Nearly a century ago, science fiction author Stanley G. Weinbaum envisioned a pair of goggles that allowed wearers to immerse all five senses in a virtual entertainment. These days, virtual reality headsets, eyeglass computers and augmented reality apps are more fact than fiction, and business leaders are hard at work developing uses for the technology.

A few major companies are already experimenting with today’s VR and AR gear, and the results have been encouraging. Check out how these immersive and augmentative technologies are helping shape the office paradigms of tomorrow.

Bloomberg’s infinite terminal

The standard Bloomberg terminal has a science-fiction feel to it already, in that it’s essentially a high-finance version of the computer on the Starship Enterprise. Now, one Bloomberg employee is working to bring an even more unearthly element to the company’s big moneymaker.

Bloomberg terminals already come with two big displays, and up-market models can ship with up to six. However, traders still find themselves wanting for screen space, so they can display multiple data sets alongside email, news tickers, analysis windows and other info streams. To address the problem, a Bloomberg employee has turned to Oculus Rift — the flagship virtual reality headset of Facebook-acquired tech company Oculus VR — and prototyped a way for traders to materialize six, 10, 20 or more screens, filling their vision with communications and market info.

Robot eyes

While the infinite financial terminal is still in the prototype phase, augmented reality eyewear has been bobbing around on the heads of Google Glass early-adopters for a while now. The jury’s still out on whether or not AR wearables are the next big thing in tech, but technology research firm Gartner Inc. hypothesizes that certain occupations might find great advantages in augmented reality:

  • Engineers could use the expanded sensory capabilities of AR devices to see heat maps or speed calculation overlays on enclosed or fast-moving mechanical parts.
  • Field scientists might use AR devices to precisely record or retrieve data on potential hazards and the location of discoveries.
  • Firefighters could have hands-free, heads-up access to temperature readings or building layout maps during a structure fire.

The outline released by Gartner did not address Google Glass itself, but several other technology providers are poised to produce AR eyesets in the near future. As kinks are worked out and computing power increases, the benefits of augmented reality may become impossible for enterprises to ignore.

Hand-held reality

As theoretically valuable as they may be, current AR wearables are still cutting their baby teeth in the professional tech ecosystem. In the meantime, some developers are sticking with what they know and energizing current hand-held hardware with applications that change the way users see the world.

AR startup Daqri, for instance, is working to create software that extracts 3-D virtual imagery from real-world objects. The concept is fairly simple, but its applications are broad:

  • Students could aim a phone or tablet at an illustration in a textbook and begin navigating a scalable, moveable 3-D model.
  • Technical workers can gain access to 3-D visualizations of complicated blueprints or assembly plans by pointing their phone handsets at individual sections of the diagram.
  • Executives could allow each individual member of a meeting to pull personalized, browseable presentation visuals from a uniform handout of general information.

Another company experimenting with hand-held augmented reality is Lowe’s, the hardware store and home improvement warehouse. In a move that’s likely to thrill Trekkies everywhere, the company has announced that two of its Canadian locations will be outfitted with 3-D home interior visualization spaces called “holorooms” in late 2014.

The concept works like a real-world holodeck. Prospective designers and remodelers enter the 20-by-20-foot space armed with a touchscreen tablet and proceed to build bedrooms, dens and kitchens from the ground up. The specially outfitted interior of the holoroom works with the tablet’s rear-facing camera to give customers 360-degree visualizations of their virtual room, and all the walls, floors, fixtures and furnishings can be rearranged or swapped out completely with a few taps of the screen.

Beyond the hype

To put the hype about VR and AR devices into perspective, it bears mention that email, hypertext, computer graphics, teleconferencing and other fixtures of today’s office were brought to public attention in 1968, in a presentation by Stanford researcher Douglas Engelbart that would come to be known as “the Mother of All Demos.” It wasn’t for another 10 years that personal computers were successfully mass marketed, and several more years until they took their place as standard issue business equipment.

That said, it seems relatively safe to assume that virtual and augmented reality will ultimately transform the way people do their jobs, it’s just not likely to happen tomorrow. A 2-D computer desktop embedded in a 3-D virtual world was only recently demoed by a data visualization pro at UC Davis, so the first fully virtual offices are probably still a few years from their commercial debut.

As far as ideas for reality-bending devices are concerned, science fiction writers continue to be the leading authority. The concept for the Lowe’s holoroom came from a science fiction comic book produced for the company by innovation consultancy firm SciFutures. And with the recent advancements in VR technology, Stanley Weinbaum’s full-sensory movies might not be far off either.

This article as originally published on

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