Augmented thinking

Three ways virtual technologies can help your business

A generation after virtual reality entered computer gaming, mid-sized firms across a range of industries are aggressively competing to deliver the sights, sounds, and heightened capabilities of the simulated world to their customers.

Augmented thinking: Three ways virtual technologies can help your business

October 31, 2016

A blog post by Nelson Kunkel, national creative director, Deloitte Consulting LLP

A generation after virtual reality entered computer gaming, mid-sized firms across a range of industries are aggressively competing to deliver the sights, sounds, and heightened capabilities of the simulated world to their customers. The expanding presence of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) represents a spirited vision for these businesses: growth companies are contending alongside bigger players to overlay sensory experiences and digitally-created objects in the real world.

In our recent survey of technology adoption among mid-sized firms, a whopping 88 percent of respondents indicated using some form of VR or AR in their operations. These respondents said AR and VR help them boost business in a variety of ways, including:

  • Making new connections with customers
  • Immersing users in near-reality environments
  • Offering the opportunity to test products and services in flexible settings
  • Envisioning artificial elements in real surroundings

In the broadest terms, AR and VR transform everyday sensory experiences. Where they differ is in their mode of delivery: AR adds graphics, audio, and digital elements to real-world surroundings to enhance a user’s experience, while VR allows users to use headsets or other devices to become immersed in a virtual environment, often completely detached from their actual surroundings.

The rapid growth of AR is behind Apple’s recent patent application to create technology that would permit users to transform images into 3D scenes in real time and share the “broadcasts.” Friends or followers could view and annotate a street scene or hiking trail from their own vantage point, adding entirely new levels of detail to live events.1

In another signal of the growing influence of these technologies, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience during a recent town hall that AR and VR collectively would comprise the most extensive social platform in computing history. When discussing AR, in particular, Zuckerberg predicted that the innovations would first sweep mobile technology–which has already been the case with the global phenomenon Pokémon GO–and later penetrate wearable devices such as smart glasses.2

In our work with mid-sized, growth-focused companies, we see three primary opportunities for firms to take advantage of AR and VR developments.

New connections with product users and customers

In our mid-market survey, 40 percent of respondents said they were using augmented and virtual reality to enhance interactions with their customers. Those include opportunities such as product demonstrations and virtual product testing.

Consider the possibilities emerging among life sciences firms and health services providers. Already, there are virtual solutions being tested that allow seniors with limited mobility the chance to “visit” their childhood home, experience a dream travel destination, or get an up-close look at a live performance as if they were in the audience. Besides the thrill of enjoyment, researchers are examining the potential cognitive impact derived from these new technologies.3

Apparel makers and footwear firms are among the companies providing clients with opportunities to use AR for customers to “try on” clothing and shoes. Some firms have pioneered apps that allow shoppers to view the same garment across a range of colors, bypassing the need to haul an armful of items to a fitting room.4

Enhanced training through simulated environments

Companies that provide specialized training are also well-positioned to seize AR and VR innovations. Heavy-equipment makers can apply the technology to “train” operators on machines before they are used in a manufacturing or construction setting. Elsewhere, firms are creating virtual learning and augmented reality systems to train workers who deal with mishaps such as chemical spills. These simulated environments serve the dual purpose of taking workers out of harm’s way while employees acquire techniques to handle hazardous materials.5

Our survey suggests this type of training is prevalent among mid-sized firms. Forty percent of survey respondents said they were using AR and VR to train and work on medical devices, with machines or in manufacturing settings, giving companies the ability to replicate complex environments.

Immersive experiences put users in the driver’s seat

Immersive experiences comprise another broad area of opportunity for AR and VR technology. We have seen these technologies used in simulations by aviation, law enforcement organizations, and the military. But there is also an opportunity for companies to give their customers the benefit of immersive experiences. Education technology firms, for instance, are using AR and VR to help schools deliver content to students. As a complement to traditional lessons, students can experience history and other subjects through immersive media, giving students the feeling of being “there” in ways that books or video may not be able to express.6

Our survey signaled that mid-sized firms are recognizing this potential–38 percent of respondents said they were using AR and VR to give customers the ability to engage with products and services in new and efficient ways such as immersive experiences.

Confronting AR/VR risks

As firms contemplate and adopt virtual technologies, they are still exposed to real-world digital threats. Companies that choose to use these technologies will need to consider how security protocols can keep up with the growing number of devices accessing virtual and augmented reality tools. For instance, a 3D rendering of a corporate construction plan might help builders envision what new manufacturing facilities will look like in real life, but it can also contain sensitive information. Therefore, it may be wise to for IT managers to establish protocols governing the use of the underlying data in such applications.7

The growth and maturity of AR and VR present a number of challenges for companies that decide to invest in the technology. They also represent the vast opportunity for user experience designers, training managers, and others working on ways to add new dimensions to customer relations. As the examples show, AR and VR have the potential to reshape business and society, truly making it possible for every organization to be a data company, an experienced company, and a technology company.

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