man wearing virtual reality goggles going through a simulation
PHOTO: Laurens Derks

Businesses, and especially large enterprises, aren't known for being on the cutting edge of technology they provide to employees. Certainly, over the past 15 years it's been consumer tools and services that have set the agenda for the products and services that employees expect to use at work, from smartphones and cloud-based apps, to social networking and simple, intuitive user experiences. But for once, the business market is leading the charge in one of the most promising (and hyped) technologies: extended reality.

Extended reality, which includes virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality, may have started out in the consumer space, particularly in gaming, but it's been slow to find its place there. In the meantime, businesses of all shapes and sizes are waking up to the possibilities of using this emerging technology to create new opportunities and support their digital transformation.

CCS Insight's IT Decision-Maker Workplace Technology Survey 2019 showed that 38% of organizations are using extended reality in some way within their businesses, and the same number are exploring its potential. Clearly there's excitement for this technology, but is it just a passing fad or a serious opportunity?

Transforming Training

One of the most common applications for extended reality in the enterprise sector right now is training. Companies like Severn Trent Water and Walmart, in partnership with Make Real and Strivr respectively, are taking a new approach to training their employees in vocational skills using VR.

Similarly, Lloyds Bank is investing in the technology to provide training in soft skills, helping staff learn to develop resilience and cope with stress. Cited benefits include cost savings and improved information retention, with employees being more engaged than in traditional training programs. Volkswagen, an early pioneer of VR in the workplace, announced plans in 2018 to train 10,000 employees using VR by the end of that year, helping the company expand and reach many more employees.

However, extended reality doesn't just raise the bar in classroom training. It brings new opportunities for on-the-job training too, helping employees learn as they go, getting hands-on experience in a managed way and enabling them to be productive more quickly. This is where mixed reality can play an important role, combining elements of AR and VR to associate virtual content with objects in the real world, for example showing exactly where a part should be fitted on a piece of machinery that a worker is looking at.

It's early days for this concept, but companies like BAE Systems are already developing these solutions using Microsoft's HoloLens and PTC's Vuforia Studio, and it's an area that Microsoft is also targeting with its Dynamics 365 Guides application.

Related Article: How Augmented Reality Will Enhance Workplace Collaboration

Extended Reality for Visualization

Another major opportunity for extended reality is to support better visualization of data and information. For highly complex, relational or 3-D data, traditional flat screens have limitations when it comes to navigating or manipulating the information. By providing a more immersive, 3-D perspective, extended reality opens up new ways to take advantage of the wealth of data available, especially when it can be overlaid on real-world objects.

Uses for this include: visualizing architectural drawings and building designs, which was a popular VR demonstration at Digital Construction Week; providing doctors with hands-free access to patient data and other critical information during surgery; and displaying utilities networks overlaid on a construction site.

One of the most commonly explored scenarios for extended reality visualization in businesses is to aid product or component picking in a warehouse or factory assembly line. This often combines bar-code scanning with mixed reality overlays to make it easier for workers to locate and identify items to be picked. Logistics company DHL has now rolled out its Google Glass-based Vision Picking Program to workers in its warehouses in nine countries, reporting productivity savings of 15% through more accurate and efficient fulfillment, and transforming its warehouse operations.

Related Article: Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Deliver ROI via Efficiencies and Cost Reductions

Enabling Task Workers

These types of scenarios highlight the biggest opportunity for extended reality in enterprises: enabling task workers, that is, people who aren't based at a desk, who often need their hands free to do their job and who are often customer-facing in frontline roles. This includes factory workers, field engineers, hotel staff, airline crews, doctors, policemen, delivery drivers … the list goes on. Our research shows this group accounts for 40% of the overall workforce, a figure that's much higher in some industries.

Although it seems as though we've made great strides in fostering workplace productivity through technology over the past couple of decades, most of the innovations have focussed on empowering knowledge workers, not task workers. The latter group is overdue some attention, not just to make them more productive, but also to connect them more effectively with each other and the rest of their organization.

We recently predicted that these non-office workers will become the primary measure of success for cloud productivity solutions by 2021. Indeed, Microsoft, Facebook and Google are already heavily targeting this audience. However, extended reality, and in particular AR and mixed reality, offers these employees a completely new way of interacting with applications and data that makes sense for the way they work: hands-free and without interrupting their workflow.

Related Article: Frontline Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

It's Early Days Still for AR, VR and Mixed Reality

There's no doubt this trend is still in its very early days. The market for extended reality devices remains relatively immature and we're only scratching the surface in terms of the type and accessibility of applications to enable the above scenarios. Undoubtedly we will uncover many other opportunities in the enterprise use of extended reality.

I expect this technology to become the next key piece in the digital workplace picture. Just as mobile phones and touch-screen devices evolved enterprise technology beyond desktop PCs, so extended reality will inspire the next wave of innovation in workplace technology.