Can AR and VR really help your business?

Written by: Chris Menon Posted: 09/03/2020

VR and AR illoOnce just a futuristic vision within a sci-fi movie, virtual and augmented reality have finally come of age. But can they really play a role in enhancing business performance and opportunities – and how do you know if they’re right for your organisation?

Businesses are on the cusp of the wider adoption of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). That’s the view of Jeremy Dalton, Head of VR/AR at PwC UK and the author of a report into the business implications of such technologies, entitled Seeing is Believing.

The report forecasts that VR and AR will add £62.5bn to the UK economy by 2030 – and approximately $1.5trn to the global economy. But what exactly are these technologies and can they really change the future of business?

Although often clumped together during discussions about the future of tech, AR and VR are actually quite different technologies. VR immerses users in a computer-generated simulation of a 3D image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way through a headset with a screen inside and gloves fitted with sensors.

AR, on the other hand, overlays digital objects on the real world, creating ‘placements’ of objects in the real-world environment.

An example of the former could be a set of instructions within your field of view explaining how to perform a certain task on a piece of machinery, while the latter could involve inspecting a digital life-sized jet engine on the floor of your office, which is viewable from all angles. Some organisations refer to that as ‘mixed reality’.

These technologies are already creeping into business. Sectors currently using them include the gaming, retail, medical and educational sectors (see box). 

Growth areas

However, it’s over the next decade that the use of AR and VR is expected to grow exponentially.

Dalton explains: “Consider the increase in the UK’s productivity from, for example, car manufacturers being able to design new vehicles faster, architects being able to visualise and design buildings more efficiently, doctors being able to improve the outcome of surgeries. All of this is possible with virtual reality and augmented reality technology. 

“In addition, there are other benefits that apply to organisations of all sizes in all industries – enhanced training and digital meetings, for example. Even if we assume a small impact in these areas, the collective effect would be substantial.”

Contributing £44.4m to the UK economy by 2030, AR is expected to be bigger than VR (£18.1m) – not because it is a superior technology, but for the simple reason that there are a broader number of applications that apply within the real world as opposed to the virtual world. 

Dalton argues that AR’s projected growth is also bolstered by the capability of the smartphones in our pockets, many of which already have the ability to run powerful AR experiences via apps.

In fact, according to PwC’s analysis, by 2030, AR and VR will have boosted a number of areas’ contributions to global GDP – product and service development ($359.5bn); healthcare ($350.9bn); development and training ($294.2bn); process improvements ($275bn); and retail and consumer ($204bn).

VR and AR 2Given the size of the opportunity, how can a business assess whether such technologies are the right solution for them?

Dalton believes the best way to explore whether VR or AR is an appropriate solution for a business is to run a pilot – to identify the impact and value before implementation is too established and has absorbed too much investment. 

He explains: “Programmes can fail for many reasons – lack of training, poor user experience, irrelevant or ineffective content, poor deployment strategy, failure to measure and iterate, inadequate funding, poor facilitation... The list goes on.

"VR/AR may not be the right solution to solve your particular business problem, so it’s important to run a pilot programme – and to be aware of the risks associated with implementation.”

He adds that the relative infancy of these technologies – and organisations’ lack of experience in implementing them – create a number of additional challenges too: 
User experience: hardware that’s complicated, bulky, and uncomfortable, and software that’s unintuitive, unresponsive and unreliable, can affect the takeup of the technology.
Cost: hardware can be costly to procure at scale, and a large portion of cost lies within the software development realm.
Content: content created following inadequate research and consideration is unlikely to land successfully with the intended audience.
Education: partly due to a lack of first-hand experience with the technology, its true potential cannot be fully understood by most people.

Evolving technology

Regardless, Dalton is optimistic that these obstacles are being overcome. Gradually, headsets are becoming lighter, simpler and less costly, effective workshops are delivering content that hits the mark and, as the technology reaches more people, it is becoming better understood.

It’s also important for any business implementing VR or AR to focus on the likely return on investment.

As the PwC report explains: ‘Significant savings on training costs, a quicker time to market with new products or improved workforce productivity all have a measurable return on investment. Similarly, the chance to open up new revenue opportunities will make an attractive case for investing in VR and AR.’

As a result, Tim McGuinness, Founder of Virtex Studios, states that VR and AR will become ubiquitous over the next few years, as software and apps proliferate.

He also believes that the next inflection point for hardware will be when there are cheap headsets that can do both AR and VR, so-called XR headsets. “In the future, headsets will have the ability to move from AR to VR at the click of a button,” he says.

That view was backed up by a survey last March of start-up founders, technology company executives, investors and consultants, conducted by law firm Perkins Coie and technology manufacturers group the XR Association.

Nearly nine out of 10 respondents said that by 2025 immersive technologies, including augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality, would be as ubiquitous as mobile devices.

So perhaps now is the time for businesses to dip a toe in the virtual and augmented waters – to begin exploring how they can benefit their operations.

CASE STUDIES

Try before you buy
Furniture brand Natuzzi is using Microsoft HoloLens 2 mixed reality headsets to enable its customers to see what furniture would look like in their homes before they buy it. Rather than putting users in a fully computer-generated world, as virtual reality does, HoloLens allows users to see a life-size hologram replica of a room in their house and to place a chair or sofa in it. They can then change the furniture’s colour, material and finish, walk around it, rotate it and move it to a different area in the virtual room. 
  Natuzzi launched the service at its Tottenham Court Road store in London and plans to roll it out globally during this year.
  Meanwhile, new US enterprise solutions developer Tailspin creates VR training modules to improve soft skills, using ‘virtual humans’. It claims these realistic VR characters use natural language and lifelike gestures to deliver a level of emotional realism ‘unmatched by other forms of training’.
  One of its programmes – delivered on the Oculus Rift S headset – is used by HR professionals to help employees improve the way they handle difficult workplace scenarios, such as sacking an employee or handling difficult negotiations. In one demonstration, featuring a redundancy scenario, a virtual human named ‘Barry’ listens patiently, protests and even breaks down in tears as part of a training programme.

Jersey gears up
The Government of Jersey has invested heavily in digital infrastructure, with state-owned telecoms operator JT Group bringing super-fast, pure-fibre broadband to every house and business. Jersey is now ranked first in Europe and third in the world for broadband speeds, above the UK, US and Japan.
  In addition, the government-backed economic development agency Digital Jersey is dedicated to the growth of the digital sector. Chris Knight, the agency’s Head of Business Development, explains how this will help facilitate businesses’ use of AR and VR. “The cluster of VR and AR start-ups that has emerged in Jersey is really positive, and we’re hopeful that as awareness of VR capabilities grows, along with the advent of 5G, the likelihood is that the opportunity for the private sector to get more involved will help develop this niche further.”
  One company doing that is Virtex Studios, founded by Tim McGuinness. He admits that his island home has been key to the success of his AR/VR content creation business, as a result of its world-class connectivity. Virtex Studios has collaborated with Jersey Heritage in developing VR material for headsets at Jersey Museum, providing a virtual reality tour of the La Cotte de St Brelade cave. This Paleolithic site was home to some of the earliest inhabitants of Jersey, when it was still joined to mainland Europe by land.
  McGuinness explains: “We were capturing a local heritage site that people can’t really visit. You can’t find a better instance of where VR can solve a problem.”

 


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