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Bring your VR to work

The latest developments in VR and its cousin, AR, have been largely targeted to the mass market. Just recently, PlayStation launched its new VR headset and Juniper Research estimated that VR hardware sales will grow tenfold to more than $50bn by 2021.  

With all the hype, there’s surprisingly little discussion of the latent business value which VR and AR offer -- 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. Gartner has said that the next five to ten years will bring “transparently immersive experiences” to the workplace. They believe this will introduce “more transparency between people, businesses, and things” and help make technology “more adaptive, contextual, and fluid.” 

If digitally enhanced reality generates even half as much consumer enthusiasm as smartphones and tablets, you can expect to see a new wave of consumerisation of IT as employees who have embraced VR and AR at home insist on bringing it to the workplace. This wave of consumerisation could have an even greater impact than the last one. Rather than risk being blindsided for a second time, organisations 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. 

Slope of Enlightenment

They don’t have much time to get started. In Gartner's latest emerging technologies hype cycle, Virtual Reality is already on the Slope of Enlightenment, with Augmented Reality following closely. In other words, enterprise uses of virtual reality have started to become more widely understood, and there already are real-world enterprise uses of the technology. One example is the Case Western Reserve University medical school. 

Doctors there are working with Cleveland Clinic to develop the Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality device for medical education and training. It transforms 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. The hologram will give medical professionals working with catheters or electrodes, for example, a better view of where they want to be and guide their actions.  

As wide-spread consumer adoption and acceptance drives down costs, enterprise-use cases for VR and AR will have the opportunity to thrive. In fact, these technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way companies communicate, manage employees, and digitise and automate operations. The impact of these technologies on internal business will be significant: boosting efficiency and productivity, eliminating previously unavoidable risks, and literally giving employers and managers new ways to look at information and operations. 

With VR and AR, we will soon see:  

 For example, a warehouse-picking AR application that guides pickers to the appropriate product faster makes them more productive and saves them from having to memorise hundreds or even thousands of stock-keeping units. But the same technology that can guide a person will also be able to guide an automated robot.  

These technologies have the potential to replace 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 avatars that transmit characteristic facial expressions and gestures. In a recent live Facebook broadcast, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated how this could work, facial expressions and all. Companies could also show off a virtual product in a virtual room with virtual co-workers, on demand.  

For example, companies can use AR to help their customers envision products in their environments, reducing costs associated with returns and reducing frustrations during installation and maintenance. Companies can deploy the solutions internally to their quality inspectors, ensuring the customers first impression is a happy one.  

In industries like mining, firefighting, search and rescue, VR and AR will make it safer to operate equipment remotely, while seeing exactly what they would if they were physically present.  

For instance, manufacturers can let designers or even customers “test” a product, gather their feedback, and fine-tune the design accordingly before the product ever goes into production. In fact, 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.  

For example, on the future construction site, 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 virtual goggles/glasses that provide information about what they need to know and do at any given location and time, managers could also evaluate and adjust workloads.  

For organisations that want to explore the adoption of VR and AR, it can be difficult to know where to start. These are a couple of initial steps to consider:  

  • 1. Experiment with setting up virtual boardrooms, which will allow employees to move around and manipulate dashboards in a virtual environment.
  • 2. As AR tends to rely heavily on geographical location, thinking about how best to harness location information can positively impact operations. It’s vital that business people can view data displayed on top of maps whenever position data is available. Visualisations like these are particularly effective on mobile devices, and can be beneficial for those working outdoors. For instance, a fleet manager having real-time visibility of any vehicle throughout a yard or construction site, would be better equipped to make decisions on when or where to allocate resources.

The argument in favour 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 minimises 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.   

Image Credit: Knight Center for Journalism / Flickr