Enterprise outlook: Augmented reality & virtual reality during a pandemic

It's an upside down world, and that may finally mean that AR/VR technologies are having their day.

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Always on the doorstep of adoption, never quite there. That's pretty much described enterprise AR/VR over the last half-decade. 

Could a global calamity and a seismic shift in the way we work and interact change that?

Some very serious-minded people think the answer is categorically yes. Enterprise augmented reality and virtual reality, which at various points has been hailed as a game changer and been declared dead, is undeniably having another moment in the spotlight. I caught up with Munjeet Singh, Senior Vice President who leads Booz Allen's immersive computing practice, to understand just how much COVID-19 has rewritten the script for immersive technologies.

How will the international work-from-home experiment we're all participating in will affect enterprise AR/VR adoption?  

Munjeet Singh: Use of XR – AR and VR – for enterprise purposes like meetings, presentations and virtual conferences is something that companies were exploring even before this pandemic happened. However, with so many employees working remotely it's being considered and employed much more now as a viable and necessary tool for connecting with your employees.  

Online conferences such as the Educators in VR and Virtual Worlds Forum, which is hosted by the Academy for Defense Intelligence, have shown that XR can be used successfully for "face to face" collaboration online. The more companies see how these types of technologies can be successfully used for business purposes, the more likely they will be to use them now and potentially well after this pandemic.  

This experience that we are all living through will also draw attention to the fact we need to invest more in XR technologies in order to lower the barrier to entry for the broader civilian and business marketplace. This is an extremely viable solution for a lot of companies out there, for much more than collaboration, but currently there is still too much effort needed to get these systems up and running. For XR to really succeed in the enterprise space it will need to be cost effective enough for painless adoption and easy enough to use that a non-tech person can put it on, press a button and instantly know what to do. 

What will be the first use cases to catch on in a big way?

Munjeet Singh: Virtual training has already been a significant use case for XR in recent years. We've seen industries like healthcare, oil & gas, mining and defense all turn to this technology for their training needs. This trend can and should continue to grow with the new requirement for remote work, as training will not return to the office or the classroom for a while. Online training can and does occur, but XR training can provide a more immersive and focused environment for more high risk and expensive trainings.  

In addition to training we've seen an uptick in the number of clients looking for Digital Twins - a digital replica of a physical environment or device - for planning purposes, both related to COVID-19 and other needs. By creating a Digital Twin, organizations can visualize and map out physical movements and changes before committing to anything permanently. This is incredibly helpful when a hospital for example is looking to update its patient flow or determine if it has the capacity to make changes to increase the number of patients the building can hold.  

Maintenance and job aids are also already poised to take off from a use case perspective. With companies trying to cut down on the amount of people going back into the office or being onsite at one location, immersive technologies, like an AR headset, allow employees to provide maintenance support to one another from different locations. Companies like Microsoft and RealWear are targeting their AR platforms to this space because it speeds up success on the job, and allows more workers to perform more roles, by providing guidance for anyone who needs help with a task. 

The two areas where we're seeing a lot of activity around AR/VR right now are collaboration and training. For those who haven't adopted an AR/VR solution in either area, what are the big selling points? What's it going to take to get skeptical enterprises to give AR/VR a chance? 

Munjeet Singh: A big selling point right now for AR/VR technology is the solutions it can provide for virtual collaboration, meetings, and presentations to augment—not replace – traditional web meetings and calls. For companies that are hungry for collaboration and "face-to-face" interaction, immersive technology can be personalized for their needs. After all, the backbone of immersive technology is built with the consumer in mind, so user friendliness and customization are at the core of the technology. 

Additionally, the current pandemic brings the future of travel for meetings and business into question, which could end up being significantly more expensive than it was previously. With immersive technology you pay the up-front cost of the hardware, but then you have the ability to use the technology to meet with your clients and customers at anytime, anywhere reducing the need for expensive and timely travel. This technology can simplify the cost associated with decision making. 

At the end of the day, AR/VR isn't going to be right for everyone and that's okay. It's important for companies to assess their needs and determine if immersive could help them achieve their goals. In the meantime, AR/VR tools will need to continue to evolve in order to convince the skeptics and remove the existing barriers to entry. This can happen with virtual meetings bridging into AR in addition to VR to allow for more flexibility for the user who is not ready to be 100% immersed. Desktop "VR" meetings can bridge the gap—allowing users to use their laptops or browsers to see a 3D collaborative world without a headset. If companies can add ways for XR collaboration applications to take notes, integrate content, and allow the users to interact as needed they will truly be able to take off. For example, if technical organizations can import models of complex systems, such as a 3D CAD diagram of a building or a detailed 3D model of a vehicle, then they would be able to review this content in real-time at a higher fidelity than is currently possible via existing browser-based or 2D-based collaboration platforms. We are seeing some platforms incorporate captioning and automated note taking, allowing "see through" into the user's real world, but if companies can expand what else can be pulled through into the XR environment than the possibilities for collaboration would truly be endless. 

On top of this, accessibility needs to be addressed. Current XR devices and applications are not usually accessible—meaning users with disabilities will have trouble using them effectively. Groups like XR Access are working to change that, and the mindset across the industry must change for widespread adoption across all groups. 

What are the biggest growth areas for AR/VR going to be coming out of the current crisis? Which players in the space seem to be best positioned to take advantage? 

Munjeet Singh: The best of breed for immersive technology will need to develop a cross reality platform that can support the full XR experience in AR AND VR, as well as desktop users who do not have headsets. The move to three-dimensional remote work can start now even without everyone having a headset, because with supply chain disruptions and headsets on backorder it may not be realistic for everyone or every company to get a headset right away.  

We're already seeing interest from the conference industry to go fully virtual and coming out of this pandemic that may be something more and more conferences are forced to explore to stay relevant and keep their participants safe. Most are currently using traditional apps like WebEx and Zoom, but some have already begun to try out XR environments for some or all of their sessions, which will only continue to grow in popularity. 

Besides the VR/AR companies themselves who are poised to take advantage of the current social distancing market, the companies who support AR/VR tech are also well positioned to grow. For example, companies that make products and technologies to clean headsets like CleanBox, who make ultraviolet light boxes that can clean your headset, or VR Cover, who sell alcohol-free antibacterial wipes, will rise in popularity and need if companies are planning to share headsets amongst employees. Broadband companies and cloud providers who support the infrastructure and connections for AR/VR tech also stand to benefit as enterprises move to incorporate more immersive tech into their business practices.