Alongside the adoption avalanche of wearables comes the long-awaited snowball of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). TrendForce predicts that VR alone will rack up $6.7 billion in revenues this year with the help of companies like Facebook (and a surplus of gamers). And at a global scale, some predict the two technologies combined will generate $150 billion by 2020, with over half of the market coming from North America.
This trend is going to be huge.
But while the consumer applications of these technologies are well-marketed and seem quite sensational, a lot of people are wondering how they will impact the workplace. Sure, we know why they’re cool and why they’re exciting, but do we know how they’re effective and in what direction they’ll evolve in the workplace context across a spectrum of verticals?
We might not have all the answers yet, but for those who like to keep a pulse on software, hardware and emerging technology, it’s worth a few minutes to consider. The possibilities could be just as valuable to consider as the realities, virtual or otherwise…
Separate Your Realities to Understand the Trends
As tempting as their similar acronyms make it, Virtual Reality should not be lumped together with Augmented Reality all the time. For the most part, the technologies and their enterprise applications are best thought of distinctly. They are, in fact, very different. VR technology is about more of a totally immersive experience (headset, headphones and interacting with objects within the virtual space), whereas AR relies on a more partial immersion experience (think of Microsoft Kinect or the ability to use real-life objects to control a virtual space).
They’re so different, in fact, that if you re-examine that graph above you’ll note that Digi-Capital predicts AR will consume about 400% more revenue than VR. As you start to dig into the details, you begin to get a good feel for why that might be—their differences lend themselves to different use cases, and AR simply seems to have more possible applications.
But the common narrative surrounding this kind of technology in a workplace context is far from comprehensive and where we end up seeing much of the promise is in neither spotlight technology exclusively, but in their more complex hybrid-ish love-child of “Mixed Reality” (MR).
In short, as we consider the potential of VR, AR and MR, though it can be a bit challenging not to blur the lines, it’s best to keep the three technologies separate.
Getting Real About Reality
Brian Blau is a Research Director for Gartner specializing in personal technologies. At the 2015 Gartner Symposium, he made the following plain but powerful statement: "Make sure you remove your hype bias and do what's right for your business."
It’s sensible business advice—don’t do it because it’s trendy, do it because it’s right—and something everyone should keep top of mind when thinking about incorporating these new technologies into their business plans.
For now, you likely fall into one of two camps: you’re either one of the “this changes everything” folks or one of those that say “this technology doesn’t really matter yet.”
But regardless of which camp you fall into, deciding how it could potentially impact your business is going to be critical. When it comes to this type of decision making there are many areas to consider, but a few—time, technology and impact—come immediately to mind.
When it comes to these kinds of technologies, chances are your business isn’t ready yet. As much as we’re all excited about the possibilities, there are some areas of potential enhancement that seem exaggerated at this date. And for many businesses, the time to start thinking about VR, AR, or MR will be much further down the road than the few early adopters for whom it makes sense to think about it now.
For example, a Flux Report from 2014 showed that 49% of HR decision makers predicted that holographic telepresence meetings would be one of the most striking workplace changes to come in the next five years. We’re two years into that prediction now and that reality still sounds a bit far off.
The lure of actually feeling like you’re in the room, at the table with a number of colleagues, where all elements of body language are captured through sensor technology makes sense. It’s easy to see why HR professionals saw it as the next big thing. But the question is: will VR for communications (through forums like meetings and interviews) take off in the next year or two? Or will it take 5, 10 or even 15 years to really take off? We’re not sure. Predicting when the peak will arrive is hard. But if it’s important to your bottom line, you’ll want to keep an eye on trends to try and have a sense of when this technology will actually hit so you can best prepare for it.
What we also have to consider is that right now, the hardware and software might not be in a place conducive to enterprise consideration in many industries and certainly not in most small businesses —and small business account for over 99% of the companies in the US (companies with less than 20 employees account for almost 98%).
As a Cnet contributor wrote, “Microsoft's HoloLens is one of the most magical pieces of technology I've ever seen. It could change the world. But if you bought one today, for your own personal use, I guarantee you'd hate it.” The technology is getting there, but a lot of it isn’t there yet. And it even if it was, most of us wouldn’t be able to make full use of the capabilities. We haven’t even touched on other technologies that require sensor installation and all kinds of other notable hardware and software investments, but it’s not hard to imagine how much sweeping tech change needs to take place in order to see the full benefit of these emerging technologies.
