How Virtual Reality Re-Imagines the World of Norman Rockwell

I recently stepped inside the paintings of Norman Rockwell through virtual reality. After viewing Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, I experienced them in an immersive way that only VR can provide. Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates how VR can educate by complementing, not replacing, the physical world — but only if VR offers compelling content.   

About the Four Freedoms

In 1943, Norman Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms series — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear – to visualize the four freedoms, or essential human rights, espoused by Franklin Roosevelt in a 1941 State of the Union address. Upon their publication in The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s  Four Freedoms became immensely popular. They expressed a nostalgic, reassuring image of America at a time when World War II had made the world seem darker. The Four Freedoms ensured Norman Rockwell’s fame as an artist whose work expressed American ideals in a way that resonated with a mass audience. 

Many decades later, the Four Freedoms are on display in a traveling exhibit that began at the New York Historical Society on May 25 and will continue until 2020. The Henry Ford has hosted the second leg of the tour since October 13 and will do so until January 13. Seeing these paintings in person is like viewing the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. They don’t need virtual reality to convey their power. But as I discovered, VR helped me appreciate the artist and his times.

Rockwell Up Close

I came across a VR viewing area near the end of the tour, after I’d spent a Sunday afternoon studying Rockwell’s works up close, including Freedom from Want, which has become perhaps the most cherished if satirized vision of American bounty. 

As with just about every famous art I’ve seen reproduced somewhere, Rockwell’s paintings are more vivid when you see them in person. By contrast, the VR viewing area consisted of a spartan arrangement of chairs and headsets. You always know when you’ve entered the VR zone: no matter what the context, you’re greeted by a clusters of disconnected people gazing into headsets unaware of the real world around them. But I’d already gotten what I came for. I was game for spending some time in the VR zone. What did I have to lose? After I was given a brief explanation of how the VR experience works, I strapped on a headset and let my mind wander.

Intuitive VR

The experience was as intuitive as VR should be. From a virtual viewing room, I could step inside different Four Freedoms paintings to explore a re-creation of the settings suggested by Rockwell’s art. For example, Freedom from Fear depicts a mother and father tucking their children in bed for a night of peaceful, carefree sleep. The father holds a newspaper with a headline that suggests the London Blitz bombing occurring across the Atlantic. 

Through VR, I explored the room in more detail as well as the family’s home as it might have looked in 1943. I came across a silver-colored penny on a dresser. When I clicked on the penny, words appeared onscreen to explain that the 1943 silver-colored penny was a wartime coin issue made of steel and coated with zinc. It was necessary to create pennies from steel because copper was needed to make shell casings and munitions. Throughout the house, I found many other belongings from the era, including a civilian air spotter guide, blackout curtains, comic books, and trading cards.

VR expanded my understanding of wartime in the United States by inviting me into Rockwell’s time rather than separating me from it with a panel. Rockwell’s paintings engaged and taught me more about Rockwell and his vision. VR taught me more about Rockwell’s world. 

VR and AR Take Hold in Museums

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience constitutes a laid-back experience as far as VR goes. Touring the paintings requires not much physical effort beyond tilting your head to navigate. This experience is designed to ease you into VR from a sitting position. Created by Academy of Art University, San Francisco, and the Norman Rockwell Museum, Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms is one of many ways museums are using VR and augmented reality (AR) to become more immersive. For example:

  • The Franklin Institute transports people into space, the ocean, and the human body with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets. 
  • “David Bowie Is,” the critically acclaimed David Bowie exhibition, will become an AR app following a multi-year run at museums ranging from V&A Museum in London to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
  • The Kremer Museum, launched in 2017, features more than 70 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings exclusively through VR. It is believed to be the only museum to exist entirely within VR.

And many, many more examples abound, as museums employ technology to remain relevant with audiences whose expectations are set by immersive games, music, and movies using multiple devices and screens. 

