VR is here and it's real: companies taking virtual reality from niche toy to must-have business tool

If you've ever wanted to climb a skyscraper but are afraid of heights, or swim to the bottom of the ocean without risking a shark encounter, virtual reality is for you. Increasingly, it's also for businesses that want to offer consumers an immersive experience at an affordable price.

From automakers to newspapers, companies are betting big on immersive experiences

Reporter Aaron Saltzman goes virtual. (David MacIntosh/CBC)

The driver's stomach lurches as his ATV drops off the edge of a steep sand dune. Suddenly, another ATV whips around, and he jerks the steering wheel to avoid a collision.

He needn't have worried.

There's no collision. In fact, there's no wheel. And these are not the sand dunes of Oregon or Utah.

It's the sleepy village of Dorchester, Ont., and more specifically the showroom floor of an ATV, motorcycle and snowmobile dealership called Fast Track Performance.

Jackie Campbell uses virtual reality to help her sell ATVs and snowmobiles. (David MacIntosh/CBC)

Fast Track is one of a growing number of dealerships where customers can test vehicles without even stepping outside, using virtual reality.

With the addition of some headphones and a video, potential buyers can go for a ride in the sand with professional driver Tony Stewart. 

"Virtual reality gives you that experience when you're here in the showroom [and] you can't be out on your toy," says Jackie Campbell, Fast Track's co-owner.

"I've had customers in here going through it and they had ridden in [real] sand dunes and ... they were flabbergasted."

How real is it? Watch this guy take a virtual snowmobile ride

6 years ago
Duration 0:30
Companies betting big on consumers wanting an immersive experience

Snowmobile and ATV manufacturer Arctic Cat is one of a spate of companies implementing virtual reality tools, hoping the rapidly developing technology will help boost sales. 

For Arctic Cat and its dealers, there are obvious advantages. "This fuels people's passion. It gets them invested," says Campbell, who adds that seasonal businesses like hers can see big benefits. "When our people can come in the fall, we do a big open house and they can get a snowmobile experience when there's no snow on the ground."

Other kinds of businesses are putting their hopes in virtual reality as well.

VR goes viral

The number of companies highlighting virtual reality as part of their business plans is up 375 per cent this year compared to last, according to Fortune Magazine.

Cadillac is planning to convert a number of dealerships to virtual showrooms, in an effort to cut costs. Online ticket seller StubHub has added a VR component to its app, allowing customers to check out the views from a particular seat before they make their purchase. And the New York Times is offering VR content through a dedicated app that allows users to experience what it's like to climb the outside of a skyscraper or swim through a shipwreck.   

VR is being used by the military and police departments for tactical training, by the NBA to enhance the sports viewing experiences, and is even being touted by some researchers as a way to relieve pain without drugs. 

When  Apple hired a top VR expert in January, it signalled the entrance of another major player into an already crowded market. Samsung, Google, Facebook and Microsoft all have their own versions of VR headsets. 

A screengrab from an Arctic Cat virtual reality demonstration that lets prospective customers see what it's like to drive one of their vehicles. (Arctic Cat)

"It's an experimental new market that everyone is trying to figure out, everyone is trying to get into," says Milan Baic, founder of Toronto tech startup PinchVR. 

Baic's firm has produced a printable, disposable VR headset that works with smartphones, much like Google's Cardboard. The headset allows consumers to browse through items in an immersive environment, giving them the chance to see what a room would look like, say, with a certain piece of furniture. 

Milan Baic, founder of Pinch, is hoping virtual reality demonstrations will be the catalogue of the future. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)
But Pinch goes one step further. The headset also allows users to interact with virtual content using two small controllers that connect with the phone's camera. It's a bit like spatial computing: think Tom Cruise in Minority Report grabbing and moving computer files around mid-air.

"When you allow that idea of recreating digital spaces or immersive spaces, you can essentially showcase your product in a much broader capacity," says Baic.

An evolving technology

Combining a VR device with smartphone means just about anyone could eventually have access to the technology at a much lower cost.

VR still has some serious hurdles to overcome — not the least of which is the awkwardness of wearing a large headset strapped to your face in public. But just as computers went from filling large rooms to fitting in our palms, VR interfaces will also get smaller and less obtrusive over time, becoming embedded in glasses or other subtle wearable devices.

When that happens, there will be already be plenty of content for consumers to choose from.


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.