woman with virtual reality headset on
Signs indicate virtual and augmented reality will only gain momentum in the enterprise. What are you waiting for? PHOTO: tmeier1964

Immersive technologies such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality are among some of the most exciting and promising technologies available today.

Recent years have seen a number of different headsets released into the market as well as increasing investments in the field. Investments started really taking off in 2016 and show no signs of abating in the near future. Other signs, such as the number of downloads of virtual reality (VR) apps also indicate VR is gaining momentum.

investments in augmented and virtual reality from 2011 to 2016

But many enterprises are ignoring this trend, believing VR is relegated to the world of gaming and video. I think that's a mistake.

Defining Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality

Before we jump into what this technology can hold for the enterprise, let’s clarify the differences between virtual, augmented and mixed reality.

  • Virtual reality: Wikipedia defines VR as a, "computer technology that uses virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments, sometimes in combination with physical environments or props, to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment." VR, in short, generates a whole new digital world that provides users with a completely immersive experience.
  • Augmented reality: Wikipedia defines AR as, "a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are 'augmented' by computer-generated or extracted real-world sensory input such as sound, video, graphics, haptics or GPS data.” AR allows users to view digital information and images as an overlay on the real world.
  • Mixed reality: Wikipedia defines MR as, "the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.” So MR is about having digitally generated assets and characters, not just information, interacting with the real world.

For the purposes of this article, we will consider AR and MR more or less the same as they are growing more similar with time as are the use cases for the two. For example, Apple speaks about AR with its AR Kit when it is actually doing MR.

Virtual Reality Enters the Enterprise

So should we leave immersive technologies to the entertainment world? While it’s true the majority of use cases of VR are currently related to entertainment (gaming and video, mainly), it’s also true that every month we see some new enterprise use cases that really matter. For example:

  • NASA now uses VR and AR for robot control, among other use cases, in spacial missions.
  • Brands are exploring immersive experiences in marketing campaigns, such as Coca Cola and its Santa experience.
  • Product previsualization allows consumers to feel the experience of ownership before committing to purchase, such as Volvo's test drive experience.
  • Process optimization in expensive environments is another area ripe for the enterprise. For instance, a factory with a 24/7 fabrication line wants to test some changes in the way their employees work in order to optimize the process. If the company can virtualize the line, introducing the changes to test, the operator can try those changes and measure results in that virtual world. This gives the company a chance to decide whether or not to implement the changes without requiring halting the production line or wasting resources before they are sure the changes will work.

Clearly virtual reality and its possible applications provide businesses with opportunities of client engagement and process optimization — opportunities they'll miss out on if they continue to ignore this area.

What about augmented and mixed reality? While most people still associate augmented reality with the Pokémon Go craze of 2016, in the enterprise world, Microsoft HoloLens made inroads following its debut in 2015. Hololens introduced the “mixed reality” term. 2017 saw the introduction of the AR Kit for iOS and AR Core for Android, indicating AR is also gaining momentum.

Enterprise use cases for AR include possibilities like configuring a car, showing additional information for real objects (imagine if you combine AR with the physical web), using HoloLens to work on elevatorors like TyssenKrupp does or like Boing to assemble airplanes.

3 Challenges to AR and VR Adoption in the Enterprise

In my opinion, enterprises face three major challenges when adopting AR/VR technologies:

1. People

With every new technology, adoption always comes down to people, and that's still the case here. To design and implement AR/VR assets, organizations need new skills and a new way of working. Designing 2-D screen solutions is completely different  than designing a completely immersive one. Light, movement, mulitple perspectives (because user can move around) require a different design skillset. 

Another important design related challenge is there are no “standard interfaces” to interact in VR/AR environments. When you use an app in your smartphone or you browse to a new website you know (more or less) where the back button or the submit button will be or, at least, where you expect them to be. VR/AR technologies are not at this level of maturity, so designers are still playing with different models of interaction.

VR and AR development also use new programming languages and, more important, new programming paradigms (compared to web or mobile apps development).

All of these factors mean you will need new people working on design and development or you will have to train your current people in new skills if you want to be successful in VR/AR initiatives. More than this, close collaboration between design and development is key when working on VR/AR. Forget about designing the whole solution and then “sending to development,” this approach doesn't work here (if it actually works at any point). VR and AR demand constant iterations and changes, so you need these two groups working together.

2. The Iceberg (aka the Dirty Work)

Only 20 percent of the development takes place in the headset when it comes to enterprise solutions, 80 percent is in the backend. To take advantage of VR and, even more, AR, a lot of contextual and real-time data are needed (think about the use case of the operators walking around the factory I explained before or configuring a new car in a dealer). Most of those use cases are also related also to internet of things, big data, cloud and artificial intelligence platforms, while most business information is stored in legacy systems. Putting all of this together requires new backend systems and adapting existing ones in order to implement actual business-relevant use cases.

3. Timing

2018 is the new 2007. When Steve Jobs presented the iPhone in 2007, a lot of people in large corporations thought that apps were for gaming so they didn't have to care about them. Consequently, they failed to do any proof of concepts to try to learn what this new technology could do for them. Several years later, these businesses realized they were wrong and started — but by then mobility wasn't a competitive advantage, it was a matter of survival.

Today many people view VR/AR technologies the same way, pushing it off as just for gaming and not a concern for the enterprise. But the signs are telling us we are at the same stage with AR and VR today that we were in 2007 with mobility. Now is the moment to decide if you want to invest and be prepared when VR/AR becomes a competitive advantage, or wait until everyone else is using it.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Any enterprise should be asking itself the following questions when thinking about VR/AR: Do we have the right people to be successful? What business process can we improve with this tech and as a result, which legacy systems do we need to adapt? Do we need a new backend systems (IoT, Big Data, AI, etc.) to implement relevant use cases? Do we think “wait and see” is the best approach or should we start exploring the opportunity at hand?