In a consumer gaming application, the implications of VR, AR and MR are huge. There’s a ton of potential. Likewise at this moment, we would probably all agree that the medical and manufacturing industries could be quickly affected by this technology.
But how will it disrupt your industry? How will it really impact your business?
Considering the more obvious trends is just the start. Watching how the technologies take off and thinking about how they’ll impact your industry is going to be critical in deciding if it’s the right technology to invest in for your business.
While these technologies are undeniably cool and can create massive impact, it’s important to separate the hype from the help. And the way to do so is by being very honest about the value opportunities with each use case. That being said, there are a few areas in which we’ll likely see this triumvirate of tech gain some significant traction…eventually.
Visualization of Things That Do (And Do Not) Exist
Everyone from architects to retailers, and experiential marketers to software designers will benefit from technology that allows people to see an “immersive” and “virtually tangible” rendering of what they’re planning to build before they build it. This is where a product like the HoloLens and mixed reality really starts to emerge as the golden child of the group. All it has to do is grow up.
It is amazing to imagine an engineer examining a digital rendering of a chip with zoom and tap gestures, or a retailer overlaying a new design onto their existing store space and actually walking through it. The world of possibilities for both the users and teams behind the software development of such solutions is mind-blowing.
Where we are already starting to see the benefits of this technology, however, is in immersive visualization of existing data and content à la Minority Report. It has already been 2 years since Bloomberg teamed up with Oculus to allow people to be surrounded by more than 10 or 20 Bloomberg monitors at once, and companies like LeapMotion are working to more broadly enable interactions with that surrounding content (which is where the lines of VR and MR get a bit blurred).
Imagine a developer standing inside and spinning to review their own product architecture or life-size rendering of code; a UX designer literally walking through their user screen flows; a product manager reviewing several graphs and tables of user data all at once, as they stand next to a life-sized image of an interface. If all this sounds far off to you, it’s really not.
There are companies like DAQRI who have mastered the world of the 4D space with hardware and software that allows businesses to overlay relevant information based on both physical surroundings and temporal contexts.
Work instructions appear while looking at a new device or interface; thermal vision, with temperature readings, is displayed when looking at things like tanks or servers; diagnostics and statistics are listed when looking at certain pieces of hardware. From there, you can easily imagine helpful background information being provided in the upper right corner of your vision when certain words are picked up by audio sensors, or certain faces are recognized. Essentially, the tech gives you an interface like Iron Man, so it will be interesting to see how this continues to pan out in an enterprise setting.
Training & Skill Development
Depending on your industry, there are a lot of opportunities for training enhancement through Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality platforms. Imagine the medical student being immersed in a surgery or seeing complementary data while looking at a cadaver or the welder being trained in mixed reality to refine their skills and facilitate more cost-effective feedback mechanisms.
Broadening the view though, and going back to the basics of the technology, apps like VirtualSpeech are now widely available for people to practice their public speaking and presentation skills in front of virtual audiences. That is the type of program any company would be sensible to invest in for their employees.
Much like wearables, the excitement really grows when we start thinking about the opportunities for innovation from the software development side of this equation. Undoubtedly, more and more development resources will be geared towards learning, enhancing and focusing on product design for the virtual enterprise world. When this happens the value will start to become a lot clearer.
As Tom Mainelli writes in Recode:
“Creating an ecosystem where developers can build and sustain useful apps will be key. What works on a phone, tablet or notebook screen will not necessarily work in an AR scenario. So, just like AR itself, the apps that drive it will require new ways of thinking about problems to be solved. It’s the traditional chicken-and-egg issue: You need great hardware to entice developers to create apps for that hardware, but you need great apps to get people and companies to invest in the necessary hardware. Expect to see and hear more about ground-breaking AR software in the near future.”
The future does appear to have some bright spots, but when it comes to VR, AR and MR, it’s important that we don’t let our eyes get bigger than our appetites.