It’s easy to dismiss virtual reality as a fad that appeals only to couch-bound video-game aficionados. After all, people do look a bit silly with clunky goggles strapped to their faces.
Yet businesses are proving to be fast adopters of the technology. From aviation to construction, companies are putting virtual reality (VR) to work with the aim of reaping efficiency and productivity gains. Forrester Research predicts that starting this year, businesses will buy more mid-priced virtual reality gear than consumers.
Augmented reality (AR), which layers virtual 3D images on top of what a person sees in the real world, is also turning out to be particularly well suited for the workplace. Since it doesn’t distract users in immersive environments, they can carry on conversations and use their hands naturally.
Microsoft is among the biggest boosters of augmented reality for businesses. Its HoloLens glasses went on the market in March 2016 and are now sold in 39 countries. Other manufacturers include start-ups like the U.S.-based DAQRI.
It’s a much less crowded field than on the consumer side of the VR business, where Facebook, Samsung, HTC and others are jockeying for position. The market researcher IDC forecasts that sales of AR and VR headsets will grow from about 10 million units in 2016 to 100 million in 2021.
While AR/VR technology is still nascent, the most innovative companies in their respective sectors, such as Airbus and Ford Motor Co., have already completed pilot projects and are starting wider deployments.
Florent Pelissier, the product lead in France for Microsoft’s HoloLens, believes that businesses need to move quickly. “If you’re in an industrial or manufacturing sector and you have not yet started using or at least experimenting with mixed reality, then you are falling behind,” he says.
So what should executives be doing to ensure that doesn’t happen?
First off, companies need to think about how AR/VR can actually help solve business problems. There is no point deploying a big virtual reality project if it doesn’t lower costs, reduce time to make a product, or make workers perform better. To that end, companies should define key metrics to measure the impact of the technology. That way, executives will be armed with data with which to decide if broader use is warranted.
Although costs for AR/VR gear have been dropping, projects remain expensive and time-consuming to implement. Companies often have to bring in specialized developers or outside consultants to write software for them since there are few off-the-shelf programs available. Even though most AR/VR headsets come with some software, making them work with the IT systems of a company or perform specific tasks usually requires custom-built programs.
This will eventually change as more software emerges, but for now deploying AR/VR projects can be a slog. Start-ups , such as Immersion and Diota in France or Re’Flekt in Germany, are helping big companies implement AR and VR, as are big IT firms like Accenture and Capgemini.
It is easier for companies that are already accustomed to working with 3D images on computers to jump into AR/VR. Think of a car company designing a new sedan or an architect working on a new office tower. Both would already be using computer-aided design software to manipulate 3D images. It’s a natural evolution for them to create virtual reality versions of the designs, which can then speed up the prototyping and building process.
Airbus, for example, has been a leader in using virtual reality in its design process. While conceiving a new helicopter, the company had four so-called virtual reality immersion rooms installed at the various production sites involved in the project. This allowed the engineers to collaborate more easily, using 3D models of the aircraft.
AR/VR tools help make Airbus staffers more efficient, says Christophe Chartier, the CEO of the French virtual reality company Immersion, which has done work for Airbus. “While designing the cockpit for the passenger jet A380, the virtual reality rooms were so lifelike that Airbus staffers started writing the maintenance manuals based on the simulation instead of waiting till the first real plane was manufactured,” he says.
Heavy industrial companies like Siemens and thyssenkrupp have also been early adopters. They are using the technology for training purposes and have found that workers learn new tasks faster when taught with these tools.
DAQRI, which makes smart glasses and helmets for business, worked with Siemens to create a program to teach workers how to assemble gas burners. Instead of using long and heavy paper manuals to guide them, the workers could consult digital versions of the training manuals on their glasses. After the AR training module, Siemens saw fewer errors and quicker assembly times, while the participants also said they felt more confident in their abilities.
Jason Haggar, an executive at DAQRI, says AR technology is also increasingly being used to call in remote experts to fix a problem in the field. Imagine a worker on an oil rig in the North Sea who is faced with a broken valve. Usually an engineer would have to fly out to the platform to fix the valve and several days of production could be lost. With AR, the rig worker would strap on a headset and connect with a specialized engineer to walk him through the repair.
Such remote expert applications are proving popular for companies, since they provide instant benefits that are simple to quantify.
But it isn’t always easy to convince companies to adopt AR/VR tech. They’re concerned about the costs and fear disrupting production. Workers can also be wary of change, especially if they fear that technology will soon replace humans with robots.
“Our main competitor is the status quo,” says DAQRI’s Haggar. “It’s always easier to stick with how you’ve always done things. But I think there are huge productivity gains to be had here.”
AR/VR Startups To Watch
WHAT IT DOES: Publisher of augmented reality software for industry, such as remote expert applications. The French aviation group Safran has invested in the startup. http://www.diota.com/index.php/en
DAQRI (UNITED STATES)
WHAT IT DOES: Makes augmented reality glasses and helmets designed for business. Will soo sell a suite of software for the most common usues of the technology. https://daqri.com/
WHAT IT DOES: Deveops software for virtual reality projects on behalf of business clients. Also sells large-scale virtual reality rooms that allow multiple people to interact with a 3D hologram