AR/VR gets real: 4 promising pilots of augmented reality and virtual reality in business

Augmented reality and virtual reality implementations are emerging across several sectors, thanks to their value in providing remote training and hands-free access to information.

Augmented reality and virtual reality in business
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Industrial manufacturers have long led the way in adopting augmented reality (AR) solutions, with engineers and service technicians leveraging wearables to access information hands-free. But extended reality (XR), the catch-all phrase for augmented reality (AR), virtual reality and mixed reality (MR), is emerging in retail, consumer packaged goods and other sectors as a tool to freshen up the customer experience and train employees.

AR and VR both leverage digital information, but use different interfaces. AR solutions include software on smartphones or heads-up displays, such as smartglasses, to overlay digital information, including images and text, atop physical objects in the real world. Conversely, VR is about immersion, with users typically strapping on headsets loaded with applications that replace the real world with a virtual environment. MR lies somewhere along the continuum between AR and VR.

The consensus among experts is that XR will mature as technologies improve and become available at a lower cost, and as enterprises find ways to scale XR in pursuit of business value. But market maturity is still 5 to 10 years away, according to Gartner.

“Businesses already experiment with VR, but hesitate to fully commit,” says Gartner analyst Tuong Huy Nguyen. “On the other hand, customers are fascinated by the new entertainment possibilities, but do not want to invest in head-mounted displays as long as the offering is so small. This is going to change during the next five years.”

Seventy percent of enterprises will be experimenting with immersive technologies for consumer and enterprise use, and 25 percent will be deployed for production by 2022, Gartner says.

XR for social services training

While the ability to work hands-free from remote locales is a key driver for XR in industrial sectors, health care and social services are using XR to train employees, says Rori DuBoff, head of content innovation at Accenture Interactive.

For instance, Accenture is enabling inexperienced caseworkers to receive training simulations through VR headsets. The content uses immersive storytelling and interactive voice-based scenarios to help caseworkers hone their people and decision-making skills. The goal, DuBoff says, is to get new staff up to speed with real-world scenarios as quickly as possible. And it beats hiring consultancies to help coach new hires. VR/AR training will top $8 billion by 2023, according to IDC. 

"These use cases will continue to grow because the cost savings are tremendous," DuBoff says. "These companies are taking incremental steps to get away from inefficient work."

The potential for XR is a big reason why Acccenture made a strategic investment in Upskill, a software maker that helps Boeing, General Electric and other companies deploy AR in business environments.

"It's not a fad; it's how people will be living and working for the future,” DuBoff says of the XR evolution. DuBoff expects XR use cases will proliferate as 5G emerges to eliminate the latency issues that thwart XR today.

Debunking the wearable myth: XR doesn’t require a headset or glasses because software alone can add value. For instance, improvements to 3D software enable physicians to view images of organ and bone on iPads in much clearer detail than in flat, 2D images, DuBoff says. She also notes that apparel makers such as Warby Parker enable consumers to virtually try on glass frames using their smartphone camera and Apple’s ARKit software.

Even better than the real thing: Virtual sneaker unboxing

Footlocker is one such retailer embracing AR to engage its sweet spot clientele: 13- to 27-year-old customers for whom mobile device and application penetration is high. “In many cases, they start their journey way before they connect with our properties,” via Instagram, Facebook and other social media channels, says Foot Locker CIO Pawan Verma.

To foster more brand loyalty, Foot Locker in December 2017 enabled Snapchat users to “unbox” Gatorade AJ1 sneakers by placing images of the shoes within their photos and videos on Snapchat before they became available in retail stores. Foot Locker added an AR feature to its Eastbay brand app, allowing iPhone and Android smartphone users to scan physical pages of the Eastbay catalog to discover videos, stories, products, and other content. 

Verma says he is looking to hire 120 to 150 people to work on personalization, data analytics, AR and other digital skills in the company’s Chicago office.

By 2020, 100 million consumers will shop in AR online and in-store as retailers seek to strengthen relationship with customers, according to Gartner.

Lesson learned: A well-crafted, personalized user experience is key. “AR enables you to get immersed into that experience and once you start to experience that your likelihood of recommending is high,” Verma says. He says that while consumers may not actually purchase products after making use of unboxing or other AR features, the data they create consuming such tools is valuable once Foot Locker applies machine learning algorithms to it.

VR training comes to insurance

Collaboration between business and IT on VR is also afoot at Farmers Insurance Group. Keith Daly, the company’s president of personal lines, and former CIO Ron Guerrier worked with VR startup Tailspin to create virtual mock-ups of damaged cars and homes for training purposes.

Donning Oculus Rift headsets, claims representatives in Farmers’ experience labs walk around vehicles and homes, observing what damage to, say, a front quarter panel of a Lexis looks like, or water damage to a house. The simulations allow reps to "touch and feel open cabinets and doors," Guerrier says. For the home simulations alone, Guerrier says Farmer's has conceived more than 500 damage combinations for the training. “It’s always a different leak; it’s so unique," he adds. “An adjuster can be doing this for three weeks and they’ll never have the same scenario going into the home."

Virtual training has the potential to save Farmers as much as $300,000 annually in travel costs. Farmers trains nearly 300 property claims reps annually. Training starts in a classroom environment followed by three weeks of study at the University of Farmers in Agoura Hills, Calif. Today, trainees can learn remotely via the VR headset and software, reducing travel. Emboldened by the success of the training, Farmers is creating a VR studio in Kansas City, which he says will cost a tenth of what it would cost to rent and fill another experience lab with broken cars and to re-create damaged homes.

Guerrier says Farmer's is also adding "role-playing" to the training, simulating interactions between an adjuster and a bound-to-be-upset customer grappling with some form of property damage. Ideally, this training will make adjusters more empathetic as they begin to engage with customers in real event scenarios.

What’s next: As VR technology becomes more pervasive, Guerrier says, reps will be able to access such capabilities from their own home to simulate damages. “That is the ultimate mobility in training — leveraging AR so they don’t have to fly," Guerrier says. "The adjuster can be at their best helping the customer when they need it.”

XR for remote field service coaching

A use case that is ripe for XR is assigning semi-retired employees to coach inexperienced field-service workers from afar, says Joe Tobolski, who as CTO of consultancy Nerdery advises tech leaders on XR and other digital implementations.

For example, an oil and gas company can use XR wearables to connect seasoned employees to new hires who may be miles apart from each other. Co-viewing the field worker’s headset video feed from their computer at home, the semi-retired worker can “see” what the field employee sees and can walk them through a solution, even sending digital help manuals. Once the problem is resolved, the semi-retired employee can move on to the next virtual service call without having to leave his or her home. This can be a real “force multiplier” for industrial companies pursuing safer operations, says Tobolski.

“It’s about how you can provide the on-the-ground knowledge and ‘ride along’ with the younger workers,” Tobolski says. Another example includes peered software programming between distant colleagues using VR headsets to “sling code out.”

Technical-physio barriers remain. The reality is that humans still require headsets that won’t induce vertigo in users, while also helping them make sense of their environments. “The hardware is catching up, and the computing power to integrate with reality is getting better,” Tobolski says.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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