This is the second edition in an eight-week series, made possible by MYOB, looking at how technology is changing the way New Zealand businesses operate.
Virtual, augmented and mixed reality: those terms are part of a spatial computing wave that's sweeping over the world. Originally devised to provide even more realistic and immersive gaming experiences, VR holds the promise of improved productivity and competitiveness for small business as well as bigger enterprises.
For instance, an interior designer could measure up rooms and calculate the materials needed and their cost for revamping the space in minutes. Once that's done, the designer can display very accurately what it would look like to a client using VR.
There are many other sectors that can benefit from VR, including real estate, tourism and travel, health and safety, education and training, to mention a few.
The hardware and software for VR are developing rapidly, becoming increasingly accessible and affordable - and more powerful so that they can do more. Overseas, tens of billions are invested in VR annually, and the number of users is growing rapidly.
Similar figures for New Zealand however are hard to come by; while larger organisations are building VR applications, what's holding back adoption of the technology for small business?
Curiat Augmented Reality's senior operations manager Rob Hanks says the cost of implementing VR is still steep for small business.
"Eighty percent of NZ businesses have five or fewer employees, and their margins are low so they exist on volume instead," Hanks says.
Hanks likens the spatial computing revolution that VR is part of to the industrial one, which brought disproportional positive contributions to society. The question is, how would small business get aboard the VR (and AR) revolution?
Not all small business owners are tech savvy or can justify buying the hardware needed for VR like powerful laptops.
"The VR masks are around $1500 a pop and creating content for the applications can run in the tens of thousands," Hanks says.
Such an investment is proportionally much larger for a small business than for a large one, with no certainty of a return on it.
Hanks suggests instead that small businesses don't put the cart before the horse, and attend one or more of VR/AR meetups that take place in Auckland every month.
"Talk to people in the meetups who work with the technology to get an understanding of what's needed and ask the right questions," Hanks says.
"How will your technology change my business and improve it," is the simple question Hanks says to ask. If a technology provider can't answer that, go elsewhere he says.
NZ is 2-5 years behind the larger overseas markets when it comes to VR adoption, so is there a worry that we - and small business in particular - could miss the boat?
There is a risk, but Hanks says that the delay could be seen as good news as we're an innovative market and can learn from the mistakes of others, and figure out what works and what doesn't.
Learning from larger companies that have bigger budgets and which can afford to be early adopters is another way to get a handle on what VR can offer your business, Hanks says.
Architect firm Jasmax is one such place, having started with VR three-and-a-half years ago.
The technology has now become part and parcel of the firm's business.
It's not quite how Jasmax imagined it at the beginning, head of digital innovation Tim Stephens says.
"VR is fantastic for presentations, but we're now using it as a design tool 90 per cent of the time," Stephens says.
Stephens says that small practices and designers should absolutely get started with VR as it will provide them with a competitive edge since clients will expect them to use the technology.
"Designs on two-dimensional screens or on paper don't convey space, scale and volume as well as VR does," he adds.
As a result, clients get a much better idea quicker of how designs work, and aren't required to interpret complex technical drawings. They can provide instant feedback on the designs, which cuts down on project time and work - a win for everyone.
How would a small architect or design practice that's IT knowledgeable get started with VR then?
"Get a VR-capable laptop; that would be the first hardware item I would suggest to get," Stephens says.
This entails a system that's reasonably powerful, with a fast processor and graphics card and support for VR goggles if you decide to get these later on.
Most design software nowadays come with VR support; in Jasmax's case, what really made a difference was a plug-in that allows them to cut down the time required for rendering from hours to just seconds.
Next on the shopping list are VR goggles, making sure that they fit your physical environment as they require the users move around physically, to explore the virtual worlds they're in.
Looking to the future, what's on Stephens' wish-list to make the technology even better?
Good multi-user support where maybe two-three people simultaneously being virtually guided through designs with avatars to represent who they are. Presently, the technology only allows a single user.
Equally important is the ability to interact with objects in virtual designs, like opening doors and windows. This is possible currently, but requires the time-consuming coding with a 3D game engine like Unreal Stephens says.
There are other exciting technologies on the horizon such haptic gloves that allows users to virtually sense textures and objects which will make VR experiences even more realistic than what they are today.
"The rate of change will continue to increase for VR, as it does with other technologies," Callaghan Innovation's national network manager Jonathan Miller says.
Now's a good time to start exploring what VR can - and can't - do for your business.
- In association with MYOB.
Midday Wednesday, the Herald will run a live panel in which experts will discuss how this technology is changing small business in New Zealand. Tune in to participate in the live chat.
Next week AI! If you have a small business and are currently using AI please get in touch with us by emailing email@example.com