if a really bad VR product comes out, it could send the industry back to the ‘90s”.

Virtual reality and software

One of the first really breath-taking applications of the Oculus Rift was this demo of RiftSketch, a virtual reality live coding web app based on Three.js. It neatly demonstrates the seeds of potential of virtual reality technology for software development projects.

Currently, modelling software is overwhelmingly confined to two dimensions. UML is the dominant modelling language, but can look intimidatingly complex. For particularly complicated software, the cognitive load from trying to process the UML models can lead to inefficient working processes, and could greatly hamper software R&D efforts.

A solution exists to decrease cognitive load from UML models – 3D renderings. However, there are two key issues with 3D state machine diagrams, navigation and manipulation. In case you’ve jumped ahead and guessed what’s coming next – yes, these are the exact strengths of virtual reality. Intuitive navigation and manipulation can be expected to greatly aid software architecture, making dependencies and inheritances far easier to observe and trace.

“There will be significant advantages in terms of visualising the active flow of data within your software”

 

In addition to static models, there will be significant advantages in terms of visualising the active flow of data within your software. Being able to quickly grasp even complex and unfamiliar algorithms by using immersive and sophisticated visualisations is a huge advantage, and could help a research lead bring the rest of their team up to speed on a key project in an instant.

Virtual reality in developing video games

Oculus-Rift-8aNaturally, virtual reality is of immense interest to video games developers, but there are potential accessibility issues in developing exclusively for VR. For the time being VR is the preserve of early adopters. Virtual reality can be of use in developing non-VR video games. Artists can look at their creations from all angles, while quality assurance can become easier, faster and more natural when testers can make sure the game coheres using virtual reality technology.

Virtual reality and manufacturing

In manufacturing, virtual reality is useful in useful in two ways. The first is during the computer aided design process, when a more detailed look and a more natural way of exploring the product design can help uncover subtle bugs. Car manufacturers like Jaguar and Land Rover have long made use of virtual reality CAVEs – Computer Aided Virtual Environments, to undertake testing on new vehicles.

The second way that virtual reality will be useful for manufacturing is during the prototyping phase and initial production runs, when augmented reality overlays can help identify anomalies and potential problems. During this phase, augmented reality tools can give engineers instant feedback on early prototypes that would otherwise need to be analysed in discrete, time-consuming programs.

Both of these methods support and enable the manufacturing research and development process in a way that’s easy to integrate into an existing workflow – the flexibility and portability of modern virtual reality solutions being a significant strength that is often taken for granted.

Virtual reality and architecture

 

Architects are embracing virtual reality to explore and refine their designs, and there is already a significant market of custom virtual reality software solutions specifically designed for architects. Hyperrealistic computer generated renders are now commonplace, and virtual reality offers new ways utilising existing 3D assets in new and exciting ways. Whether it’s to model airflows around a new building, or create immersive experiences to market new properties, letting potential customers experiment with different design options in a VR environment instantly.

“Virtual reality explorations of new builds help professional architects to eliminate problems before they appear”

 

Being ambitious with architecture is important, but it can lead to unforeseeable practical issues when it comes to actually living or working within the designed spaces. Virtual reality explorations of new builds help professional architects to eliminate these problems before they appear.

Working with virtual reality in 2015?

Oculus-Rift-8vVirtual reality is on the verge of becoming mainstream, and the length and breadth of the UK companies are already working on new ways to exploit VR. Like all nascent technologies VR is still an area mired with uncertainty from both a hardware and software perspective. It’s still unclear at this stage which companies will create the global standards for VR, and even beyond the top tier there is still considerable scope for advances in tracking systems, creating new ways of interacting with the virtual environment, improving techniques for creating virtual spaces and further optimising render speeds.

The relative scarcity of VR libraries, frameworks and plugins and is a good indicator that those developing VR technologies, hardware, software, games and immersive experiences could like be entitled to claim R&D tax relief from HMRC.  It’s the unknowns around virtual reality that make it of interest from an R&D tax perspective, the limits of the technology have not even begun to be tested, therefore the scope for what could potentially be considered an advance in the field is fairly considerable. With tax reliefs available that enable developers to recover up to one third of qualifying costs, and the additional incentive for games developers to receive up to 25% of core game development expenditure via Video Games Tax Relief, the UK is vying to be the chosen place for companies to experiment.

Where does virtual reality fit within research and development?

Virtual reality has two main strengths when it comes to research and development; making systems more intuitive, and making errors more obvious.

There are obvious applications for pure virtual reality in the design stage, but it is important to also consider the role of augmented reality. Since augmented reality software has a richer, more reliable source of information to make its base assumptions on (the actual real world itself), its results may prove to be even more interesting than those of virtual reality, from an R&D perspective.

For keen startups the ability to explore virtual ‘prototypes’ up close and personal, and iterate extremely quickly, could be a key selling point for virtual reality, and a driver for the adoption of augmented 3D printing. We do think that virtual reality and 3D printing have, and will continue to have, significant and long-lasting roles to play within research and development.

forrestbrown-logoMark Smout is the Business Development Manager for ForrestBrown. ForrestBrown is a specialist tax consultancy based in Bristol, wholly focused on helping clients benefit from R&D Tax Relief from HMRC. Their twelve strong team work with businesses across a range of sectors helping to maximise the levels of tax relief available to them.

Mark Smout