Are augmented and virtual reality finally gaining traction?

After nearly a year of writing this newsletter, I guess it’s time to wade into the metaverse or at least the virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) dimension version of it.

VR comes in for a lot of scorn, and deservedly so.

The concept has been overhyped for too long while the tools to deliver on its promise were woefully underpowered. I remember getting VR demos at conferences back in the late 90s when the required headgear was so massive that I thought I might topple over from it. Then there was Second Life, a virtual world ahead of its time and unable to live up to the expectations built around it through no fault of its own (it’s still around and is profitable).

But VR is alive and well.

It’s just coming to fruition in different forms and use cases than expected, some of which we have COVID to thank for. For example, take a look at Gather, a platform that lets people build virtual spaces they can use for meetings, demonstrations, product rollouts, and parties. Gather has raised $56 million and claims that more than 10 million people have passed through its virtual doors in the two years since its founding. About a dozen other companies are doing similar things, including Teamflow, SpatialChat, Branch, and Remo.

Trust equation

These companies essentially take video meetings to the next level, using virtual offices and meeting spaces to enhance remote interactions without entirely removing the human element. In most cases, experiences are two-dimensional and take place on a standard PC monitor.

“I don’t think people are going to don headsets and interact with avatars anytime soon,” says Jim Szafranski, CEO of Prezi. “If there’s a perceptible difference [between an avatar and a human], there’s a breakdown in trust.”

Prezi is one of many companies thinking up uses for virtual reality as an extension of videoconferencing. Its software runs atop most video meeting platforms. Prezi uses VR in a manner reminiscent of TV news shows but with participants able to comment upon and annotate the content.

The metaverse will happen in this way: incrementally, driven by practical use cases and innovations on comfortable metaphors.

In other words, I doubt Gather or Prezi Video would gain much traction if there hadn’t been Zoom.

Practical applications

There are already plenty of practical applications of the metaverse out there.

For example, digital twins, computerized renderings of physical objects and spaces, have been adopted widely by product designers to test new designs and changes to existing designs without the time and expense of building physical prototypes.

SiteAware uses photographic images to create digital twins of buildings under construction. Its software can spot errors that cause a project to deviate from the design and alert contractors to fix mistakes early. The savings are potentially enormous, given that rework comprises about 20% of the cost of a typical construction project.

OpenSpace Labs uses a similar approach to document construction projects on an ongoing basis. In addition, building maintenance can use its time-stamped virtual record by giving engineers a picture of every pipe, conduit, and support beam in the structure long after walls have been put up.

About those headsets

One of the big questions continues to be the viability of virtual reality headsets in the workplace. However, with the price of Oculus’s three-dimensional gear having dipped below $300, the cost is far less of an obstacle than it used to be. “The price point and general ease-of-use are unlocking usability,” says Luke Wilson, founder of ManageXR, whose software enables organizations to manage VR equipment at scale.

ManageXR saw sales and interest surge during the pandemic, Wilson said. “We’re all seeing that work will happen remotely, and VR presents different ways to connect and open up new workflows,” he said. “I think we’re going to see our everyday productivity tools being adapted to VR/AR.”

Accenture would agree. The consulting giant has purchased thousands of VR headsets to help with onboarding new hires during the pandemic. “Immersive learning offers new ways of connecting to practice soft skills, such as sales conversations, giving and receiving feedback, and coaching and mentoring,” Jason Warnke, digital experience lead for global IT, told CIO.

Someone is buying the devices, as evidenced by data sourced by Statista that shows forecasts of AR/VR headset sales nearly doubling from 9.86 million units last year to just under 19 million in 2023.

Prezi’s Szafranski isn’t as optimistic. “We see niche applications for headsets, but in the white-collar productivity toolkit, I’d say absolutely not,” he said.

ManageXR’s Wilson thinks the turning point will be a killer app, just as Lotus 1-2-3 turbocharged sales of desktop PCs in the 1980s. “There’s no spreadsheet yet for headsets,” he said.

I tend to agree with Szafranski. Office workers may be willing to close themselves off from the real world for the occasional demo or trade show, but I doubt we’ll see legions of people spending their days inside the metaverse.

On the other hand, what do I know? Two years ago, I thought wearing a mask was pretty weird.

Next, Read This:

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What’s All the Hype About the Metaverse?

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