Why the Four Freedoms VR Experience Succeeds

In this context, Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience succeeds. Here’s why:

  • Most importantly: the content is effective. The idea of using VR to visit the settings suggested by the painting is inspired, and the execution delivers with interesting examples such as the steel penny. 
  • VR complements the in-person experience. Placing the VR stations at the end of the tour means that VR does not compete with the landmark paintings. You first get the measure of Rockwell’s work before experiencing the paintings from a fresh perspective with VR.
  • The low-key experience suits the topic. You explore the paintings at a leisurely pace, befitting the idyllic setting of Rockwell’s paintings. This is no Lone Echo or Star Trek: Bridge Crew, nor should it be. Norman Rockwell’s work evokes a simpler, homespun time, like comfort food. His paintings do not lend themselves to an overwhelming sensory experience. 
  • It does not cost extra. I was more likely to strap on a headset and geek out with VR because I didn’t have to pay more. I’d already paid for the entrance to the exhibit when I bought my ticket for The Henry Ford. 

The experience also underscores the limitations of VR as a technology for mass consumption. At the end of the exhibit, I walked away, probably never to experience Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience again. VR requires repeated use by consumers to take hold. And with the exception of gaming and entertainment, VR lacks the requisite content to justify the expense of buying the equipment and the time required to delve into VR. Put another way: it’s one thing for museum goers to use VR as part of an experience they were going to pay for, anyway, especially when someone else is providing the equipment. But asking them to make an investment into VR for common use in their homes? That’s a totally different story unless they are into gaming. 

But these limitations are only a problem if you expect VR to become a popular everyday consumer experience. VR continues to take hold in industries ranging from education to training (to wit: STRIVR works with businesses such as Walmart to use VR to improve employee performance with training). Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates one useful application.

How Walmart Is Shaping the Future of Virtual Reality

To understand the future of virtual reality (VR), take a close look at Walmart. On September 20, Walmart announced it will ship 17,000 Oculus Go VR headsets to all its North American stores to give more than 1 million employees access to virtual reality training.

The news marks an expansion of a training program in which Walmart has used VR headsets at its U.S. Academies to help new employees learn what it’s like to work in a Walmart store, including how to handle surging Black Friday crowds. Walmart has worked with training company STRIVR to develop the curriculum using STRIVR’s VR training platform and will continue to do so.

Andy Trainor, Walmart’s senior director of Walmart U.S. Academies, said, “The great thing about VR is its ability to make learning experiential. When you watch a module through the headset, your brain feels like you actually experienced a situation. We’ve also seen that VR training boosts confidence and retention while improving test scores 10 to 15 percent – even those associates who simply watched others experience the training saw the same retention boosts.”

Walmart’s use of VR meets four essential requirements for VR to take hold, namely:

1) An Addressable Market

Corporate training is a priority. According to separate research from Deloitte and Gallup, 84 percent of executives and 87 percent of millennials believe that learning and development is important. In 2017, corporations spent an estimated $360 billion on employee training around the world. On average, companies spent $1,075 per learner in 2017, with manufacturers spending $1,217 per learner, followed by services organizations ($1,157), according to the 2017 Training Industry Report. Employees received 47.6 hours of training per year, nearly 4 hours more than in 2016. It behooves corporations to maximize the efficiency of that spend.

2) A Compelling Reason to Use VR

Corporate training also leaves a lot to be desired. According to the Deloitte 2016 Global Human Capital Trends Report, only 37 percent of executives believe learning and development is effective; and 40 percent of employees believe they are not trained to do Continue reading

Virtual Reality Helps U.S. Athletes Train to Win Olympic Gold

When U.S. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin won a Winter Olympics gold medal in the giant slalom race February 15, she also achieved a victory for virtual reality.

She is among the members of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team who have used a virtual reality (VR) training regime from STRIVR Labs to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, according to the team.

The team’s deployment of VR training, reported widely, also shines the spotlight on VR’s potential to improve performance in sectors ranging from sports to retail. Continue reading

How Virtual Reality Transforms Training and Improves Performance

Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Case Keenum will always be known as the guy who passed the football to Wide Receiver Stefon Diggs to pull off the stunning Minnesota Miracle last-second victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFL playoffs on January 14. Case Keenum also symbolizes the future of virtual reality (VR) as a training tool to improve performance.

