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The exciting world of virtual reality

Kelly Oakley associate director
(Last updated on )
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Girl using virtual reality headset surrounded by colours

Virtual reality applications create immersive, computer-generated environments that are so realistic, users physically and mentally react the same way they would if the scenario was in real life.

In recent times, the uses of virtual reality (VR) have exploded as technology has advanced. In many different ways, VR is impacting the lives of those who use it. With ongoing research and development (R&D) in virtual reality taking place, VR start-ups are hot property. Established tech companies are dedicating considerable R&D resources to it too.

It is such a cutting-edge field, that many virtual reality projects have strong potential to qualify for R&D tax credits. This valuable government tax incentive helps tech companies to recuperate the costs spent on R&D, due to the overall benefit that such technological advances bring to society.

At ForrestBrown, we help companies claim R&D tax credits, allowing them to reinvest further into the technology, accelerate development and help with cash flow. A number of costs count as qualifying expenditure for R&D tax credits including staff costs, materials, software and utilities.

VR that qualifies for R&D tax relief (H3)

The kind of virtual reality projects that could qualify for R&D tax credits include:

  • VR software development
  • VR UX
  • VR hardware
  • VR accessories
  • New or improved production processes

VR in 2022 

Apple VR

Apple is known for investing large amounts of money, time and resources into virtual reality with the company acquiring many VR startups over the last 10 years. Although details are sparse, Apple is known to be working on two VR headset projects with release dates for an Apple VR headset rumoured to be 2022/23. Insider information has suggested that Apple’s mixed reality headset is said to include:

  • Advanced eye tracking system
  • 15 camera modules 
  • Iris recognition
  • Advance surface mapping
  • Refined design and comfortable materials
  • Lightweight 100-200g build

Magic Leap 

With a fresh £500 million investment, VR firm Magic Leap is poised to release a new headset in 2022. The Magic Leap 2 is known to boast the widest field of view in the industry and is anticipated to be the “smallest and lightest device built for enterprise adoption”. The new device will also be able to project 3D rendered objects on top of the real world.   

Facebook 

Project Cambria is the name given to Facebook’s high-end VR headset. It is said to include game-changing technology including retina resolution and the use of algorithms to reconstruct real-life surroundings. Facebook’s new headset is designed for mixed reality applications and will sit on the higher end of the price spectrum compared to the existing Quest 2 headset.  

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift remains at the forefront of the VR industry. Having famously been bought by Facebook for $2 billion, they are pioneering research into just about every aspect of VR including software engineering, graphics, displays and haptics. In 2016, they brought their first product to market. Fast Forward to 2019 and the company released their newest headset, the Oculus Rift S. 

Google Cardboard VR

Through the development of Google Cardboard, tech giant Google has launched a product with the aim of making VR accessible to everyone. It is a low-cost smartphone head mount that allows users to insert their phone, hold it up to their eyes and instantly enter a virtual world.

Samsung Gear VR

Samsung Gear VR is a virtual reality headset made in collaboration with Oculus Rift. It is designed to be used alongside Samsung’s range of smartphones. This headset allows users to play games, take a virtual holiday, or watch a film. They have dedicated engineering resources to making the headset as comfortable as possible for extended usage sessions.

Technical challenges of VR

Tech companies are attempting to overcome significant technical challenges in delivering VR requirements. These include developing tracking systems, solving hardware constraints and avoiding VR motion sickness as well as countering other negative effects of virtual reality. R&D in these areas is especially likely to involve an activity that will qualify for R&D tax credit funding.

In the past, much of the hype around VR has centred on gaming. Whilst an interesting area, VR today is about so much more than that. We have looked at its impact on education but there are advantages of virtual reality in other sectors, including mental health, cinema, journalism, property, sports and events.

Virtual reality therapy

One of the most exciting applications of VR is virtual reality therapy. Also known as simulation therapy, it is a method of psychotherapy that uses virtual reality to treat sufferers of anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions.

VR has been used in the treatment of mental health for a number of years but, due to its cost and complexity, it has not been widely available. Nowadays the ability to treat more people effectively through VR is becoming increasingly common. 

What is virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET)?

Virtual reality exposure therapy is a method of psychotherapy that treats patients with phobias and anxiety disorders.

Virtual reality therapy for anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become useful in helping those attempting to overcome their disorder. Virtual reality is used to create a computer-generated scenario designed to treat a patient’s fear and address the source of their anxiety.

