Man Using Virtual RealityYou might have seen the trailer for the new sci-fi film based on the New York Times best-seller, "Ready Player One," or maybe you saw Apple demoing the new ARkit at WWDC this year. Even if you didn't, one thing is clear: the hype surrounding augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) is growing. Not just for consumers, though, people are starting to think about AR and VR and how they apply to the enterprise. And how businesses can leverage this technology both in the short term and the long term and what they need to do to prepare for that.

Mobile First

First things first, emerging channels like AR, Voice, the Internet of Things-all of these channels require mobile apps and a strong mobile presence. So if you're an enterprise get your mobile act straight first. If your customers cannot do everything on mobile that they can do on your website then you are behind. You need to focus on mobile being the primary interface for the customer and need a full feature set in your mobile apps. You can't direct your customer to your website to do one thing because more and more people don't have web access and are just using their phones, especially millennials. They are stuck to their mobile devices and if you make them wait until the evening when they get home and have access to their laptop it's just not going to happen. Make mobile the preferred channel for your customers. You'll still need the web, but you need a mobile first strategy for all functionality both now and in the future.e future.

VR Now

Right now there are VR systems available, but they are very limited in their market penetration; there are only a couple million of them in use. It may seem like there should be more, but that's because they get a disproportionate amount of press because of their cool factor. Forrester is predicting that by 2020 there will be 52 million VR units in the US, which may seem like a lot, but if you compare that to mobile phones they are predicting 257 million mobile devices by 2020. So even a few years down the line with more VR penetration, it will still be a small segment compared to the mobile space.

One of the issues with VR right now is that it requires really powerful hardware. People have to go out of their way to buy hardware that is truly VR capable. That is a large barrier to entry, except for the gaming enthusiast. That's why most VR today is targeted at gamers. There are alternative systems like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR which allow you to use a high-end phone as a VR screen, but they provide a poor experience. And yes, it is introducing people to virtual reality, but I'm concerned it is inoculating people against VR because they don't see the true potential of it. It misses a lot of the immersion. Using these kinds of systems you are very much aware that you are not in a virtual world. If a user's first experience with VR is mediocre then they will be less likely to pull on a headset later. In the future, with more market penetration and cheaper hardware you will be able to engage your customer much more using VR, but right now the options are limited to situations where you control and provide the hardware. Applications like these:
  • In game product placement: If you're Pepsi and you want Pepsi cans in the Sims you can pay this month to get your product utilized in the game.
  • Visualizing Real World Spaces: If you're an architect you can let your customers walk around their building before it is even built.
  • Event VR: Hosting a big event and providing a VR experience that ties into the nature of the event-think of museum exhibitions.
  • Telepresence: Attending events virtually. With VR technology you could put offsite people in the middle of the event. The NBA could sell courtside seats, by putting a post right next to the court. And these seats would only be limited by the number of people with hardware; you could sell about as many of these tickets you want at an offsite location.
The thing with these current hardware-provided options is that you have to get over the yuck or lice factor. People need to share equipment. If you go to the eye doctor they are always wiping down the equipment for a reason. That's a good thing, but one more barrier to widespread use of these options today.

AR Now

On the other hand, augmented reality is present on phones now. With the introduction of ARKit at WWDC this year, AR has taken a large step forward in the public consciousness. There is also Google's Tango which has been out for about a year now and has similar capabilities. The fact is, you can take advantage of AR right now. These are a few ways that you can think about engaging your customer now with augmented reality:
  • Pre-sales Education: Displaying products. Let say you're a company and you want to display a very specific part to a technician who can look and see "Does this part fit?" With AR you can see if something is the exact right size and right shape before you make a purchase. Think about applications like "Does this car fit in my garage?" "How does this chair look in my living room?"
  • Post-sales Education: Teaching consumers how to use a product. Some car manufacturers are actually doing this now. Augmented reality apps that you use in your car that point out things that you can use on your dashboard (not while you're driving of course!) Floating icons that show you "This is how you turn your windshield wipers on." "This button is your adaptive cruise control." These applications give you a floating owner's manual on the dash. Just about any complex device can benefit from this.
  • Data Analytics: 3D visualizations of complex data. Imagine that instead of looking at a graph on a flat screen you can set it on the table and walk around it and interact with it in a more natural way. You can do this with customer data as well-let's say you're a bank and you want to give a visualization of your bank balance to your customer and show them simulated scenarios like, "If you put an extra five dollars into your banking account every month this is how much extra money you would have at the end of the year." You could then render a stack of money on the table and give them a powerful visualization tool to help them achieve their financial goals.
  • Way Finding: How to get around? A big pet peeve of mine is how impossible hospitals are to navigate. There may be a map on the wall telling you that "You Are Here," but you still don't have any idea where you're supposed to go because none of the rooms are labeled adequately. Creating an augmented reality map for any large facility could really reduce navigation headaches. Think airport or sports stadiums; you could ask your phone, "Where is the cold beer?"
  • Event Attractions: If you're doing a special event you can use AR to add to that experience. For example, you could have an app that looks at the field and adds player stats over their heads at a baseball game.
All these things are possible right now with augmented reality.

The Future

Coming in the future, we believe that VR will start to play a more prominent role along AR in enterprise digital strategy. The movie "Ready Player One" is coming out next spring. Based on the New York Times best-selling book of the same name, it's a sci-fi film set in the year 2044 where people spend more time inside of these virtual games than in the real world. When that movie comes out there will be a lot of buzz around VR. My concern is that Ready Player One is going to oversell the current capabilities of VR.

Still, my advice to companies is to have something you're ready to show or demo then because people will be asking about it. It might not be a positive revenue stream immediately, but it could be an impressive demonstration and a powerful marketing tool.

Going forward, VR Rigs are getting smaller and moving into smaller devices. And phone VR is getting better, my opinion is that VR really won't gain widespread acceptance until a phone can provide an excellent VR experience. It will need great visuals, 4k video right on your face, 3D sound, and some level of proprioception-detecting where your body is and what it's doing. These devices need to know where your hands are and some way to easily and cheaply interact with the virtual world. Whether it's tracking your hands with sensors, gloves or joysticks, but the long term answer is vision that can detect your hands. Once that's available, VR will take off because right now people won't give up their mobile experience and the mobile engagement to go off and be alone in a VR space.

Either way, what companies can do now to prepare for and leverage both AR and VR is to have:
  • 3D modeling and graphic expertise, either in-house or outside.
  • A strong visual asset management system because you're bringing in a new type of asset, meshes, and world spaces that describe 3D objects in the real world.
  • Good omni-channel architecture because you're going to be talking to enterprise systems and pulling data from those systems to display an interactive experience.
Right now, mobile is the touch point for both AR and Voice and eventually it will be for Virtual too. It might take an external GPU for a phone, but it's coming. So make sure when that time comes around you aren't scrambling to prepare for your player one.