During the 2017-18 NFL season, Keenum stepped up his game dramatically en route to leading the Vikings to a 13-3 record. As reported in ESPN, he used a VR tool developed by training company STRIVR to improve. The Vikings are among six NFL teams that use VR to help players sharpen their mental abilities as they react to the many moving parts that affect the outcome of a single play. Keenum has practiced thousands of plays with VR throughout the course of the season – just as professionals in other industries, including doctors, van drivers, and retailers, use VR to train themselves.

Helping Quarterbacks Escape Blitzes

Although VR has been around for years, the technology has yet to catch on among consumers. The cost of the equipment required, lack of available content, and clunky user interface remain impediments. But the enterprise sector is a different story. VR, which immerses the user in a different world through the use of special headsets, is an ideal tool to train people for complex, high-risk situations that leave little margin for error.

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How and Why Businesses Are Adopting Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

At the 2018 Consumer Electronics show, robots, voice assistants, connected cars, and even connected cities created buzz. Augmented reality and virtual reality – not so much, with the exception of augmented reality applications in the automotive industry.

But proponents of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) should take heart: the real action with AR and VR isn’t happening with consumer products, anyway. The compelling stories about AR and VR are happening on the enterprise side.

Throughout 2017, companies such as Audi, Ford, IKEA, Sephora, and Walmart shared examples of how they’re using AR and VR to run their businesses more effectively. For example:

  • Augmented reality simplifies the purchase decision for IKEA customers: IKEA released Place, an app that makes it possible for shoppers to see how IKEA furniture might look in their living spaces.

With augmented reality, users overlay simpler forms of content on to their physical spaces, usually by using their mobile phones. Niantic’s Pokémon GO and forthcoming Harry Potter games are examples. With Place, users overlay 3D models of furniture into their physical spaces to test for fit, which takes reduces the risk of buying a sofa or bookshelf before carting it home. Continue reading

Four Companies Gobbled Up Immersive Reality Investments in 2017

There is good news and bad news for the immersive reality industry, which consists of businesses that provide augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR) products. First the good news:

  • These investments occurred across 28 categories ranging from education to music, suggesting how wide-ranging immersive reality is.

Now the bad news:

  • More than half the investment came from just four major players: Improbable, Magic Leap, Niantic, and Unity. As Lucas Mateny of Tech Crunch noted, the actual deal flow for smaller immersive reality start-ups is getting smaller.

The largest category of investment was gaming, partly because of the $200 million received by Niantic, creator of AR sensation Pokémon GO the forthcoming Harry Potter AR game. The popularity of gaming apps underscores how immersive reality continues to be perceived as an entertainment phenomenon on the consumer side. But gaming accounted for only one tenth of the total investment into immersive reality for 2017, with hardware devices (such as smart glasses) and applications across many other fields accounting for the lion’s share.

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Three Predictions for Virtual Reality in 2018

In the United States, only 9.6 million people use virtual reality (VR) at least once a month, and by 2019, VR will penetrate 5.2 percent of the population, according to eMarketer. And yet, the VR industry has already become a complex ecosystem. As the VR Fund’s VR Industry Landscape illustrates, the ecosystem encompasses a multitude of companies spanning applications/content, tools/platforms, and infrastructure:

When I recently did a Google search for VR, my top 20 search results revealed diverse uses of VR spanning architecture, entertainment, healthcare, pornography, retail, sports, and travel/hospitality. Why has VR spawned such a complex ecosystem touching many industries when so few consumers actually use it? A few reasons stand out:

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Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg Want to Change How We Live

Recently Amazon and Facebook announced new products that will extend their reach into the corporate world:

  • Amazon’s Alexa for Business, unveiled November 30, is a platform for a business’s employees to use the Amazon Alexa voice assistant (in Amazon Echo speakers) to manage everyday tasks such as scheduling conference calls and managing calendars. Amazon believes that with Echo smart speakers embedded in corporate conference rooms and offices to manage the mundane things, people will be freed up to focus on more productive work.

