100224-N-7676W-204 CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (Feb. 24, 2010) Marines from the 2d Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, train with the Future Immersive Training Environment (FITE) Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD) virtual reality system in the simulation center at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Sponsored by the US Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM), with technical management provided by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the FITE JCTD allows an individual wearing a self-contained virtual reality system, with no external tethers and a small joystick mounted on the weapon, to operate in a realistic virtual world displayed in a helmet mounted display.(U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

It was towards the end of 2014 when I first heard about Oculus Rift and the advancements they are making in the world of virtual reality (VR). Since then, I’ve made it a point to follow news about VR and understand the players in the industry. However, over the past few months since the releases of the Samsung Gear VR headset last November, Oculus Rift headset in March and the HTC Vive last week, the amount of press, blog articles and commentary about the future of virtual reality has increased to a staggering level. This trend initially had me worried because, while there are some truly incredible advancements happening in VR technology right now, the true opportunity that VR represents won’t be fully realized for a number of years (here is why Gary Vaynerchuk thinks maybe 10 more years).

As current press about this technology has led to increased awareness about what the technology will provide, the additional commentary has also resulted in increased expectations. This worries me as it might also lead people to become disillusioned about the true opportunity that VR has to offer as current technology will likely fail to deliver on those high expectations. Yesterday I was reading a blog post written by venture capitalist Fred Wilson where he posed the question to his readers of how they see the future of VR, and as I read the comments, I started to notice that exact trend of negative perceptions that has likely resulted from unfulfilled expectations. Because Wilson’s audience is made up of people who understand and follow the technology sector, I was a bit shocked at their overwhelmingly negative views about the prospects and opportunities that VR offers. As many of the comments were technical in nature and simply engineering challenges that will have to be overcome, as those improvements are made, virtual reality will offer the military a training capability that they have long sought, creating for an incredible opportunity for not only businesses, but also for deploying service members.

Why I Believe Virtual Reality Will Succeed

My perspective on the opportunity that VR represents comes from my belief that the military has already determined that immersive experiences are a capability that they want for Marines and Soldiers before they deploy. A facility called the Infantry Immersion Trainer (IIT), which was first built in 2007 at Camp Pendleton, CA and since expanded to have locations at Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, is a training venue that Marines go through before deploying. The IIT was designed to, as the name implies, immerse Marines in the environment they are about to deploy to so that they can experience what it would be like operating amongst the sights, sounds, and smells, of the villages they would be patrolling in the coming months.

For many units, this has been an essential part of their pre-deployment training. But with just a single facility offering this training at each base, it meant that there was a quantifiable limit on the throughput the facility could provide. Units, let’s say a battalion, might only get a few days to use the facility. Within those few days, each rifle company would get an allocated time amount, which would be sub-divided down to platoons, then squads, and potentially even down to fire team size elements. This means that for the individual Marine, there is a ceiling on the number of times they can be exposed to the conditions in the IIT because there are inherent constraints when training in the physical facility. Those constraints result in individual Marines and units being deemed “pre-deployment qualified” for that particular evolution not as a result of their performance or attaining a certain level of familiarity and comfort in that type of environment, but for simply going through it. Whether you look at this particular training as impacting a Marine’s ability to survive combat or becoming more capable of accomplishing the missions they are assigned, being able to expand immersion training through virtual reality allows unit leaders to get beyond time-based learning objectives and instead focus on performance-related outcomes.

As virtual reality is one of the few options available for scalable immersion training that the military is seeking, let me put the opportunity that VR represents into the model that Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler highlight in their book, Bold: How to Go Big Create Wealth and Impact the World. In the book, they outline what they refer to as the “Six D’s of Exponentials” which are: digitalization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization. An explanation about all “6 D’s” can be found in this Washington Post article here, but the two that are worth talking about in relation to virtual reality are digitalization, where real life experiences (the physical world) are translated into ones and zeros (the digital world), and deception, which is the period where exponential growth goes mostly unnoticed. These first two “D’s” lead into the third “D”, which is disruption and is the moment when the innovation either creates a new market or disrupts an existing one. The opportunity that virtual reality offers is that it has already begun the process of digitizing the physical experiences offered by the Infantry Immersion Trainer into a structure that offers it to Marines and Soldiers to a large audience at scale, without worrying about the constraints of throughput in physical facilities.

The reason why I would put VR into the deceptive category that Diamandis identifies is because at this point in time, training in virtual environments hasn’t gotten to the point where it can truly replace the experience of going through the Infantry Immersion Trainer. Note that for VR to truly become disruptive, it doesn’t have to replace physical training, only that is could replace it if no in-person options were available to the service member. When looking at the opportunity that VR offers the military I believe there are some doubters about the future application of the technology because the current tech hasn’t gotten to the point where it is a seamless or perfect user experience. It is still shaky as it exists right now, and some people have complained about becoming dizzy or nauseous while in the headsets, but those are engineering obstacles that will be overcome in the future as technology continues to improve.

Personally, I am confident that those engineering issues associated with enhancing VR experiences will be addressed simply because VR represents a huge business opportunity for many industries outside of defense. With the way that VR can change the experiences that individuals have at theme parks, sporting events, movies and concerts, and in education, companies will find a way to make it work to its fullest potential because they have already seen that it can be used to make a lot of money. As an example, here is how Universal Studios has changed their Harry Potter attraction. As companies continue to dedicate their research and development efforts to improving the user experience inside of a virtual environment, every single iteration and advancement in the technology will continue to erase the issues that current VR users have commented on.

When I read the criticisms that readers posted on Fred Wilson’s blog about the prospects of VR, there were some comments that stood out to me more than others. When people raised issues about whether a VR headset, or virtual experiences in general, would actually be used in the home and not just some gadget that got used once or twice before being put on shelf carried more weight with me than others. Great advancements, if the consumer market isn’t ready for them, can limit the growth of any new technology. The end of Google Glass (as it has been marketed) is a great example of this, but when I hear responses about the lack of use, I often put it into context by thinking about my grandpa and his experiences with technology. As a WWII-era soldier who grew up without a TV in his home, if you were to try and convince him even just five years ago that he would be using an iPhone, taking selfies or watching videos on his phone, he would have said you were crazy. But today, he does these things all the time. If you were to judge the opportunity that tablets would provide in the future based on the Apple Newton of the mid 1990’s, you would never have guessed that my grandpa would also one day be scolded by my mom for bringing his iPad to the dinner table on Thanksgiving. But, much to my amusement, as of last November, he has! Personally, I see VR as avoiding some of the issues that led to the failure of 3D TVs because those TVs didn’t really change the experience of watching a show. Being able to immerse yourself in a 360-degree environment with VR is something that is completely different and while adoption of the new technology might take time, as kids begin to use VR headsets at school, even our older generations will begin to pick it up as well.

The goal of the technology and VR isn’t just to create a fantasy world, but to augment the lives of those using it. Being able to put yourself into situations you are likely to face, walk the streets of a city you are about to deploy to or rehearse a future mission don’t replace any of the existing training our military conducts, but it does offer the opportunity to make that training exponentially better by being able to immerse yourself in situations you are going to be patrolling in the future. In a post next week, I’ll provide three specific ways that VR can be used to prepare Marines and Soldiers before they deploy, but improving training means that more service members come home because they will better prepared to operate and accomplish their mission than ever before.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons