Some moments are so instantly, indelibly etched into pop culture that they shape the way we think for years to come. For virtual reality (VR), that moment may have been the scene in the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix when the Keanu Reeves character Neo learns that his entire life has been a computer-generated simulation so fully realized that he could have lived it out never knowing that he was actually an inert body in an isolation tank. Ever since, that has set the benchmark for VR: as a digital experience that seems completely, convincingly real.
Today, no one is going to be unaware, Matrix-like, that they’re wearing an Oculus Rift or a Google Cardboard headset, but the virtual worlds already available to us are catching up to what we’ve imagined they could be at a startling rate. It’s been hard to miss all the Pokémon Go players bumping into one another on the street as they chased animated characters rendered in augmented reality (AR), which overlays and even blends digital artifacts seamlessly with the actual environment around us.
Believe the Hype
For all the justifiable hype about the exploding consumer market for VR and, to a lesser extent, AR, there’s surprisingly little discussion of their latent business value—and that’s a blind spot that companies and CIOs can’t afford to have. It hasn’t been that long since consumer demand for the iPhone and iPad forced companies, grumbling all the way, into finding business cases for them.
If digitally enhanced reality generates even half as much consumer enthusiasm as smartphones and tablets, you can expect to see a new wave of consumerization of IT as employees who have embraced VR and AR at home insist on bringing it to the workplace. This wave of consumerization could have an even greater impact than the last one. Rather than risk being blindsided for a second time, organizations would be well advised to take a proactive approach and be ready with potential business uses for VR and AR technologies by the time they invade the enterprise.
They don’t have much time to get started.
The two technologies are already making inroads in fields as diverse as medicine, warehouse operations, and retail. And make no mistake: the possibilities are breathtaking. VR can bring human eyes to locations that are difficult, dangerous, or physically impossible for the human body, while AR can deliver vast amounts of contextual information and guidance at the precise time and place they’re needed.
As consumer adoption and acceptance drives down costs, enterprise use cases for VR and AR will blossom. In fact, these technologies could potentially revolutionize the way companies communicate, manage employees, and digitize and automate operations. Yet revolution is rarely bloodless. The impact will probably alter many aspects of the workplace that we currently take for granted, and we need to think through the implications of those changes.
Digital Realities, Defined
VR and AR are related, but they’re not so much siblings as cousins. VR is immersive. It creates a fully realized digital environment that users experience through goggles or screens (and sometimes additional equipment that provides physical feedback) that make them feel like they’re surrounded by and interacting entirely within this created world.
AR, by contrast, is additive. It displays text or images in glasses, on a window or windshield, or inside a mirror, but the user is still aware of and interacting with reality. There is also an emerging hybrid called “mixed reality,” which is essentially AR with VR-quality digital elements, that superimposes holographic images on reality so convincingly that trying to touch them is the only way to be sure they aren’t actually there.
Although VR is a hot topic, especially in the consumer gaming world, AR has far more enterprise use cases, and several enterprise apps are already in production. In fact, industry analyst Digi-Capital forecasts that while VR companies will generate US$30 billion in revenue by 2020, AR companies will generate $120 billion, or four times as much.
Both numbers are enormous, especially given how new the VR/AR market is. As recently as 2014, it barely existed, and almost nothing available was appropriate for enterprise users. What’s more, the market is evolving so quickly that standards and industry leaders have yet to emerge. There’s no guarantee that early market entrants like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR, and HTC’s Vive will continue to exist, never mind set enduring benchmarks.
Nonetheless, it’s already clear that these technologies will have a major impact on both internal and customer-facing business. They will make customer service more accurate, personalized, and relevant. They will reduce human risk and enhance public safety. They will streamline operations and smash physical boundaries. And that’s just the beginning.
Cleveland Clinic: Healing from the Next Room
Medicine is already testing the limits of learning with VR and AR.
The most potentially disruptive operational use of VR and AR could be in education and training. With VR, students can be immersed in any environment, from medieval architecture to molecular biology, in classroom groups or on demand, to better understand what they’re studying. And no industry is pursuing this with more enthusiasm than medicine. Even though Google Glass hasn’t been widely adopted elsewhere, for example, it’s been a big success story in the medical world.
Pamela Davis, MD, senior vice president for medical affairs at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, is one of the leading proponents of medical education using VR and AR. She’s the dean of the university’s medical school, which is working with Cleveland Clinic to develop the Microsoft HoloLens “mixed reality” device for medical education and training, turning MRIs and other conventional 2D medical images into 3D images that can be projected at the site of a procedure for training and guidance during surgery. “As you push a catheter into the heart or place a deep brain stimulation electrode, you can see where you want to be and guide your actions by watching the hologram,” Davis explains.
The HoloLens can also be programmed as a “lead” device that transmits those images and live video to other “learner” devices, allowing the person wearing the lead device to provide oversight and input. This will enable a single doctor to demonstrate a delicate procedure up-close to multiple students at once, or do patient examinations remotely in an emergency or epidemic.
Davis herself was convinced of the technology’s broader potential during a demonstration in which she put on a learner HoloLens and rewired a light switch, something decidedly outside her expertise, under the guidance of an engineer wearing a lead HoloLens in the next room. In the near future, she predicts, it will help people perform surgery and other sensitive, detailed tasks not just from the next room, but from the next state or country.
Customer Experience: From E-Commerce to V-Commerce
Consumers are already getting used to thinking of VR and AR in the context of entertainment. Companies interested in the technologies should be thinking about how they might engage consumers as part of the buying experience.
Because the technologies deliver more information and a better shopping experience with less effort, e-commerce is going to give rise to v-commerce, where people research, interact with, and share products in VR and AR before they order them online or go to a store to make a purchase.
Online eyewear retailers already allow people to “try on” glasses virtually and share the images with friends to get their feedback, but that’s rudimentary compared to what’s emerging.
Mirrors as Personal Shoppers
Clothing stores from high-end boutiques to low-end fashion chains are experimenting with AR mirrors that take the shopper’s measurements and recommend outfits, showing what items look like without requiring the customer to undress.
Instant Designer Shows
Luxury design house Dior uses Oculus Rift VR goggles to let its well-heeled customers experience a runway show without flying to Paris.
Custom Shopping Malls
British designer Allison Crank has created an experimental VR shopping mall. As people walk through it, they encounter virtual people (and the occasional zoo animal) and shop in stores stocked only with items that users are most likely to buy, based on past purchase information and demographic data.
A New Perspective
IKEA’s AR application lets shoppers envisage a piece of furniture in the room they plan to use it in. They can look at products from the point of view of a specific height—useful for especially tall or short customers looking for comfortable furniture or for parents trying to design rooms that are safe for a toddler or a young child.
Painless Do-it-Yourself Instructions
Instead of forcing customers to puzzle over a diagram or watch an online video, companies will be able to offer customers detailed VR or AR demonstrations that show how to assemble and disassemble products for use, cleaning, and storage.
Operations and Management: Revealing the Details
The customer-facing benefits of VR and AR are inarguably flashy, but it’s in internal business use that these technologies promise to shine brightest: boosting efficiency and productivity, eliminating previously unavoidable risks, and literally giving employers and managers new ways to look at information and operations. The following examples aren’t blue-sky cases; experts say they’re promising, realistic, and just around the corner.
A combination of AR glasses and audio essentially creates a user-specific, contextually relevant guidance system that confirms that wearers are in the right place, looking at the right thing, and taking the right action. This technology could benefit almost any employee who is not working at a desk: walking field service reps through repair procedures, guiding miners to the best escape route in an emergency, or optimizing home health aides’ driving routes and giving them up-to-date instructions and health data when they arrive at each patient’s home.
Linking to the Hidden
AR technology will be able to display any type of information the wearer needs to know. Linked to facial identification software, it could help police officers identify suspects or missing persons in real time. Used to visualize thermal gradients, chemical signatures, radioactivity, and other things that are invisible to the naked eye, it could help researchers refine their experiments or let insurance claims assessors spot arson. Similarly, VR will allow users to create and manipulate detailed three-dimensional models of everything from molecules to large machinery so that they can examine, explore, and change them.
Reducing the Human Risk
VR will allow users to perform high-risk jobs while reducing their need to be in harm’s way. The users will be able to operate equipment remotely while seeing exactly what they would if they were there, a use case that is ideal for industries like mining, firefighting, search and rescue, and toxic site cleanup. While VR won’t necessarily eliminate the need for humans to perform these high-risk jobs, it will improve their safety, and it will allow companies to pursue new opportunities in situations that remain too dangerous for humans.
Reducing the Commercial Risk
VR can also reduce an entirely different type of operational risk: that of introducing new products and services. Manufacturers can let designers or even customers “test” a product, gather their feedback, and tweak the design accordingly before the product ever goes into production. Indeed, auto manufacturer Ford has already created a VR Immersion Lab for its engineers, which, among other things, helped them redesign the interior of the 2015 Ford Mustang to make the dashboard and windshield wipers more user-friendly, according to Fortune. In addition to improving customer experience, this application of VR is likely to accelerate product development and shorten time to market.
Similarly, retailers can use VR to create and test branch or franchise location designs on the fly to optimize traffic flow, product display, the accessibility of products, and even decor. Instead of building models or concept stores, a designer will be able to create the store design with VR, do a virtual walkthrough with executives, and adjust it in real time until it achieves the desired effect.
Seeing in Tongues
At some point, we will see an AR app that can translate written language in near-real time, which will dramatically streamline global business communications. Mobile apps already exist to do this in certain languages, so it’s just a matter of time before we can slip on glasses that let us read menus, signs, agendas, and documents in our native tongue.
Decide with the Eye
More dramatically, AR project management software will be able to deliver real-time data at a literal glance. On a construction site, for example, simply scanning the area could trigger data about real-time costs, supply inventories, planned versus actual spending, employee and equipment scheduling, and more. By linking to construction workers’ own AR glasses that provide information about what to know and do at any given location and time, managers could also evaluate and adjust workloads.
Farther in the future, VR and AR will create true telepresence, enhancing collaboration and potentially replacing in-person meetings. Users could transmit AR holograms of themselves to someone else’s office, allowing them to be seen as if they were in the room. We could have VR workspaces with high-fidelity avatars that transmit characteristic facial expressions and gestures. Companies could show off a virtual product in a virtual room with virtual coworkers, on demand.
Reduce Carbon Footprint
If nothing else, true telepresence could practically eliminate business travel costs. More critically, though, in an era of rising temperatures and shrinking resources, the ability to create and view virtual people and objects rather than manufacturing and transporting physical artifacts also conserves materials and reduces the use of fossil fuel.
Employees: Under Observation
The strength of digitally enhanced reality—and AR in particular—is its ability to determine a user’s context and deliver relevant information accordingly. This makes it valuable for monitoring and managing employee behavior and performance. Employees could, for example, use the location and time data recorded by AR glasses to prove that they were (or weren’t) in a particular place at a particular time. The same glasses could provide them with heads-up guided navigation, alert employers that they’re due for a legally mandated break, verify that they completed an assigned task, and confirm hours worked without requiring them to fill out a timesheet.
However, even as these capabilities improve data governance and help manage productivity, they also raise critical issues of privacy and autonomy (see The Norms of Virtual Behavior). If you’re an employee using VR or AR technology, and if your company is leveraging it to monitor your performance, who owns that information? Who’s allowed to use it, and for what purposes? These are still open legal questions for these technologies.
Another unsettled—and unsettling—question is how far employers can use these technologies to direct employees’ work. While employers have the right to tell employees how to do their jobs, autonomy is a key component of workplace satisfaction. The extent to which employees are required to let a pair of AR glasses govern their actions could have a direct impact on hiring and retention.
Finally, these technologies could be one more step toward greater automation. A warehouse-picking AR application that guides pickers to the appropriate product faster makes them more productive and saves them from having to memorize hundreds or even thousands of SKUs. But the same technology that can guide a person will also be able to guide a semiautonomous robot.
The Norms of Virtual Behavior
VR and AR could disrupt our social norms and take identity hacking to a new level.
The future of AR and VR isn’t without its hazards. We’ve all witnessed how distracting and even dangerous smartphones can be, but at least people have to pull a phone out of a pocket before getting lost in the screen. What happens when the distraction is sitting on their faces?
This technology is going to affect how we interact, both in the workplace and out of it. The annoyance verging on rage that met the first people wearing Google Glass devices in public proves that we’re going to need to evolve new social norms. We’ll need to signal how engaged we are with what’s right in front of us when we’re wearing AR glasses, what we’re doing with the glasses while we interact, or whether we’re paying attention at all.
More sinister possibilities will present themselves down the line. How do you protect sensitive data from being accessed by unauthorized or “shadow” VR/AR devices? How do you prove you’re the one operating your avatar in a virtual meeting? How do you know that the person across from you is who they say they are and not a competitor or industrial spy who’s stolen a trusted avatar? How do you keep someone from hacking your VR or AR equipment to send you faulty data, flood your field of vision with disturbing images, or even direct you into physical danger?
As the technology gets more sophisticated, VR and AR vendors will have to start addressing these issues.
To realize the full business value of VR and AR, companies will need to tackle certain technical challenges. To be precise, they’ll have to wait for the vendors to take them on, because the market is still so new that standards and practices are far from mature.
For one thing, successful implementation requires devices (smartphones, tablets, and glasses, for now) that are capable of delivering, augmenting, and overlaying information in a meaningful way. Only in the last year or so has the available hardware progressed beyond problems like overheating with demand, too-small screens, low-resolution cameras, insufficient memory, and underpowered batteries. While hardware is improving, so many vendors have emerged that companies have a hard time choosing among their many options.
The proliferation of devices has also increased software complexity. For enterprise VR and AR to take off, vendors need to create software that can run on the maximum number of devices with minimal modifications. Otherwise, companies are limited to software based on what it’s capable of doing on their hardware of choice, rather than software that meets their company’s needs.
The lack of standards only adds to the confusion. Porting data to VR or AR systems is different from mobilizing front-end or even back-end systems, because it requires users to enter, display, and interact with data in new ways. For devices like AR glasses that don’t use a keyboard or touch screen, vendors must determine how to enter data (voice recognition? eye tracking? image recognition?), how to display it legibly in any given environment, and whether to develop their own user interface tools or work with a third party.
Finally, delivering convincing digital enhancements to reality demands such vast amounts of data that many networks simply can’t accommodate it. Much as videoconferencing didn’t truly take off until high-speed broadband became widely available, VR and AR adoption will lag until a zero-latency infrastructure exists to
Coming Soon to a Face Near You
For all that VR and AR solutions have improved dramatically in a short time, they’re still primarily supplemental to existing systems, and not just because the software is still evolving. Wearables still have such limited processing power, memory, and battery life that they can handle only a small amount of information. That said, hardware is catching up quickly (see The Supporting Cast).
The Supporting Cast
VR and AR would still be science fiction if it weren’t for these supporting technologies.
The latest developments in VR and AR technologies wouldn’t be possible without other breakthroughs that bring things once considered science fiction squarely into the realm of science fact:
- Advanced semiconductor designs pack more processing power into less space.
- Microdisplays fit more information onto smaller screens.
- New power storage technologies extend battery life while shrinking battery size.
- Development tools for low-latency, high-resolution image rendering and improved 3D-graphics displays make digital artifacts more realistic and detailed.
- Omnidirectional cameras that can record in 360 degrees simultaneously create fully immersive environments.
- Plummeting prices for accelerometers lower the cost of VR devices.
Companies in the emerging VR/AR industry are encouraging the makers of smartglasses and safety glasses to work together to create ergonomic smartglasses that deliver information in a nondistracting way and that are also comfortable to wear for an eight-hour shift.
The argument in favor of VR and AR for business is so powerful that once vendors solve the obvious hardware problems, experts predict that existing enterprise mobile apps will quickly start to include VR or AR components, while new apps will emerge to satisfy as yet unmet needs.
In other words, it’s time to start thinking about how your company might put these technologies to use—and how to do so in a way that minimizes concerns about data privacy, corporate security, and employee comfort. Because digitally enhanced reality is coming tomorrow, so business needs to start planning for it today. D!
Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.