In the world of consumer electronics, virtual reality used to be considered the technology of gamers – not of government agencies or businesses.
Across Wisconsin, however, virtual and augmented reality are changing the way we work in industries like health care, architecture, law enforcement and marketing.
“A lot of times, people are trying to simulate fantasy environments with virtual reality. We’re really trying to simulate real-world spaces,” said Kevin Ponto, an assistant professor in the design studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Ponto works with the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, an interdisciplinary research institute where students and faculty are at work on several virtual reality research projects.
Ponto’s team at WID developed vizHOME, a tool that aims to improve home health care. The tool allows medical providers to virtually walk through the inside of a patient’s home from a virtual reality CAVE environment – a six-sided room with high-resolution screens connected to a headset worn by the provider.
The goal is to help providers understand how health care will be performed in a patient’s home, and to identify factors that might hinder home health care, like the interior layout or the placement of objects around the house.
The technology has also led to innovations outside of health care. The FBI approached WID in 2014 to see if vizHOME could be used to create a detailed visualization for a crime scene investigation of a homicide in Mazomanie, Wisconsin.
“The problem you have at a crime scene investigation is you have to choose which information you want to gather,” Ponto said. “They try to capture as much as they can because they don’t know what will be important later.”
With the help of virtual reality, it’s possible to recreate an entire crime scene and save important details that otherwise might go unnoticed, like the height of a staircase or the position of a chair to the wall.
In the business world, architects have been early adopters of virtual reality.
Eppstein Uhen Architects Inc. in Milwaukee began using augmented reality several years ago to create building overlays. The overlays, which can be viewed from tablet devices, allow the firm’s clients to see how a building will look after renovations are complete.
Today, the company uses virtual reality to create detailed, immersive visualizations so clients can effectively walk through a completed project before it even breaks ground.
“We’ve been doing 3D and visualization for decades, but virtual reality took it to the next level,” said Ken Seelow, director of information technology at Eppstein Uhen. “We were getting comments from clients saying they were really impressed with the ability to walk through their space.”
HGA, another architecture firm, began using virtual and augmented reality at its Milwaukee office in 2014. The firm has developed virtual reality experiences for clients in Wisconsin including the Harley-Davidson Museum, which used virtual reality to visualize design layouts and material options, and the Milwaukee County Zoo, where virtual reality helped create a virtual balloon-collecting scavenger hunt at a fundraising event.
Milwaukee marketing agency CI Design Inc. also arrived early to the virtual and augmented reality scene, in 2013. The firm has created virtual reality-based work training, sales tools, prefabrication visualization for manufacturers, and entertainment experiences for trade show presentations. Now, it’s looking ahead to what comes next.
“Markerless augmented reality for iPhone and Android will likely be big with our clients,” said Paul Duquesnoy, interactive designer at CI Design. “I’m excited to see what’s next for (Microsoft) HoloLens; that technology shows a lot of promise.”
Virtual reality is also making its way into the classroom. At WID, Ponto’s team partnered with the Field Day Lab in Madison to gamify physics learning with the help of a new virtual reality application. In some ways, he says, they’re creating a video game; students must hone a specific skill before they can move on to the next level.
“The idea is embodied learning, so you’re learning through experience,” Ponto said.
Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin are also in the process of developing a virtual reality education program for radiation oncology patients, with the help of Marquette University engineers.
Ponto doesn’t think virtual reality will be a common household technology in the immediate future. But as virtual reality becomes more accessible and affordable with the launch of Google Cardboard and smartphones with built-in depth sensors, he thinks it’s a possibility that isn’t too far off.
“This round of virtual reality might not be the round that goes into everyone’s home, but it opens up lots of opportunities for businesses,” Ponto said.”