Airline pilots and video gamers have tested their flying skills on virtual reality flight simulators for decades, but until relatively recently the technology had not advanced much further. Now, rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence are helping to break down the barriers between the real and virtual worlds, and opening up a raft of new virtual reality applications that will change the way we live and work.

When most people think of virtual reality (VR), it is most probably of video games or other forms of immersive entertainment. Indeed, VR is already part of the entertainment mainstream - I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a VR roundtable at the prestigious Venice Film Festival which already has a VR film category - but its potential applications are far more wide-reaching.

In fact, I fully expect to see next generation VR and augmented reality (AR)  - where objects in the real world are ‘augmented’ with a computer-generated view - become an integral part of everyday life for many people. It will add a new layer of reality to even the most basic of tasks like surfing the web, but will also prove a vital tool in the development of skills and experiences.

Imagine, for example, surgeons being able to practice their skills risk-free on virtual bodies that are perfect in every regard (except actually being alive). Or health and safety operators who are able to simulate accidents in order to improve their responses. Companies operating in extreme environments such as in space or at the bottom of the ocean water will able to test the efficiency and effectiveness of their equipment. Therapists will be able to use VR to cure their patients’ phobias, while patient rehabilitation can be accelerated.

Police forces across Europe are using VR and AR to as part of their training; one Bulgarian company is using AR in its range of innovative greeting cards. Businesses are also increasingly using AR, from furniture makers using it to show customers what their products will look like in situ to tourist attractions providing visitors with a new experience showing what life was like in the past and acting as a sort of virtual tour guide via architects or engineers using AR to model their designs in a real world surrounding.

The range of applications in which VR and AR can be used is growing steadily as the technology improves, particularly in terms of usability.

One major development we can expect to see soon is in the field of multi-user social interactions, for example in virtual collaboration and co-creation. This ‘team experience’ in VR will be the next breakthrough, with far-reaching market opportunities as well as clear social benefits.

Virtual reality is a technology that requires investment. And the European Union is already investing in developing this technology and the skills it will need. For example, we are already looking at ways to support artistic VR creation through the EU’s MEDIA programme while the supporting technological development is a key element of the Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative, which has around €100 million available under the current EU research programme to support creative industries which includes VR and AR projects. This support will continue in the next EU research budget (Horizon Europe) from 2021, as well as through the CREATIVE Europe programme, while there will also be an increased emphasis on human-machine interaction under the Next Generation Internet initiative.

As far as skills are concerned, these include research on social interactions that allow us to further develop the technology, including for example through brain interfaces. But they also include the artistic skills needed to create future virtual but realistic worlds and situations; we need directors, photographers and camera operators just as much as we need researchers and programmers.

While EU support has already helped to ensure the necessary economies of scale to help this innovative technology take off, we are also working on helping the transfer of these technologies across different sectors, moving away from entertainment, media or culture and into other fields as diverse as industrial manufacturing, automotive, data life cycle, consumer goods, healthcare, public services, design, and so on.

I firmly believe that the more virtual reality becomes part of life, the more uses will be found for it. The lines between what is real and what is virtual will continue to blur, as VR becomes increasingly part of all our lives. With so many potential applications for VR and AR, it is vital that the EU continues to support the development of both the technology and the skills necessary for the sector to flourish.