  • Facebook’s Oculus for Business, announced October 11, is a bundled set of Oculus products designed to help businesses apply virtual reality (VR) to do everything from train employees to design cars. In fact, although VR has experienced slow adoption among consumers, the corporate world is a different story, where VR is penetrating industries including entertainment, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. Facebook believes that by making it easy to purchase hardware, accessories, and associated services needed to employ VR in the workforce, more companies will adopt Oculus over competing products.

These announcements are more than landmark moments for Amazon and Facebook. Alexa for Business and Oculus for Business are also manifestations of something else: the ambitions of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to be market makers with artificial intelligence-based voice assistants and virtual reality.

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How a Healthcare Crisis May Fuel Virtual Reality Adoption

Sometimes a crisis can fuel innovation. With an opioid problem gripping the United States, medical providers are looking for ways to treat patients’ pain without resorting to addictive drugs. Those potential solutions include the use of virtual reality (VR) at institutions such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center.

VR’s usage to treat pain is limited. But a heightened awareness of widespread opioid addiction, the efforts of progressive healthcare providers and technologists, and insurers’ mounting costs to pay for opioid addiction may spur an uptake of virtual reality for medical treatment. The cooperation of an ecosystem spanning businesses and the government will be required for VR to break through for chronic pain treatment.

VR Takes Hold

To casual observers, VR is an immersive experience for playing games and watching movies. In fact, companies use VR for non-entertainment functions such selling cosmetics, training workers to assemble machinery parts, and designing automobiles. In fact, medical providers have been using VR to treat pain for a few decades by tapping into VR’s ability to entertain by transporting users to a different world.

The University of Washington Harborview Burn Center created the first virtual world designed expressly to reduce pain. Known as SnowWorld, the experience distracts patients from intense pain typically experienced during procedures such as burn wound-care sessions. While patients endure a painful treatment, they use a virtual reality headset to enter another world where they can fly through a make-believe canyon and throw snowballs at snowmen and penguins. SnowWorld is the result of research into VR as a pain treatment tool going back to the 1990s at Harborview.

Patients using SnowWorld report experiencing 50 percent less pain than patients using other means to distract themselves (e.g., music). Why? Because virtual reality rewires the Continue reading

Will Apple Take Augmented Reality Mainstream?

Apple critics have been quiet lately.

The company is worth more than $900 billion after beating Wall Street’s expectations in its November 2 earnings report. The iPhone 8 is selling better than expected. Consumers are lining up to buy its most expensive iPhone ever, the X. And the iPad just might be making a comeback.

Tim Cook is talking like a visionary, positioning himself and Apple on the cusp of changes in technology and human experience. For instance, Cook recently declared on an Apple earnings call that augmented reality is “mainstream” and that “Apple is the only company” that could have made augmented reality mainstream.

His comments evoke Mark Zuckerberg’s bold announcement that Facebook intends to get one billion people to use virtual reality. And, like Zuckerberg, Cook is being ambitious, considering that only 12 percent of the U.S. population is expected to use AR at least once a month in 2017. But there is reason for AR backers to be optimistic: usage of AR is growing by 30 percent over 2016 according to eMarketer.

Apple’s strategy to accelerate the uptake of augmented reality is to provide a development platform for the creation of AR content and to  rely on popular Apple devices as Trojan Horses to deliver that content to consumers.

But to realize the potential of augmented reality for widespread consumer and corporate use, Apple might need to do more — such as the creation of an augmented reality headset.

Augmented Reality Breaking Through

Augmented reality refers to an experience that alters our perception of reality by overlaying computer-generated content on to a physical space. Augmented reality is being used in businesses ranging from hospitals to amusement parks to train and entertain by enhancing our worlds with digital content such as holograms and 3D objects with which we can interact. In the automotive industry, augmented reality might enhance driving by overlaying content such as signage on a driver’s windshield, reducing the need for the driver to strain to read street signs while navigating. For AR to break through to more mainstream consumer use, the experience needs:

  • Great content.
  • A ubiquitous, user-friendly delivery mechanism.

Apple provides the latter through the manufacture of its devices and is enabling content creation by providing the necessary tools and media platform.

Apple’s Role Continue reading