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This Company Is Reinventing the Future of Virtual Reality

MaryKate Mahoney, HP’s Global Lead for VR in Healthcare,
The Muse

Glowing fireflies surround the patient wearing a virtual reality headset—and as she takes deep, slow breaths to control her heart rate, a cluster of the flittering bugs come closer. She reaches out her hands to collect the insects that populate this simulated sky, one created in stunning resolution by the HP Reverb VR headset.

The game the patient is playing is called GLOW!. And it has benefits that go far beyond just mere entertainment, says MaryKate Mahoney, HP’s Global Lead for VR in Healthcare. In fact, GLOW! is being used to improve the lives of people suffering from various kinds of chronic pain, including pediatric burn victims—allowing them to lose themselves in a virtual environment while they get their bandages changed, a process that often requires heavy doses of painkillers. Instead, the Reverb wearers find calmness as they collect fireflies and then use them to light lamps within the game. “It’s like giving away your pain,” Mahoney says.

The company that developed GLOW! (and other therapeutic VR games for chronic pain sufferers) is just one of many HP partners finding new and surprising ways to use the HP Reverb virtual reality headset and cordless Backpack PC. Beyond healthcare, virtual reality is also finding its way into technical training and professional development, and even allowing people to overcome fears of public speaking by practicing oration in a virtual space. One thing is clear: the true power of VR is on its way to being unleashed.

Cutting the Cord

The biggest problem facing VR is that most units are physically connected to a computer. “You have a giant cable running from the computer to the user that takes you out of the immersion,” says John Ludwig, Lead Product Manager on HP’s VR team. “It’s everyone’s first complaint about virtual reality.”

From that complaint came innovation. HP engineers in Ludwig’s consumer gaming team were determined to get rid of the cable and create an untethered virtual experience, an idea that became the HP Backpack PC.

HP engineers knew a wearable PC needed to be lighter than 10 lbs. Any more weight would make users conscious of the backpack and take them out of the experience, the very problem HP was trying to solve. “We couldn’t just shove a normal notebook into a backpack,” says Ludwig. To reach the right balance of performance, battery life, and weight, HP’s team devised a new battery solution that delivered power to components as if it were plugged into the wall.

When HP debuted the Backpack PC prototype in 2016, it was with gamers in mind—and there were obvious uses such as wire-free laser tag. But something unexpected happened: The promise of virtual experiences powered by cordless computing caught the attention of businesses both large and small.

Car companies could imagine their designers walking around and inside a virtual new vehicle without tripping over wires. Tech companies could picture employees training to repair large machines such as enterprise-scale printers. “If you want to learn to work in VR and have freedom of movement all the way around, then you can’t be tied on a four-meter cord to a desktop,” Ludwig says.

Reinventing a Vision of VR

But the Backpack PC is only part of HP’s attempt to innovate within the virtual reality space. By 2017, the VR headset space had gotten stuck—and numerous companies making devices with similar capabilities crowded the marketplace. That’s when HP decided to chart a new course. Rather than competing solely in the consumer gaming space (which can limit how high a product can be priced, and therefore the technology built for that product), Ludwig says, HP decided simply to create the best, most tech-forward headset it could. The result? Reverb, a device just as innovative as the Backpack PC and one that reinvented how HP thought about VR.

Whereas most high-end TVs and phones use OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display screens, HP chose LCD for the Reverb because it allowed for three subpixels per pixel rather than OLED’s two, opening up a wider range of colors. HP also gave the Reverb twice the screen resolution of its competitors at a faster refresh rate—and all of these features combine to create a more immersive virtual environment. “You can see brick or a grain of leather,” Ludwig says. “Suddenly text is readable.”

According to Nathan Nuber, a VR Software Architect, readable text could be a game-changer for businesses. The low-res screens of earlier (and untethered) headsets made it impossible to see small text, like what you’d find in a training manual. But Reverb’s optical innovations change all that. Now, all kinds of technical training can happen in a virtual environment in which a trainee could refer to a manual—not to mention work on a virtual model of a machine, make a repair, or fix a bug—without leaving the VR space. “You could do all your current workflows in virtual reality,” Nuber says.

Creative use cases are already popping up in the healthcare space, Mahoney says. Consider PeriopSim, a way to train the perioperative nurses who assist doctors during surgery. For such precise and high-pressure tasks, classroom instruction has limitations (or may not be available at all, depending on the specialty). “VR is a nice way to introduce these nurses to the concepts and to the safety protocols in a safe learning environment before they need to step into the OR for the first time,” Mahoney says, adding, “Some of the power of VR is that you can do things that you’ll absolutely never be able to do in the real world, like ‘stand inside’ a patient’s aorta as you are prepping for surgery.”

Businesses beyond healthcare are discovering VR training, too. Ovation VR allows people to overcome their fear of public speaking by practicing in front of a virtual audience—a kind of training formerly done by recording speakers on video and making them watch their performances. The power of VR also makes it much easier to train workers on the towering engines that power cargo ships, the carriers of the world economy. “The fact that you can, out of thin air, create material to train with is a big enabler,” Nuber says.

A New Space to Play

While virtual reality has existed in the public imagination for decades, innovations such as the Reverb and Backpack PC are just beginning to unlock new uses for people around the globe.

“The Reverb has over twice the resolution of the previous headset—and that’s not a jump you see in other industries. If something came out tomorrow that was twice as fast as today’s PC, it would blow your mind,” Nuber says. “In addition to allowing us to make bigger-than-usual strides, VR has given us the flexibility to do interesting or weird new things people might not expect.”

But the most exciting thing about virtual reality? To HP’s Johnny Hung, a VR mechanical engineer, it’s what we don’t know yet. Mature technologies such as personal computers have established rules. “With VR, you can be the master who sets up the rules,” he says.