For example, a person that was once assaulted on an empty street may be overwhelmed with panic if they find themselves in a similar situation in the future. The worry could even make day-to-day living unbearable.

Virtual reality exposure therapy can mentally transport the patient to a specific situation. The patient can wear the headset and experience a scenario that would usually trigger their disorder. But, under the guidance of a medical professional, they know that the situation is not real and they cannot be harmed.

A company making strides in VR therapy is Psious. They perform R&D into how immersive VR programmes can be tailored to different users. Through R&D, Psious have developed the Psious Toolsuite – a virtual reality platform with the aim of enhancing mental health treatment. 

The Psious Toolsuite provides mental health professionals with VR environments that they can use as part of their clinical treatment to help patients handle:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Fears and phobias
  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Oxford VR is another rising star in VR therapy and uses fully immersive environments to treat an array of mental health conditions. 

The advances that VR brings to therapy

Traditionally, exposure therapy has been based around the patient imagining their fears or forcing the patient to experience them in the real world. VR therapy offers a safe middle ground where the medical professional can engineer scenarios associated with the anxiety disorder being addressed.

Another example of virtual reality exposure therapy being used to treat PTSD sufferers is for soldiers. Here it can simulate a battlefield.

Previously, virtual reality therapy equipment has been prohibitively expensive, meaning it was only used for the most traumatic cases. But the good news is that this has now changed, paving the way for countless more people to benefit.

Virtual reality in manufacturing

VR is being used in the design and manufacturing world as an alternative to physical prototypes. Product designer Bresslergroup used VR to evaluate the design of a walk-in shower they were developing. Designers and testers interacted with the real-time representation of the shower and found that some elements were too far away or hard to reach. They were then able to modify the original CAD drawings with their changes. 

Although physical prototypes still have their place for small products, the process of updating and tweaking larger products (like a walk-in shower) can take enormous amounts of labour, materials and energy. VR prototyping, on the other hand, is easy, cheaper and instant! 

Find out more about R&D tax relief for the manufacturing sector.

VR in film

Rather than watching a film through a traditional screen, users wear VR headsets to become completely immersed in the experience.

Although virtual reality movies are in the early stages, they have the potential to change the landscape of film-making. So could virtual reality cinema become the mainstream?

London-based virtual reality film-making company Visualise is performing its own R&D. They specialise in the production of 360 videos and computer-generated VR experiences. They have created VR films for Audi, Lamborghini and the British Army.

VR 360 Video

But how do 360 videos work? Well, unlike traditional cinema where the user is confined to a stationary chair in front of the screen, virtual reality movie-making incorporates the element of 360 degrees through the use of swivel chairs. This gives users full mobility, experiencing the full potential of VR 360 video.

Currently, though, the VR 360 movies you’ll be viewing through VR cinema aren’t traditional blockbusters. They are around 35 minutes long and are designed to demonstrate the potential of VR cinema.

Virtual reality in journalism

There is a significant buzz right now about how virtual reality content is being used in the world of journalism.

A New York Times virtual reality programme has been launched in order to bring VR to mainstream news reporting.

The newspaper distributed Google Cardboard viewers to its readers to watch The Displaced a short 360-degree video about the lives of refugee children. The use of VR in journalism brings audiences much closer to the stories. It allows them to experience, almost first-hand, the difficulties of people in war-torn countries like Syria.

Virtual reality at the BBC

The BBC has a hand in the latest virtual reality technology. It has been performing R&D with VR to complement the content it produces.

Concerned with constantly improving its audience experience, the BBC has performed VR R&D to achieve the following:

  • Technology for mixed TV production. This allows real-time compositing of virtual content into a studio recording, resulting in commercial products for camera tracking and virtual overlays for sport.
  • Augmented reality tracking system for a BBC/Natural History Museum installation.
  • 3D audio.
  • Surround video – investigating the possibilities of a 180-degree projection system.
  • Panoramic video and 3D audio. This would be to provide navigable interactive experiences.

R&D in user experience is essential in VR. The BBC has been researching in this area:

  • What catches viewers’ attention by recording the head movements of the users whilst viewing 360 video.
  • The effect of different angular separations of actors.
  • The various approaches of where to place overlays and subtitles.
  • The ways in which the viewing device affects the overall user experience.

Immersive journalism

Nonny de la Pena, a pioneer of immersive journalism, is known for her technique of fusing news stories with virtual reality, giving the viewer a first-person perspective of the story.

