You Have No More Excuses for Avoiding VR + AR

March 28, 2017 in Notes from the Field
Kent Vasko II
Engineer

More and more, companies need to undergo a digital transformation in order to better suit people’s needs and adapt to changes quickly. This transformation involves developing a culture of experimentation where ideas are tested early and often. Conducting small experiments with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) to determine how they might be valuable can help you determine what your audience or client finds meaningful.

Lowered costs and mobile computing capabilities have put these technologies within easy reach of both individuals and businesses, and now the challenge is not if you should incorporate AR and VR into your offerings but how. It is okay to determine that AR and VR are not appropriate for your offering; the value comes in proving that they do or do not work. Without testing whether AR and VR are meaningful additions to your offerings, their incorporation will be gimmicky or distracting, which will deter people. Do not distract. Engage and enable people.

It’s evident AR and VR are here to stay, so let’s take a look at what’s happening in the industry, address the most common excuses for avoiding them, and how to embrace what’s to come.

The Basics

One of the biggest hesitancies towards AR and VR stems from a lack of understanding what they are. To help with that, let me start by providing high-level definitions of each.

AR is technology that adds interactive computer-generated elements to the real world. In other words, AR supplements the real world by adding digital information and objects and allows us to interact with them.

VR is a completely computer-generated world/environment a person can experience with the assistance of sensors and hardware to detect input from the person and to present the virtual world to them. Such a system detaches our senses from the real world in order to allow us to experience a completely new one.

Though AR and VR are separate technologies existing on different points of the mixed reality spectrum, they both enable people to interact with digital elements and information in real-time.

VR’s Current State

VR systems can range from a phone and cardboard to goggles, joysticks, and sensors. Image source: othree - Google Cardboard, CC BY 2.0, Link

There are a few variations in the latest form that VR systems take. All of the ones vying for commercial consumption provide a means of seeing and hearing the virtual world, mostly through a head-mounted display (HMD) and headphones or speakers. They use common and specialized sensors to detect input from the person, like head orientation. Some use sensors to track people’s movement and translate it to the virtual world, while others use controller buttons or joysticks.

Industry Highlights in VR

Samsung Gear HTC VIVE Google Cardboard Art Anim’s Real Virtuality Oculus Rift and Touch

AR’s Current State

Spacial mapping takes AR to the next level by incorporating advanced tracking for projections, allowing them to adapt to uneven surfaces like buildings and fabric. Source: Ishikawa Watanabe Laboratory

AR can be quite varied in how it is built and experienced. Most AR experiences or applications use feature detection to determine what is in the environment that is meant to be interactive. They then use some form of display (e.g. screen or projection) to show the additional or manipulated thing. AR applications and experiences do not need to use feature detection to add onto the real world, though. Other information, like location, time of day, weather, and so much more can be used to build on our reality.

Industry Highlights in AR

Spacial Mapping AR for Consumers AR for Print Ad Augmented Transit Maps AR Manufacturing Training AR Healthcare Tool AR for Language Translation

This technology is readily available and easily moving into the world. With this understanding, your next step is to debunk some common excuses and think about how you can use apply it to your organization.

“VR and AR are Just for Games and Movies.”

Most examples that come to mind are built for entertainment purposes, and many think VR and AR simply do not apply to their industry.

AR and VR should be added to your tool belt if you or your guests/users/clients:
  • interact with information that is not normally visible to them
  • will benefit from experiencing something before fully committing
  • need trained in situations that are hard or expensive to simulate in physical space
  • are looking for experiences that cannot be currently had in our world

“It’s Only a Novelty.”

Though AR is mostly recognized for imposing goofy faces and fictitious characters onto the real world, it is widely applicable to many industries. Marketing has embraced AR as a mechanism for immersing people into a brand by enabling them to personalize and share their brand experience. Retail allows people to try on that new jacket or see if this table design matches their living room decor by giving a preview of the product in a space before people buy it. AR can make tasks easier for the healthcare industry by providing practitioners with more a more detailed view of a patient, like showing exactly where a person’s veins are before taking blood. Some companies in manufacturing have used AR to train and educate people about the inner workings of a complex machine or system by illustrating and pointing out its components, and has even enabled us to read signs in languages we do not know.

