Why CIOs should start taking augmented and virtual reality seriously

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Yes, there's been an oversupply of hype and an undersupply of truly convincing use cases for enterprise deployment of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). But in the coming year, we should see these technologies start taking hold in a meaningful way in our workplaces, according to Nelson Kunkel, national design director for Deloitte Digital, a division of Deloitte Consulting LLP. Kunkel is one of the authors of Deloitte's Tech Trends 2016. In part one of a two-part interview with The Enterprisers Project, he explains why the time is finally right for AR and VR.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): There have been a few years of hype over AR and VR, with not a lot of market penetration so far. Why is now the right time to explore VR and AR?

Kunkel: Until recently, augmented reality and virtual reality technologies have served primarily as inspiration for fiction writers and Hollywood special-effects teams. Yet increasingly, both are finding more practical application in the enterprise. While the hype surrounding each device grabbed a lot of headlines, the real story in the coming months will be AR and VR's disruptive potential to recast long-standing business processes and tasks while opening a door to fundamentally new experiences.

TEP: Before we talk more about that potential, let's clarify these two terms, which sometimes cause confusion. What's the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality?

Kunkel: Virtual reality makes it possible for users to immerse themselves in manufactured surroundings that depict actual places or imaginary worlds. For its part, augmented reality overlays contextual information on the immediate physical environments users see before their eyes, thus blending digital components and experiences with real life.

Both allow us to deploy technology and content in ways that would have been previously unfeasible or even impossible. Already, the disruptive impact of AR and VR is being felt across consumer technologies as dozens of new products enter the market.

Device costs continue to decline, standards are being defined, and app ecosystems are beginning to emerge. The combination of these influences — along with a spate of high-profile acquisitions that are shining klieg lights on AR and VR possibilities — may create a tipping point for AR and VR's business and technical implications.

TEP: What are some real-world uses for these technologies?

Kunkel: We're seeing some interesting AR (and VR) use cases developing in a number of areas. Here are a few:

  • Communication and collaboration: Both virtual reality and augmented reality may soon accomplish what static and flat mediums for knowledge exchange failed to do — complement real, one-to-one human interactions. AR and VR both offer IT opportunities to change how the business and its employees report and share information and take action.
  • Marketing managers are already using AR to view retail shelf inventory and sales data: Engineering teams across the globe are deploying VR to collaborate in real time to test and refine a single design. What's more, virtual reality is transforming simple productivity tools like videoconferencing and live chats, enabling immersive face-to-face interactions that feature real facial expressions, physical gestures, and subtle nonverbal cues replicated in real time.
  • Training and simulation: VR will make it possible for IT to play an active role in retooling high-cost training and simulation environments, many of which exist to rehearse critical scenarios without the risk of real-world consequences. For example, manufacturers can replicate maintenance and repair scenarios in virtual environments. In fact, by creating parallel processes that leverage remote controls and robotics, they may be able to remove employees from dangerous, real-world situations altogether, which would be fantastic for everyone involved.
  • Executive teams are using simulated high-resolution stages to rehearse and refine their presentation skills: In the construction industry, commercial developers can now walk through complete, full-scale computer-rendered structures getting a sense of the width of a hallway or the impact of detailed design decisions before touching shovel to dirt.

TEP: That's impressive.

Kunkel: There's more. In field and customer service, augmented interfaces that pair with connected devices, sensing objects, and relational data can deliver task-specific information to workers in the field on demand. Augmented solutions can overlay a jet engine's service hours, component temperature, and service panel details into an aircraft mechanic's field of vision. Likewise, virtual solutions can immerse customer-service agents in collaborative scenarios featuring perceptive conversations and problem-solving. Remote experts can see what field reps see and provide guidance as they perform maintenance or mechanical tasks. Think of a sportscaster explaining a replay with diagrams superimposed on the screen; the same technique can be used as an overlay to the field rep's view of the task at hand.

AR and VR also offer potential new ways to interact with products and services. They offer companies opportunities to raise awareness, promote features, and inspire desire for their suites of goods. Travel, hospitality, and leisure firms are offering immersive, interactive samplings of cruises or hotel stays that allow potential guests to explore properties and preview amenities virtually. Some of these samplings go so far as to use wind machines and olfactory stimulants to replicate not just the sights, but also the sounds and smells one might experience during a day at the beach.

TEP: A lot of the focus on VR has been on gaming. And yet, it can be a serious business tool. What industries are making most effective use of VR?

Kunkel: In Deloitte's Tech Trends 2016, we examine several incredible ways that organizations are exploring VR opportunities. For example, a global package delivery and shipping company is currently prototyping a 3D simulation solution that, when leveraged via VR, can provide virtualized training to workers on an ongoing basis, in any location. With this solution, workers wearing VR headsets would be immersed in a virtual 3D production environment that features simulated versions of equipment in use. A training program, using both visuals and sound, would take users step by step through detailed maintenance and repair processes.

In another example, a global construction firm is exploring ways that VR tools can be utilized to create immersive environments that provide visibility into large-scale commercial designs. This capability could make it possible to vet design decisions and consider the operational implications to layout, equipment placement, and other factors that have an impact on maintenance. Longer term, there may eventually be opportunities to use VR technology in areas like remote robotic welding and providing security training simulations.

Finally, a production company in Los Angeles is using virtual reality as an artistic medium. In music videos, films, and other storytelling vehicles, this company finds that VR, when used with precision, can tap into a viewer's sense of empathy. It can take viewers to a conflict, instead of just showing them one. It can bring viewers face to face with a child in a refugee camp or a band on a stage, and the emotional response it elicits is comparable to what people would feel when they actually experience those interactions. In short, VR acts as a teleportation device.

More broadly, AR and VR are introducing new opportunities to transform the enterprise. They can be particularly powerful in the areas of communication and collaboration, training and simulation, and field and customer service. They can also help an enterprise reinvent employee and customer experiences.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.