The idea of immersive journalism is exciting, but there are moral issues to be considered – is it acceptable to use immersive journalism to report on a warzone, with the viewer watching innocent people suffer?

An example of Nonny de la Pena’s immersive journalism is ‘Project Syria’, where the viewer explores Aleppo.

With continued research and development in immersive VR journalism, we are bound to see future powerful work in the medium.

Virtual reality for property

The property market is constantly undergoing change. And now property companies are starting to offer VR property tours, changing the way properties are viewed and sold.

Similar to how the New York Times used Google Cardboard to depict news and events, the devices are being used as a way to view and market the property. One of the benefits of this is that those who want to view a property but live hundreds of miles away can now do so without travelling. Or for busy buyers who have ten properties to see, using a VR property viewing service they could see ten properties at the estate agent’s office in the time it takes to travel to one.

Property company Foxtons is adopting a virtual reality property tour in its London properties, using 360-degree photos which are connected together to be displayed inside a VR headset.

Virtual reality in architecture

It is not just in selling property that virtual reality is proving useful. Architects are finding VR a great tool in property design too. One company innovating in this field is IRIS VR. They have 15,000 customers with three-quarters of them being in the construction, engineering or architecture sectors.

One way VR can benefit architects is in the way it can model how natural light will shine through a building. And it is useful for bringing design to life when a client is trying to decide upon preferred designs. Clients of IRIS VR cite that it has improved workflow efficiencies, provided cost savings and sped up the design process.

Virtual reality sports and live events

Another field in which VR is making waves is in the sports industry and the distribution of other live events. It can give fans new ways of enjoying their favourite teams and bands. Streaming VR is one area in which R&D is focused.

Next VR is one such company in this space. Their app gives access to a VR platform full of patents that deliver scheduled content such as VR sports broadcasting and virtual reality music concerts. Using technology like 3D audio, the aim is to make fans feel as if they are really at a gig, even though they may actually be on the other side of the world.  It works on Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR hardware and is delivered in partnership with major broadcasters like Fox Sports and events companies like Live Nation.

VR in sports

Virtual reality has interesting potential for use in sport. Companies are already experimenting with it for helping to train sports teams and as a way for viewers to watch the action.

STRIVR has developed tech to facilitate VR sports training. It uses virtual reality technology to help players practice repetitive actions in a safe and controlled environment. By reducing the effect of factors such as the weather, the physical toll on bodies and the need for team-mates to be present, it complements more traditional training methods. Many American sports teams have already embraced this technology and the benefits it offers.

Using virtual reality to watch sports presents some interesting conundrums. The BBC and NBC both trialled limited VR coverage at the Rio Olympics. However, there is debate over whether 360 cameras actually deliver true VR in the case of sporting events. All they add is the ability to turn your head to watch the action in different directions from a fixed spot. This is not the same as being able to explore different viewpoints within a stadium as the sport unfolds.

Wearable tech and VR

FIRSTVISION may be taking strides towards answering this criticism. More a wearable tech company than VR pioneers, they produce innovative sportswear that discretely houses cameras to record player-eye views of the action. In the future, marrying this with VR technology may be able to immerse a viewer right in the heart of the action. Although looking at the demo videos on their website suggest there could be an issue with VR motion sickness.

Another challenge of broadcasting sporting events in VR is the potential loss of social interaction. Watching a football game tends to be something we do with friends, but if you are wearing a headset it would be difficult to hold a conversation.

Virtually Live has come up with a solution for this. They use 3D tracking technology to capture a game and then model it virtually in near real-time. This enables viewers to explore a stadium and watch games from any viewpoint. But they also integrate video and audio channels so that fans can interact with each other whilst enjoying the action.

What is the future of virtual reality?

It seems clear that virtual reality is here to stay. Decades of research and development have taken us to this point, and there is still much more R&D to be done. The future of virtual reality is an incredibly exciting area of technology. But ultimately, no one yet knows the extent of the impact it will have on our lives. This is definitely an exciting area of innovation to watch!

Virtual reality R&D

If you are working on VR software or hardware development and are attempting to overcome technical challenges, you may well qualify for R&D tax relief.

R&D tax credits can be worth up to 33p for every £1 spent on qualifying activity and can be used to hire more staff, delay funding rounds and carry out deeper R&D, among other things. Make sure you have the best team on your side to maximise your claims and protect them from risk. To discuss whether your VR project might qualify, contact our expert team of chartered tax advisers and sector specialists.