Thursday, July 5, 2018

Practical Applications of Augmented and Virtual Reality

Technology / Innovation

The early 1990s saw the rise of a lot of buzz around the topic of computer-generated virtual reality. Like many other ideas of the time, the concept was far ahead of the technology's ability to deliver and there were limited practical applications of Augmented and Virtual Reality. After some amusing movies and video games, virtual reality (VR) faded from the public's consciousness. But the core concept - being able to instantly create any kind of world and to actually participate in it - persisted.

Almost 30 years later, virtual reality is back and this time, it's ready for prime time. Thanks to generationally improved advances in computer-generated graphics, connectivity through the Internet, and the computing power found in today's smartphones and computers, the problems that plagued the first attempt at commercially successful VR have been largely solved. And as part of VR's re-introduction to the public at large, a new variant of experience accompanies it: augmented reality. Unlike VR, augmented reality (AR) mixes the physical world with virtual objects to create a mixed reality experience. AR is typically accomplished using a smartphone, using its screen as a lens to the real world. 

Using Smartphones to Deliver AR and VR Experiences

Smartphones including Apple (running iOS 11 and higher) and Android devices (like the Pixel and Pixel 2) are ideal tools for delivering AR and limited VR experiences. With just these devices, brands are poised to deliver AR/VR experiences to more than 600 million devices today, a number that will continue to grow significantly in a short period of time as most people upgrade their smartphones every couple of years. More immersive VR experiences can be created inexpensively by using headsets that provide slots for smartphones to slide into. Thanks to headsets like the Samsung Gear VR or the Google Daydream, virtual reality can be accessed without requiring expensive PCs or game consoles.

AR & VR Consoles and Systems Provide More Immersive Experiences

The most immersive experiences come from more expensive and complex systems like the HTC Vive and Facebook-backed Oculus. Available in multiple versions, they offer the most immersive VR experiences because they offer 6DOF - six degrees of freedom, which is a fancy way of saying that users can physically move around in the virtual environment, ducking and moving in a world that responds to physical movement. Of course, this impressive level of immersive experience comes at a price: in addition to a powerful PC, cameras, wired connections and a room with plenty of open space is required. Competing options from Sony (the PSVR) and Microsoft (HoloLens, a mixed reality headset) also offer compelling, albeit relatively expensive, options to consider.

Recently, Oculus offered a powerfully compelling new VR solution called the Oculus Go. While it is exciting because it offers a completely wireless experience and doesn't depend on connections to expensive PCs, the Oculus Go is considered a game changer because of its affordable price: $199. This makes it more accessible to the public. It also launches with access to over 1,000 applications and games ready at launch thanks to its compatibility with some other Oculus and Gear VR software. 

Practical Applications of Augmented and Virtual Reality Experiences

With a growing population of users who have access to various forms of AR/VR applications, the possible uses of this technology for brands is mind boggling. It's also why this point in time is so important. Several years from now, interacting with AR/VR experiences will be as commonplace as text messaging, social networking, and online retail is today. This is why it’s so important for brands to be actively thinking about how to use this technology in their market(s). 

To that end, following is a sampling of practical ways that organizations can utilize this technology to better inform, persuade and delight your customer today:

1. Wayfinding - AR excels at being able to walk users through complex environments. For example, imagine a social application at a concert that allows you to find other friends at a concert or sporting event. Even more compelling, imagine a guided tour of a hospital or college campus. This same experience can be further personalized by adding context: imagine having a medical procedure scheduled, but you are unfamiliar with where to go in a large and complex medical campus. An application could be developed to tell you when to go to the hospital, where to park, how to walk through the buildings to find your specific doctor and nursing staff and offer you tips after the procedure on how to recover quickly.

2. Product Visualization - One of the easiest experiences to create is the idea of taking a real world object and converting it into a visualization that can be placed in a user's real physical space. IKEA is experimenting with an application that would allow customers to see how furniture would look - and importantly, fit - right in the customer's home before they commit to making the purchase. Other examples include visualizing how jewelry or clothing would look on you before you buy or how custom built products, like custom photo canvases or pillows, would look in your environment. Imagine how much better a restaurant ordering experience would be when you can literally see the dishes right in front of you before you actually order. 

3. Measurements - One of the most interesting aspects of AR applications is their ability to accurately measure spaces using only a phone's camera. Flooring companies can use this ability to have customers measure their rooms before visualizing different kinds of flooring, all in the comfort of their own home. MTailor is a company that has developed a mobile application that measures customers using the smartphone camera and then customizes suits specifically tailor-made for the customer without requiring a formal measuring appointment.

4. Experiencing Other Locations - Virtual reality excels at recreating almost any physical location. Google's innovative Earth VR is an application that allows visitors to traverse the world and instantly zoom from thousands of feet above right down to the street view of almost any location on the planet. This is an incredibly powerful way to scout locations, remind yourself of places you've been before and to experience places you may never be able to directly access.

5. Shopping - Commerce is another exciting application for both AR and VR experiences. One company is building a full commerce application that allows visitors to shop in any number of world-famous locations, like Paris or New York. Once a location is selected, the customer is able to walk around the store, browse merchandise and even pick up items for sale. Combining the best of online commerce experiences, shoppers can review ratings, detailed specifications and most importantly, click the buy button to have it shipped to them. 

6. Collaboration - Working with other people and sharing augmented and virtual experiences may be the most exciting of all possibilities, however. Imagine product and other designers being able to collaboratively design and build products regardless of their location, all in a virtual space. Imagine a field technician doing work and needing to look up a procedure or ask another co-worker about how to solve a problem. Using AR/VR technology, another user can see what the field worker sees and advise on what to do. 

7. Education - Another field with an almost unending amount of possibilities for AR/VR is found in education. From visualizations that help students understand component models of chemistry to medical students being able to visualize components and systems within the human body, AR/VR offers tantalizing possibilities. Imagine a medical student being able to not just visualize components within the body, but instead be presented with diagnosis exercises based on what they see in a VR headset. Extending this concept further, imagine experienced and expert surgeons teaching students around the world about how to complete complex surgical procedures around the world in one session.  

These examples only scratch the surface of what this technology represents. We will continue to see significant growth not just with AR/VR headsets and tools, but also the convergence of AR and VR with other rapidly growing trends like voice assistants, big data and artificial intelligence/machine learning. The future is bright and time is of the essence for brands looking to capitalize on the opportunity. Rightpoint specializes in all aspects of AR/VR development and would welcome the opportunity to explore how this powerful technology can transform your business and make you more competitive than before. Let's start a conversation on what this means for your business - contact us today.

Brian Browning is VP, Digital Experience Solutions at Rightpoint. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.