The Everything Simulator

The first computer-based flight simulators were created in the 1970’s as a few points of lights to provide pilots familiarity with an aircraft before attempting to fly one for the first time. Over time, these simulations evolved to have life-like graphics and physical recreations of entire cockpits. Despite these improvements, simulations were still confined within a computer screen, creating an immersion gap between the user and the experience.

A flight simulator in 1958 (Source: NASA)

Virtual Reality’s (VR) ability to fully immerse users in an environment and to enable natural hand-eye coordination with virtual objects unlocks a level of simulation fidelity previously unseen. This high-fidelity simulation enables not only traditional forms of training, such as a flight simulator, to be possible but also new forms of experiences that incorporate situational, social, and emotional awareness due to the realism of the experience.

Types of Simulation

Since the early days of VR, developers have been building simulation apps of all types. These naturally group into a few different categories that I’ve outlined below.

Task Training

Learn how to accomplish tasks such as using work equipment, building furniture, learning how to cook and bartend, or even performing surgery.

OssoVR fully recreates medical devices in VR for use by doctors and sales professionals. Guided experiences allow doctors unfamiliar with a device to learn how to use it before making a purchasing decision.

Education

Interactive VR can be used to create simulations that allow for visual learning opportunities such as visualizing and playing with math and physics, reliving moments in history, safely tinkering with chemistry sets, or exploring the universe.

MEL Science is using VR to simulate chemical reactions as accurately as possible. For students without access to these kits or for those working with dangerous chemicals, VR can provide a safe environment to perform tests and learn chemistry.
Floreo is building VR education apps for autistic children. Their thesis is that VR is immersive enough to hold an autistic child’s attention over traditional forms of education, enabling them to learn more in the same amount of time.

Spatial awareness

By creating a full 360 environment, VR is perfect for creating simulations where the user needs to be aware of what’s happening all around them. Jobs such as an airline pilot, heavy machinery operator, athlete require spatial awareness and can benefit from simulation training where this ability can be honed.

STRIVR came out of Stanford’s football program and was originally used to help NFL quarterbacks learn to memorize plays and react quickly. They’ve since expanded to working with corporations like Walmart to help train greeters and employees working on Black Friday so they have some idea of what to expect before experiencing the craziness in real life.

Social awareness

Since VR is so realistic, interacting with virtual humans can evoke many of the same emotions and feelings that we experience when interacting with people in the real world. This enables a whole new way to train soft-skills such as public speaking, negotiation, or difficult conversations for managers.

Virtual Speech is a public speaking simulator that put users on stage to recite a speech with the goal of helping them get over any anxiety they may have.
Variable Labs built a salary negotiation simulator to help close the gender pay gap. Users are put in front of a hiring manager and are expected to respond in different ways to negotiate a higher salary for themselves. Experiencing these conversations virtually ahead of the real one can help build comfort and familiarity allowing candidates to perform calmly under pressure.

Empathy generation

Putting people into shoes of those being oppressed or doing the oppressing. This is meant to elicit feelings in the user to help provide context. For example, a harassment training course could use a simulation where the user is in the shoes of someone being inappropriately talked to. The goal is to see what inappropriate actions can feel like to people on the receiving end, hopefully getting the point across more clearly than classic training methods.

Clouds over Sidra by Within puts the viewer into the shoes of someone visiting a Syrian refugee camp. The creator of the experience, Chris Milk, has previously called VR an empathy machine.
The Genworth Aging Suit simulates multiple old-age conditions such as cataracts and arthritis so that users can learn to empathize with seniors suffering from those conditions.

Experiential

From climbing Mount Everest to diving underwater with Sharks to flying in a jet, this is one of the most common forms of consumer-focused VR and is usually touted as the first reason to try VR. For many people, this many be the only way they get to live these experiences.

Solfar has created a VR experience with the assets from the movie Everest to allow users a first-hand look at what it’s like to summit Mt. Everest.
Everest VR by Solfar Studios

Therapy

By simulating phobias or other conditions, therapists are using VR to treat physical and mental diseases.

Limbix is providing therapists tools to control VR simulations for patients to aid with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which could be used to treat phobias and other mental illnesses.
AppliedVR is using VR to distract patients while they undergo painful physical procedures such as chemotherapy. They’ve started to see double-digit decreases in perceived pain and anxiety in their clinical trials.

While not a fully inclusive list, the point is that any visual and aural based situation we could face in the real world could eventually be simulated fully in VR. Over time, as haptics and hand-tracking mature, we could potentially simulate physical feelings as well.

Interactivity in VR Simulators

The interactivity of VR simulations also vary from non-interactive to fully-interactive. The choice of interactive model depends highly on the type of simulation and cost structure of producing content. These are the common forms of interaction models today:

  • Non-interactive video: This is often the easiest form of simulation to produce and just requires a 360 camera. Users are commonly put in the position of a trained professional performing the task so they can experience what it is like from the eyes of an expert. In the case of other simulation types, such as empathy generation, the user is put in the shoes of someone to experience the world through their eyes.
  • Semi-interactive video: Similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, these are snippets of non-interactive contents connected by branch points where the user chooses what to do next. This form of simulation provides video-like graphics while still providing a limited form of interactivity.
  • Fully-interactive: Either through full 3D rendering or a combination of video and 3D rendering. The benefits of a fully interactive simulation include the ability to pickup and interact with objects in the virtual world, easily remixing the simulation to incorporate different scenarios with each use, and the freedom to walk around or change viewpoints. The popular game Job Simulator was one of the first VR games to employ this approach and built an entire game around the concept of interacting with objects before getting acquired by Google this year. Radd3 is taking this approach to football training by allowing coaches to draw new plays and have players run them in VR without having to record any new footage.
OssoVR uses fully-interactive simulation to train surgeons

The benefit of video-only simulation is that it is relatively easy and cheap to produce whereas as you go towards more interactive simulations, you require artists and programmers to create the content. My expectation is that we see a lot of video-based simulation at first but, as the industry matures and middleware tools are developed, that we begin to move to higher-quality, more interactive simulations that are dynamic in nature.

Opportunity

As an investor in VR and several of the companies already mentioned, I think that this is one of the most promising areas of VR to invest in and we’ve been active in backing entrepreneurs that are approaching this opportunity from many different angles.

For entrepreneurs building VR simulations there are couple things to consider:

  1. Pick a profitable vertical. Picking a vertical where the simulation solves an existing business problem and clearly has an ROI attached to it by being either cheaper or more effective. For example, building a heavy machinery simulator is clearly safer than training with live equipment. Additionally, it may be faster to onboard new employees because access to equipment may be limited whereas it’s fairly easy to purchase VR hardware now.
  2. Evolve past content production. There’s some amount of content creation that will have to be done at first to start, but the key to scaling this type of business is by finding a way to build a technology and content platform that enables 3rd parties to create content, not by producing the content itself.

This is just the starting line for VR-based simulators. While VR’s image quality hasn’t yet crossed the uncanny valley, improvements in display resolution and pixel density are no doubt around the corner. As graphic fidelity increases and content becomes easier to create, expect to see more products in this area with increasing efficacy. We’re excited to continue to fund and support entrepreneurs utilizing VR in this way.


Amitt is a Managing Partner at Presence Capital, an early-stage venture firm focused on investing in VR/AR companies. We’re investors in several of the companies listed above: STRIVR, OssoVR, Limbix, Radd3, Floreo, AppliedVR, and Variable Labs. If you liked this article, please consider recommending or sharing it.