The Next Big Thing After Websites and Mobile Apps

After COVID-19, building a virtual reality hub may become as common as websites and apps for many big companies.

After COVID-19, building a virtual reality hub may become as common as websites and apps for many big companies.

In 2016 I attended a startup event in Shenzhen, China where I saw a cool virtual reality (VR) prototype. It was a futuristic shooter game that allowed the player freedom of movement.

The player put on a VR headset, strapped on a backpack (which was essentially a gaming PC with straps on it) and carried a ‘plasma’ gun. He was then able to walk around shooting virtual enemies without any wires tethered to him.

At that time, most of the quality VR games had players standing in a small room with wires tethered to the equipment all around him, due to the need for high performance graphics and data bandwidth. Either that or you were sitting in a simulator with goggles over your eyes.

Not very cheap or portable at all.

It was like traveling back to my teenage days where you had to go to a game arcade to play the bigger and cooler electronic games.

But VR was all the rage then. Occulus, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard — they were making the headlines. VR headsets were flying off the shelves and game console makers and software publishers were rushing to cash in.

Unfortunately after the hype died down, the industry never did become very big.

Ahead of the curve

The reasons were for this was something that happened now and then in the business world — the tech was attractive, but the price point and user-friendliness weren’t.

Hence the players who jumped in were ahead of the curve and couldn’t achieve mass adoption.

The founder of that Shenzhen startup told me quite honestly that the machine I saw was a prototype. They used high-speed cables hooked to an expensive PC with the best graphic card in the market to make it. The whole setup weighed a ton and also required someone else in the room to look after the player’s safety since he was stumbling around blind.

It was clear that many more years of innovating were needed on every part of the equipment, before the idea could become commercially viable.

The trophy lies elsewhere

But nearly a decade of enthusiasm over VR games led to many developers and graphic designers becoming quite proficient in 3D programming and modeling.

Some of them and the startups they founded have since pivoted to applying their skills elsewhere in order to survive — selling solutions for VR based corporate training or re-creating places of interests like museums and famous landmarks for virtual tours.

I found just such a company two weeks ago. The company was sitting on two products — a now largely defunct avatar-based social game, and a corporate training solution powered by a browser based VR Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) that they had created.*

While the former competes among many struggling social VR games that are fading from popularity, I think the latter could become the world’s next biggest online phenomenon — after websites and mobile apps.

In fact I don’t think they themselves realize the gigantic opportunity they are sitting on.

Probably because it requires them tweaking their target audience and product positioning somewhat…

*Disclaimer: I have no personal or financial interest in this company.

Sometimes reality comes to you instead

The internet was originally invented for the military in the 70’s and 80’s. Then a man call Tim Berners-Lee came along and adapted it into the World Wide Web, which quickly caught the general public’s imagination. Before long, the big companies of the world were setting up websites. Everyone wanted to be the first brands to stake a foothold in this novel digital world.

That is the classic example of how technology can sometimes cross over into other use cases that it wasn’t originally intended for; which then become way bigger.

In a similar fashion, I believe the world of VR is about to realize its real potential. The real opportunity right now isn’t in entertainment and games, but in the world of corporate branding and marketing.

We all know by now that COVID-19 resulted in a boom for businesses in video conferencing, online games, streaming services like Netflix, e-commerce and delivery apps.

But look a bit further ahead, corporate VR could become a longer lasting phenomenon sparked by COVID. It might take a few years for the trend to take off, but anecdotal evidence points to the fact that companies are already looking at it.

There are two strong use cases that are propelling this — that companies around the world are waking up to.

  • Recreating a company’s physical premises using 3D models or 360 videos, enabling visitors to visit online to understand a company better. Think of websites as 2D online real estate that has become ubiquitous for companies now. A VR hub for a company will become the upgraded 3D version.

  • Running conferences and seminars using avatars in a virtual location. This is much better than video conferencing and webinars, because it allows participants to interact with each other as well as virtual galleries and exhibits instead of just listening to just one speaker talk.

Hasn’t someone already done it?