At MAYA, we are eager to find out how AR can improve our clients’ ways of working and offerings. I have assisted clients with AR projects and conducted experiments of my own to test its feasibility and desirability. For example, my colleagues and I conducted an expert usability audit and in-home studies for a client incorporating AR experiences into their products. Presented with the challenge of enabling event guests to see artworks that would be absent from an opening event, I have also made an AR app to show how attendees could experience the pieces without the objects being physically available.

“VR Can’t Really Improve Lives in the Real World.”

VR and AR’s interactive basis can improve user experience in multiple industries from arts and culture to healthcare. Source: Google Arts and Culture

Immersing people into another world with VR seems inapplicable to industries beyond entertainment. However, many have found meaningful uses for it.

Some examples of innovative VR applications include:
  • marketing teams using it to immerse and engage their audiences in the brand
  • rehabilitation groups helping physically and psychologically injured people retrain their bodies and minds
  • militaries running VR training simulations for scenarios that would be extremely dangerous and costly to simulate in the physical world
  • professional and collegiate football teams using it to train quarterbacks and to analyze player behavior
  • real estate agents or museums giving virtual tours of locations or experiences for people who are limited by location or expensive travel costs.

We see great potential for VR in prototyping and remote collaboration. It is a powerful creation, concepting, prototyping, and collaborating tool, enabling people to instantly experience and manipulate a space and the objects in it without the time and money to physically produce and make changes to the same thing (e.g. designing a new atrium). As more people work remotely, VR can enable your team to communicate, interact, and collaborate in real-time, combining the advantages of being in the same office with the flexibility of sitting at home in your pajamas.

AR and VR can improve your customer experience, make on-boarding and training easier, and help you stand out in your market. Entertainment made people aware of AR and VR, but these technologies are going to help you evolve as a company.

“It Seems Like a Fad.”

So, AR and VR will apply to your offering and attract customers… but for how long? Whether you want to have the expertise in-house or find an external partner, the initial investment (time, money, people) to ensure that you can meaningfully incorporate either into your offering is a serious decision. If AR and VR are just fads, then it would seem a waste to invest in them. I am here to tell you that they are not fads.

Source: Life magazine
Since its beginning, VR has come in and out of the public eye hitting peaks when the technology seemed ready and falling into valleys when shown not to be (check out this quick overview of VR’s history for more details). AR has had more of a gradual rise into public awareness, hitting big with, if you will pardon the obvious references, Snapchat and Pokémon Go. In order to make it to the other end of the hype cycle, a technology has to catch people’s attention, serve and produce something meaningful, be affordable, and have tools and methods in place to make creation accessible.

AR and VR hit each of these points. They have certainly caught people’s attention, or you would not be reading this. Both have come into commercially acceptable price ranges with cheap or free AR apps for our mobile devices and VR systems ranging in price from around $15 to $800, and with less initial risk, more than just early adopters have been trying them. Though they still require technical knowhow, platforms and plugins have been developed to significantly lower the barrier to entry:

VR Developer Tools:
  • Oculus Developer Center
  • HTC Vive Developer Portal
  • Samsung Gear VR Developer Program
  • Google Cardboard Developer Site
AR Developer Tools:
  • Vuforia Developer Portal
  • Wikitude SDK & Studio
  • ZapWorks

There will always be improvements (VR may one day completely immerse all of our senses in an experience instead of just sight and sound) but, given the increasing availability, wide applicability, and commercial viability of AR and VR, they are not going away.

“I Don’t Know Where to Start.”

Now you have an idea of what these technologies are, how others use them, and reassurance that these platforms will continue to be relevant, but how do you to begin?

1. Problem Framing: To start, determine what AR and/or VR can do for you. How might your employees benefit from richer training tools? How can you engage your customers on a deeper level? What new products or services can you offer? Framing the problem and matching needs with the right technologies can be hard but, it is necessary to meaningfully incorporate them.

2. Identify Partners: Once the challenges and goals are understood, it is time to figure out with whom to partner. There are many AR and VR developers out there who are eager to make something for you, but having expertise in-house, or an external advisor, will help ensure that the technology is being incorporated into your offerings in meaningful ways for you and your customers.

3. Do Your Homework: For those who want to take on learning about these technologies themselves, there are online courses and other resources, such as books (O’Reilly’s Learning Virtual Reality), community gatherings (VR Meetups), and programs that use and research these platforms (CMU’s ETC, MIT’s Media Lab).

Closing Thoughts

AR and VR are powerful tools that can be harnessed to improve the human experience. Experiment with them to find out how they might fit into your offering. Not every technology is the answer to every problem, but you will not know until you try.

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