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Virtual reality, meet enterprise collaboration tools

Enterprise collaboration tools have historically been missing a sense of immediacy with users. Could virtual reality change that?

Many workers find traditional collaboration tools to be a source of frustration. Users must adapt to the software—and few tools are intuitive, especially for nontechnical users. Rather than engage in conversational exchanges, workers submit a message and wait an indefinite amount of time for a colleague's response. What's worse, they'll often need several tools to get the job done, which can make it hard to get a consolidated view of projects and sift through the noise.

With tools designed to suit human behavior, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) can improve on traditional enterprise collaboration software. AR-driven exchanges are interactive—users connect with one another and receive immediate responses. What’s more, with intelligent software to deliver tailored information, users no longer need to filter the clutter.

But IT executives need to identify real business value of these tools rather than be be swayed by draw of fancy new technology.

Bringing a sense of real time to collaboration

Just few years ago, the idea of using a head-mounted device to present to colleagues in other countries seemed futuristic. Many experts now say this kind of immersive technology—augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)—will be in use at many enterprises within the next three years.

Many organizations already see the value, and some have decided to experiment with it. What follows are examples of how enterprises expect to gain competitive advantage from AR and VR.

  • Repair. At construction-equipment maker Caterpillar Inc., workers are trying out technology that provides advice to employees in the field. A technician wearing AR glasses, for example, could receive specific guidance as he turns a wrench. These systems can reduce mean time to repair, which is the average amount of time needed to get a broken piece of equipment back in service. This practice could boost customer satisfaction and reduce costs.
  • Training. Wal-Mart piloted—and is now planning to deploy—VR technology to train retail employees. With a head-mounted display, or HMD, interface, the training application provides an in-store scenario, such as broken glass on the floor and prompts an employee to react.
  • Design. Leyland Trucks, a U.K.-based truck manufacturer, uses VR to enable designers and manufacturing engineers to participate in design reviews by visualizing proposed changes from different locations. Other companies, such as the defense contractor Raytheon, have set up a large-scale VR environment, including stereoscopic 3-D, to allow cross-company collaboration on the design of sophisticated products.
  • Virtual meetings. With VR, employees and even company partners from around the world can collaborate without leaving their home offices. In some cases, meeting participants wear HMDs or AR glasses; most of the time they simply use 2-D video systems.

Salvatore Sorce, a research fellow at Brunel University London and an expert at gesture recognition, predicts these technologies will prove most useful for virtual meetings and design collaboration.

“Collaboration will be one of the biggest application areas for AR and VR,” he says. “There’s a growing need to interact with one another—not only design in critical processes, but also just to be able to work together at any time and at any place. This need for an always-on human-to-human interaction can only be fulfilled by computer-mediated communication.”

While users of immersive technologies are considered early adopters, the market is expected to mature rapidly. According to IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending guide, spending on AR and VR is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 113% over each of the next four years, growing to nearly $215 billion in 2021 from $11.4 billion in 2017. IDC expects industrial spending to overtake consumer spending on these technologies within four years.

It’s not surprising that growth in enterprise spending is predicted to outpace growth in consumer spending.

“Now the barrier to entry and to experiment is almost nothing,” says Jason Jerald, author of The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality. “It used to be that only large companies could experiment. But now, even the smallest companies can go out and buy a consumer system for $800 and try it out. Some are using gaming applications as a proof of concept.”

Improvements in computing power, bandwidth, and programming techniques have conspired to make possible a variety of AR and VR products. So it’s more tempting than ever to find ways to put the new gadgets to use. But, as is the case with any new technology, IT directors need to carefully decide where they want to sit on the adoption curve. Early adopters pay pioneering costs; late arrivals stand to lose competitive advantage.

With AR and VR collaboration in the enterprise, the biggest concerns tend to be psychological. Three questions IT leaders might ask about human-machine interface when evaluating AR and VR systems are the following:

  • Are data communications and computing power up to the task? “In situations when communications or computing are not fast and reliable, delay may cause a VR system to act in ways that disturb the users,” Sorce said. “Users have been known to experience motion sickness in these cases.”
  • Does the system try to be too realistic? Beware of the “uncanny valley,” which results when a system approaches realism, but is just unreal enough to seem creepy to users. “People sometimes prefer cartoon characters to more realistic human images,” Jerald said. “We are quite sensitive to perceiving other humans—due to millions of years of evolution—but can be more accepting of more abstract representations.”
  • How are users going to react to the equipment needed to interact with the system? “People sometimes feel goofy wearing HMDs or VR glasses—or they’re afraid of the way they’ll look,” Jerald said. “I find that the older someone is and the more senior they are, the less likely they are to put on an HMD.”

To find out how your users might react to AR and VR, Jerald advises organizations to pick up VR social-gaming products and try them out in the workplace. “The game will create what I call, the ‘illusion of social presence.’ Try getting a number of users on a platform and see how it feels to be virtually with one another.”

The quality of the hardware matters, Jerald said. “If you’re trying to do stereoscopic 3-D, it can be very difficult and expensive to do it well—and if you don’t get it right, it’s counterproductive,” he said. “At the end of the day, instead of being seduced by VR bells and whistles, design for business value. Instead of trying to apply the technology to anything and everything, look for the most appropriate use cases.”

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Pat Brans

Affiliated professor at Grenoble École de Management, and author of the book Master the Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach You the Secrets of Time Management, Pat Brans writes and teaches about cutting-edge technology and the business surrounding technological innovation. Previously, Brans worked in high tech for 22 years, holding senior positions in three large organizations (Computer Sciences Corp., then-HP, and Sybase).