Amazingly, no one has. While there have been many attempts to develop VR gaming, social interaction, or event driven worlds — Sansar, AltspaceVR, Bigscreen — almost all require installing native apps, on top of running them on relatively high-end computers with dedicated graphic cards.

The average corporate citizen or company issued laptops may not be powerful enough to run these VR environments smoothly. Let’s not even talk about the needs for VR headsets and the cybersecurity issues of native software installations.

Conventional VR games also require quite a bit of learning curve just to figure out how to make your avatars move around. Then there are all these game features and customization options for users.

Although these are easily picked up by a millennial who has spent time on role-playing games like Fortnite, it is probably all too confusing for your average executive in his 40’s and above.

So what is the key to adapting the technology to a more mass-market and diverse user base?

I hunted for quite a few weeks before I finally found the right solution.

3D Wix with avatars

The company I found has a SaaS solution which allows users to build their own virtual world with drag and drop templates. Moving your avatar around only requires you to use your mouse to click and roll. The rest of the features for gestures and navigation aren’t very different from surfing a website or using instant messaging apps.

Almost no learning curve.

But for the creator, there are still enough options to build scenario based avatar ‘bots’, customize many of the virtual world’s parameters, as well as gamify the user experience.

And here’s the best part. It’s all built and delivered through a normal web browser, accessible through any device — laptop, tablet and smartphones.

So what they’re offering is really a 3D version of Wix, plus robot and human avatars thrown into the mix. The result is a rather user friendly DIY tool for building functional, 3D interactive environments with just a browser and broadband internet connection.

Doing away with the need for technical knowledge and coding skills hugely increases the accessibility and affordability not just for end clients, but also for the intermediary agencies and freelance developers that no longer have to script and integrate everything from scratch.

This is analogous to all the software that have been created to help non-coders build websites and mobile apps once those trends took hold. And look at how these digital phenomenons have grown since.

Virtual has just became more real

The first wave of adopters will be the bigger companies who have the budget to create branded VR hubs that mirror their premises. They will use this to provide 3D versions of content found on their website, as well as host virtual events and meetings within their own virtual premises.

The key incentive for doing this is the same as when websites and mobile apps first started — to differentiate yourself from the crowd and draw publicity and attention to your brand name by being early to a useful trend.

Beyond branding and marketing, the tangible benefits are obvious. Post COVID-19, both the weakened economy and the fear of repeated outbreaks will draw people towards doing business via VR — much cheaper and less risky than traveling and physical meetings.

But is it just me or do ‘great minds think alike’?

Well, last week I spoke to Danny Stefanic, the CEO of the VR company I discovered. He said enquiries were going through the roof. Companies big and small were calling him to ask about their services.

The company is call LearnBrite. Check them out. And tell Danny I said hi.

From learning to marketing

The age of VR is just really starting. LearnBrite is mainly pitching its SaaS solution at human resource departments and learning managers right now since it is preaching experiential learning as its main use case.

They should shift their efforts towards marketing managers instead and target corporate branding and marketing. This is where big budgets are spent to ensure their products and brand name stay top-of-mind among potential customers; where touch points like promotional events and industry meetings matter hugely to generating new clients and revenue.

Building e-learning courses are often one-off expenditures that don’t really have to be 3D and/or avatar-based. The real business potential for LearnBrite is in building and maintaining virtual hubs for companies — the upgraded, 3D versions of corporate websites netizens can visit as avatars.

Right now they charge US$25,000 for a ‘virtual campus’ package that largely requires users to build multiple spaces themselves within their own virtual location.

That is too expensive. They should not be looking at making a profit off the initial building. It’s like selling shavers or printers. The real profit comes after you’ve sold the starter. In their context it’s about being paid to maintain and upgrade each corporate VR hub that they have helped to bring live.

Make the adoption hurdle as low as possible. They shouldn’t be worried about making money at this point. Play the long game. When you have many big companies reliant on you and your technology 24/7, money from investors will naturally find its way to your outfit.

They say necessity is the mother of all invention. I believe reality has just given virtual the big push it needed to go mainstream.

Author’s note: Story inspired by Michael Syn