You’ve probably seen someone wearing virtual reality goggles, tried them on yourself or even used them when fighting Nazis on an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Virtual reality started blowing up as an industry in 2016 with $5 billion in economic impact; by 2020 it’s expected to hit $150 billion.
Most of that has been in video games so far. But virtual reality (VR), and its less-talked-about cousin augmented reality (AR), are starting to have a major impact on the office and marketplace as well.
Here’s how to understand the difference between the two: Virtual reality takes the reality you experience and replaces it with something else — like walking on the surface of Mars. AR augments what is already there. Together AR and VR are known as extended reality (XR).
To get a better sense of how XR is changing the business world, we spoke with Wes Kennison, creative director for Launch Media, which specializes in using video, animation and XR content for recruitment, internal communications and workplace training.
Interactivity Instead of Just Observation
It’s one thing to describe something to colleagues or an audience. It’s quite another to put them right into that world and let them interact with it.
Kennison points to the Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition, which has produced an eye-catching video that plays on VR headsets to show detrimental environmental effects on the delta. It has deployed the video at trade shows and public venues and gotten tremendous engagement as a result. Instead of just handing out pamphlets, the coalition can bring its message to life.
“VR experiences that play back on a headset at an event or presentation, or even a management-led training session, are an easy way to get someone’s undivided attention, because it’s fully immersive,” Kennison says. That leads to more intense, engaged discussions after the headsets come off.
Surgeons are beginning to use AR to place an overlay on a patient’s body so they can see the location of the problem area before ever reaching for a scalpel. Walmart now offers shoppers a virtual tour to see how furniture would look at their home without ever stepping into the store. And you can do a walk-around of a new car in your own driveway without ever visiting the showroom. (Not looking good for jobs for push car salespeople.)
Kennison says companies like Meta are doing interesting things with AR to increase collaboration. It makes headsets and also has a spatial operating environment called Workspace that can be customized so that, for example, engineers in different locations can work together on a 3D model.
More Accessibility for All
XR also holds the potential to better integrate people with disabilities into the workplace. For those with limited sight or hearing, AR and VR can expand their ability to communicate, gather and share information. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology is already here, but there is often a time buffer or other logistical barrier to contemporaneous exchanges.
Now imagine a deaf worker sitting in a meeting as the speech of co-workers is instantly translated into text she can read, or she can type comments and have that input spoken for her.
Kennison points to Nuheara, a company that creates wireless earbuds with augmented hearing that merges with the natural sound environment with alerts and speech. Most of the buzz for VR and AR tends to focus on the visual plane, but audio holds just as much potential for business applications.
Efficiencies and Enhanced Communication
Even for people without sensory limitations, XR holds vast potential. Very soon you will be able to feel like you’re sitting in a boardroom talking to other people, except you might actually be at your kitchen table and all of your colleagues are represented as holograms.
Take airline pilot training, which traditionally has been accomplished using very large and expensive flight simulation rooms. Now those are being phased out in favor of cheaper, portable VR solutions. Not only will it cost less, but new pilots can take to the air with far more simulated flight hours.
Recently the first cordless VR headsets were introduced to the marketplace, opening up a range of possibilities for untethered communication and interaction. With coming advances in wearable or implanted tech, the world’s estimated 1 billion deskless professionals, from field engineers to warehouse inventory managers, will find it easier to do their jobs from myriad locations.
“AR-augmented workplaces directly affect not only the general productivity, but also their ability to collaborate in real time with team members all over the world. It’s just a more seamless way to do business,” Kennison says.