Virtual Reality (VR) may seem to appeal to only the most tech-savvy people, but perception of technology is changing.
According to Deloitte, more than 150 companies, including 52 of the Fortune 500, are testing or have deployed VR or AR based solutions. In 2016 alone, VC and corporate investment in VR and AR hit $2.3 billion. Projections made by IDC indicate that VR/AR revenue could grow to $162 billion by 2020.
Collaboration is an important facet of VR. Applications that focus on collaboration are gathering steam. Businesses are using collaborative VR applications, for example, to reduce risks to workers in dangerous areas. They’re using the technology to increase the productivity of their workforce.
Collaborative VR has also made an impact in professional communication, as group meetings are significantly enhanced by the use of VR. Participants can transpose themselves into different environments, ranging from a conference room to a tourist destination without ever having to travel.
Abolishing Distances is a Selling Point
In a survey carried out by Perkins, 82% of the respondents indicated that developers are turning their attention to collaborative and social experiences for AR and VR.
Sébastien Kuntz, founder and MiddleVR, spoke to BDJ about the importance of collaborative experiences. “Collaborative VR has the ability to abolish physical distances,” he says. “This was already the case with the phone and videoconferences, but VR brings everyone in the same ‘reality’.”
“When 3D designers need to discuss a project, it is much more efficient to have the 3D product present in front of their eyes as if it already existed. This allows them to spot design issues more easily”
Sébastien adds that for professionals, it is particularly important because this “reality” is critical in several contexts. For example, when 3D designers need to discuss a project, it is much more efficient to have the 3D product present in front of their eyes as if it already existed.
This allows them to spot design issues more easily. It also allows them to involve non-technical people (stakeholders, sales, marketing) in the process, who might not otherwise have that insight.
Architectural 2D plans are similarly problematic – nobody really understands them except the architects. With VR, everyone is immersed and can be involved in the discussion. Being able to work with remote teams around the world also means less travelling and more frequent meetings.
This is key for better communication, reducing misunderstandings and errors, which leads to products that are delivered on time and on budget. MiddleVR has a tool called Improov3 which is aimed at CAD teams and is being used by organisations such as NASA and L’Oreal.
Collaborative VR is Changing Things on the Ground
Collaborative VR is also making an impact on the ground for multiple traditional sectors. Binary District Journal spoke with Thomas Serrurier, Managing Director at TechViz.
“In the space, TechViz is active, i.e. design and engineering, VR collaboration will retune completely the way projects are managed. They will become much less sequential and much less siloed.
“Thanks to extensive use of VR collaboration, all factories can be involved at an early stage to check things like the mountability of a certain part within their own set of constraints”
“For instance, if we take the example of the automotive industry, a car is today designed to be manufactured in a ‘mother plant’ and is later extended to other assembly facilities, always with some delay and often with heavy adaptations, as each factory has its own layout, tools and other models built alongside. Thanks to extensive use of VR collaboration, all factories can be involved at an early stage to check things like the mountability of a certain part within their own set of constraints.”
VR has already made its mark in medicine, too, the first virtual system in medicine having already been introduced way back in 1965 by Robert Mann for training in orthopaedics.
Lancet’s commission on global surgery estimates that there is a need for double the amount of surgeons to meet the needs of basic surgical care for the developing world alone by the year 2030. This skills shortage can be addressed using VR, through which surgeons and professors can collaborate with residents and students for studying various medical cases.
The Image of VR Needs a Change
Some of VR’s greatest applications are in the entertainment industry. This has, arguably, led to the VR industry not being taken as seriously as it otherwise might. The presence of VR headsets in the workplace faces cultural barriers.
Thomas thinks this image problem is more of an issue in places like Asia. “[Wearing VR Headsets] is mostly OK at all levels of the hierarchy in the US but it is not, at least not yet, at senior management level in Asia. VR headsets are still too much associated with gaming to be used by ‘serious’ people,” he says.
However, perceptions are well on their way to changing as companies like Walmart have toyed with introducing VR at their training academies across the US and are now extending their use of the technology. They are going to be providing Oculus VR headsets so that VR training can be provided to one million Walmart associates across 5000 stores in the United States.
Sébastien also points to the growing use of VR in professional environments. He cites the example of Volkswagen in Germany, who are preparing to train 10,000 people using collaborative VR.
“Both the hardware and software are now really easy to deploy, IT departments are now familiar with VR and have processes to validate this technology,” he says. “In some companies, you can even order VR headsets and software on the intranet!”
Despite Challenges, Early Adopters Are Keen
VR needs to overcome a number of challenges, whether it is lack of headsets, cultural obstacles and physical constraints. When asked to identify the most significant challenges to collaborative VR, Sébastien told us that the need for more expressive avatars with facial expressions that can transmit non-verbal cues was important. He also feels that having force feedback and haptic feedback could be useful.
Thomas feels that, from an engineering perspective, an obvious challenge is data security. Companies are worried about the risk of hacking and are not keen on taking any risks in terms of sharing sensitive data on an external network.
So what about adoption? “We seem to be at an inflexion point,” Thomas says.
“Until recently, VR-based solutions were implemented in companies through a group of innovators for very specific use-cases. With the development of professional VR headsets such as HTC Vive Pro and software collaborative capabilities, VR is starting to spread throughout organisations, winning over different departments and office locations.”
Collaborative VR Use-Cases Mushroom
The Perkins survey reveals the sectors which are likely to receive the largest investment for the development of AR or VR technology in the coming year. They are gaming, education, healthcare and medical devices and real estate.
As for collaborative experiences, 39% of the Perkins respondents ‘strongly agreed’ and 42% of respondents ‘agreed’ that in the coming year the focus would be more on creating collaborative and social experiences.
So, what are the most interesting use-cases of collaborative VR that we can look forward to?
“What we find particularly interesting is collaboration involving different display systems: VR headsets, Powerwalls, multi-sided immersive rooms,” Thomas says.
“It really enables versatile usage of the collaboration, with all configurations possible in terms of the number of participants, locations and meeting purposes: boardroom in Detroit with design centre in Italy, R&D centre with an engineer visiting a supplier, architecture bureau with construction site, etc.
“Remote work will be also very interesting once the VR and AR hardware is better. We always tend to think of what we lose when doing remote work (less fluid communication, missing out on informal meetings), but imagine what we gain:
- Less traffic, which means less pollution, less stress, and less gas consumed
- More focused work because we are less interrupted
- Better quality of life and more time with our loved ones!”
As we all know, the tech industry has a severe gender imbalance problem. Across the UK, for example, women account for less than 20% of the workforce in the tech industry, with some estimates as low as 11%. For senior positions, the estimate is somewhere between 5% and 15% – these numbers only get lower when you focus on BAME workers. In terms of VR specifically, only 16% of women in the US and UK were reported to have used the technology, compared with 30% of men.
Despite this, virtual reality is emerging as an area of technology that is an anomaly – women are leading the way. In VR specifically, the number of leadership roles held by women was found to be 64%, incomparably higher than the average. Why, exactly, there is such a disparity is unclear, but there are a number of companies within VR that are actively trying to bring the technology to more women and get them interested in developing it. As the technology develops, perhaps other areas of the industry will look to VR as an example of the benefits of a more balanced, diverse workforce.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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