Digital technologies can be deeply disruptive, and potent new forces can change how an industry or an entire marketplace operates. E-readers like the Kindle are disrupting the book publishing industry. iPads are changing how teachers teach. Netflix killed Blockbuster. Mobile devices have effected a complete sea-change in how we communicate, including interacting with social media.

So, what’s next? Think immersion.

A number of inventions relating to virtual reality have launched into the market in rapid succession. Some of them are winners, while others need a reboot. For example:

Virtual visionAnd it’s not just virtual reality (VR). Significant advances are being made in cognitive artificial intelligence, accelerating the avenues of machine-learning and automation.

What do these advances mean? Is the conjunction of virtual reality and artificial intelligence the basis for a new paradigm in the media and entertainment industry, for example? In others? Will they be as disruptive as the invention of the World Wide Web?

Futuristic or not, VR and AI is beginning to change the way we work and communicate.

The flood of virtual reality devices

Virtual reality devices promise a new kind of entertainment experience. New content is being developed to take full advantage of immersive 360-degree platforms, ones that the industry proclaims are a step above the “flat experiences that are being crammed into VR” today. Facebook, Google and YouTube, Apple and Microsoft and Samsung, all are looking to deliver us a virtual reality.  Google’s Project Tango goes even further: it wants to give a mobile device the ability to navigate the physical world similar to how we do as humans.

Virtual adds up to real money. According to the AR/VR Market Research Report 2016, wearables, VR devices and drones will all see significant growth in 2016. Analysts estimate that the VR market–which includes VR hardware, apps, and content–could hit $70 billion by 2020.

Where is VR and AI and  having the most impact on business?

Gaining ground in education and entertainment

Applications for virtual reality technology can be divided into two: a simulation of a real environment for training and education, on one hand, and the development of an imagined environment for a game or interactive story on the other.

The entertainment and education sectors are set to undergo fundamental transformation. Virtual reality can be a deeply engaging entertainment, educational and training medium, with the power to powerfully capture fans, students and learners. VR delivers a compelling sense of being immersed in the action, unmatched by other technology. So it’s rapidly becoming a key conduit for not just education, media or gaming, but even for sports like boxing, basketball, and football.

Unsurprisingly, the technology is attracting attention from video programmers. While the recent focus on televisions has been on HD and 3D, the immersive nature of VR offers a seismic shift beyond what is currently available as a form of narrative. The NBA is first to broadcast a live professional sports game in virtual reality.

Immersive? Yes. Virtual reality implies a 360-degree field of vision accompanied by sound and even touch. That is a paradigm shift for traditional media, where broadcast technologies have historically prevailed.

DirecTV recently jumped into the virtual reality ring with Big Knockout Boxing (BKB), an app that provides an immersive experience of having ringside access to highlights of the June 27 BKB bout at Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay. Users can pick highlights they want to see, and view close-up camera feeds filmed by a five-camera set-up.

Google has launched Google Expeditions Pioneer Program, a VR experience that allows teachers to guide students in tours of landmarks and other interesting locations, in which students are free to explore the environments independently. The New York Times has taken a step into virtual reality to simulate richly layered scenes from across the globe. And book publisher Engage is partnered with “Cyber Science 3D” to enhance learning experience with unique interactive VR technologies.

Will these and other immersive experiences alter the mechanism of storytelling? It certainly could. Machine-enabled, user-driven learning could have stunning effects.

Beyond the wow effect of ‘virtual’ – intelligence!

Equally important, cognitive computing systems are advancing daily. Expert systems, natural language programming, neural networks, robotics and significantly, virtual reality, are being deployed in numerous artificial intelligence (AI) applications. The evolution of AI techniques and tools together with VR has given rise to a new paradigm: a Virtual Intelligence Environment in which users go beyond simply being piloted through coursework, or playing a programmed game.

Virtual Intelligence becomes an interactive experience wherein the application significantly alters the usefulness of the application. The virtual learning environment can be enhanced with active intelligence to monitor and adapt to a user’s actions. A medical student could use VI to understand cardiovascular surgery, for instance, virtually navigating the veins and arteries through continuous oral instructions to the VR app. An astrophysicist can virtually navigate a complex moon landing, modeling not only how a lander behaves, but storing what is learned to offer feedback to designers and programmers.

This is the future. And it’s around the corner. Virtual reality will include character-scripting, using natural language applications to respond to speech, behavioral, and emotive analytics from the viewer, and apply AI to simulate human speech. Viewers will no longer watch characters; they’ll interact with them and talk to them. That flips the relationship between user and producer: instead of a story’s being told to a viewer, the story develops as the user involves her or himself in the narrative. As a viewer reveals an area of interest, the media can respond appropriately.

This might sound like gaming, but it presents many more opportunities for creating authentic, human experiences in VR. As a result, the media and entertainment industry is at an inflection point: VR’s growth will be mobile-driven, and the virtual intelligence environment will change how media is produced and stories are told.

What do you think the story will be? What chapters lie ahead in the world of VR? It would be great to learn your thoughts. Let’s talk.