BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS — Virtual reality may finally be hitting its stride.
But now, as the pandemic rages on and more Americans are regulated to their homes, industry leaders are hopeful that consumers and businesses will flock to VR.
It has the ability to transport individuals to actual locations around the world — creating a potential market for “virtual tourism” — as well as simulated environments that can be used to train employees. Goldman Sachs Chief Technology Officer Lahtiranta even previously expressed interest in developing a VR-based trading floor.
Much of the sector has been dominated by the gaming industry. Some tech giants, like Facebook, are also gradually expanding their VR-based services. But now, more industries are trying to employ the tech.
Fidelity — the Boston-based investment firm that manages nearly $8 trillion in assets — is piloting a new VR-based system that the company is hoping can eventually help both novice and experienced traders better manage their portfolios.
It’s just one of a slew of innovations in development in the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, or FCAT, the hub tasked with looking three-to-five years out and determining what tech will make the biggest difference for the firm and its customers.
And the projects in the works show the early promise of using VR and other emerging tech as a key mechanism for interacting more closely with both consumers and employees.
“In virtual reality, you’ve got this interactive blank canvas that wraps 360 degrees around you,” FCAT’s Vice President Adam Schouela told Business Insider. “It’s a phenomenal visual experience and interactive experience.”
Fidelity originally demoed its virtual reality tech at the popular Consumer Electronics show in January 2019, but the projects took on a new resonance amid the coronavirus as in-person interactions dwindle.
Fidelity created a virtual meeting space to allow headset-donning investors to talk to real-life financial advisors. Those in the virtual room can ask a voice-activated personal assistant to do things, like pull up stock information on a particular company or list when a specific organization is having its quarterly earnings call.
While the technology is still a prototype, the company envisions a future where the system could be linked to a customer’s personal account information that the assistant could access.
It’s all part of an effort to make emerging tech like VR “relatable enough” to those who don’t use it everyday, according to Schouela. “And that’s how we start experimenting with — and starting — proofs of concepts.”
Business Insider got an exclusive tour of the FCAT center to see what other innovations were in development — including a program that virtually shrinks users down to roughly the size of an electron to explain quantum computing.
Coronavirus as a catalyst for VR
While Schouela’s team of roughly 150 employees had been steadily working on the VR meeting room prior to the pandemic, it has taken on greater importance as more companies pivot to a remote-first environment and more consumers opt for digital experiences over the real-world.
“Who knows how long this — the current situation — is going to be,” Schouela said. “These types of environments are becoming more and more and more important.”
There’s no timeline for releasing the VR-based meeting room as an official product, but Schouela is hoping to open it up soon so that people can begin to play around with the system, though it’s still figuring out the best way to do that. Its measured approach speaks to both the nascent-stage of the tech and the need to convince consumers and employees to actually use it.
While VR headsets make the experience more immersive, they are not required to experience the virtual room. When Business Insider demoed the tech, for example, we did not use a headset — instead opting to view the room through a laptop screen.
“You can literally use it from any one of these different types of devices, all to that same platform,” said Schouela.
Since March, the FCAT group has been working remote. But that hasn’t been a problem, given that team-members were already spread out in locations around the globe. Before COVID hit, the team even built a Rube Goldberg machine that progressed from Ireland, to Boston, to North Carolina — all powered by internet-enabled sensors that would automatically trigger the system to start in the next location.
The group regularly uses Amazon Sumerian — an online VR development tool created by the e-commerce giant — to increase remote collaboration among developers.
‘Honey, I Shrunk the Fidelity Employee’
Another project that FCAT is working on is an educational, VR-based program to explain quantum computing to employees.
“Everybody in the firm has to be able to understand this so that they can see where this technology has the potential to displace what we’re doing,” said Schouela. “It’s not for show. We’re doing it because we want to be able to better the end-customer experience.”
The virtual reality system makes the user feel like they’ve shrunk down to the size of a molecule and, after some initial education, takes them on a journey through a quantum computer. Hand-held remotes allow users to interact with different aspects of the simulation. Along the way, key aspects of quantum computing are described in generally accessible terms.
“Not many people get to stand right next to a quantum computer,” he added. “This is one of those examples where you’re getting access to something that you otherwise would never be able to have access to.”