The XR Revolution Is Here
While COVID-19 has stuck a dagger into the heart of office life, it might also have reinvigorated an undervalued and often overlooked technology – virtual worlds – potentially pushing XR, or extended reality, into the mainstream. At Concannon Business Consulting, we are constantly evaluating technology for client use cases and feel that XR is no longer a futuristic pipedream but has real-world applications in business right now to improve communications and remote employee engagement.
According to XR Collaboration, a volunteer team of experts heading up XR research, “the catch-all term ‘eXtended Reality’ (XR) encapsulates Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Mixed Reality (MR), and all the associated immersive technologies that power these.”
While introducing their new Snapdragon chip in 2018, Qualcomm called XR the “third pillar of entertainment”. At some point in the future, Qualcomm envisions “the convergence of the smartphone, mobile VR headset, and AR glasses into a single XR wearable. XR could replace all the other screens in your life, like that big TV in your living room. Mobile XR has the potential to become one of the world’s most ubiquitous and disruptive computing platforms—similar to the smartphone today.”
The XR Revolution Is Coming
As forecast by Qualcomm and many others, the XR revolution has been well on its way for some time, but the COVID pandemic has accelerated its emergence and pushed it deeper into the mainstream.
Ferhan Ozkan, co-founder of VR First and XR Bootcamp, has said, “Everything that is on a smartphone will soon be possible in XR, and in addition, a range of new applications will be invented that are only possible using VR/AR.”
XR is much more immersive than both previous generations of gaming tools and existing business communication tools like video calls, says Ozkan, adding it is much more emotionally engaging than previous ones. As games, 3D films, and interactive business applications increasingly move to XR, virtual reality headsets will get cheaper and far more immersive.
In his article Your next business meeting could be inside a VR headset, Nils Zimmermann explains, “These headsets will allow users to access spaces that combine real-world imagery with completely artificial environments. Computer-generated images and film images will be combined, using new tools like omnidirectional cameras and volumetric capture, or volucapping, which is a way of generating dynamic 3D virtual objects or avatars by filming a person or object from all sides simultaneously using many cameras.”
Today, people with VR headsets can walk around and explore 3D VR worlds, seeing and interacting with virtual objects from any angle and any distance, says Zimmermann. These VR worlds are considerably more immersive than previous versions.
Startups like Spatial, a company that enables people to meet through XR, as well as augmented or virtual reality, is illustrating what the future of online collaboration might just look like. As Julian Chokkattu explains in his Wired article You Can Now Attend VR Meetings—No Headset Required, “It’s a little similar to the now defunct Facebook Spaces, except it has much broader support. You can use VR or mixed-reality headsets from a myriad of brands—from Microsoft’s HoloLens and Nreal’s Light to the Oculus Quest—as vehicles to meet in virtual spaces.”
“Zoom is not a good replacement for being in the office with other people, whereas something like VR gives you that level of presence and personification,” contends Anand Agarawala, Spatial’s CEO and cofounder.
Jacob Loewenstein, the head of business at Spatial, says Spatial’s primary use case had been 3D design collaboration. “Companies like Mattel have designers that bring their creations into virtual meeting rooms and iterate on them in the naturally collaborative environment. Then, the designers bring in the team from China to show off the final manufactured product as a 3D render to compare their work and suggest alterations,” says Chokkattu. This kind of virtual collaboration allows people to work from anywhere in the world and reduces the need for travel, adds Chokkattu, which can save considerable money.
“Video chat really wasn’t made for that use case,” says Loewenstein. “Video chat is a tool that was basically good for two things: very personal conversations in small groups or big webinars where you don’t need to interact. But for anything in between it breaks down, and that’s where we see Spatial really being a much more interactive and much more personal collaboration solution.”
Meetings and Conferences in VR
So what does this all mean for businesses today? There is a strong belief that “VR will inevitably become the tool of choice for holding meetings,” says Zimmermann. If you worked at a pharmaceuticals company, “Why would you choose to look at a flat screen divided into half a dozen meeting participants on a Skype or Zoom call about the design options for a new class of antiviral drug molecules when you could don your VR headset, walk around a virtual meeting room, play around with 3D virtual models of the molecules using your VR equipment, and chat with life-size 3D avatars of your colleagues?” asks Zimmermann. It is a fair question. These more immersive and interactive environments foster far more engagement and effective communications than traditional remote meeting solutions like ZOOM and Teams.
Should you want to break away during a meeting and discuss something in private with a colleague, it would be easy to step into another virtual meeting room and converse there. You wouldn’t need to worry about missing the rest of the presentation as it would be recorded, and you could review it later.
Today, avatars – the representations of a user’s presence in XR – have become quite sophisticated, with each user’s voice realistically emanating from their avatar’s position, says XR Collaboration. Head and hand movements are also tracked. These will be perceived as gestures made by the remote user, adds XR Collaboration. This enables a level of non-verbal communication unavailable with audio calls. Some headsets include eye tracking technology, which can increase the sense of attention someone is receiving. This can provide some participants with a higher sense of social engagement, claims XR Collaboration.
Highly realistic full body avatars can also be created, which allow a user to have an animatable 3D model of his or herself. These avatar 3D models “contain volumetric 3D mesh, skeletal rigging for motion, and real textures based on your image,” says XR Collaboration. However, this technology is just developing and at a nascent stage right now, but it is developing quickly. “Emotional expression conveyed through body language and facial expressions is actually a more important factor than photorealism in producing fully-immersive interactions,” argues XR Collaboration.
“As the technology gets more sophisticated, VR business calls will usher in more nuanced, nonverbal communication that is lost in today’s video conferences. Research shows that approximately 65%-75% of all communication is nonverbal in nature,” says Jeremy Bailenson, Director, Virtual Human Interaction Lab Stanford University
One day, virtual working environments might allow companies to provide a better work-life balance for their employees, which should result in higher retention. Remote will not be the end-all-be-all state, but will require tools to reconnect us in that remote state. XR is such a tool, bringing us together with virtual mobility and immersive interaction.
Nils Zimmermann agrees, seeing an impressive future for cross reality. He claims, “XR applications will range far beyond immersive gaming and education. It will encompass remote medical diagnostics, teleconferencing, filmmaking, journalism and more. Imagine being able to walk around and explore 3D versions of the Taj Mahal, a war-wracked suburb of Aleppo, the British Museum in London, or a Borneo wildlife park, almost as if you were there, with voice-overs explaining what you’re looking at, available whenever you ask.”
This brave new virtual reality world isn’t quite here yet, says Zimmermann. Currently, relatively few people own VR headsets and there is also a serious lack of skilled professional XR application designers and developers to create these apps and programs. However, this won’t affect services like Spatial, which allows people to join XR worlds with just a PC. And the future looks bright: According to XR Collaboration, “There are nearly 100 XR Collaboration products available to customers, many of which are focused on social, education, and enterprise applications.”
The cost of immersive headsets is still a bit high, but, as with most technology, it shouldn’t be long before prices drop substantially from volume and competition and with the potential for COVID to intensify the fall, it might be time for you to consider an initial investigation into the XR world. Chokkattu also reports that Spatial is “working on iPhone and Android apps that will use the phone’s camera to recreate the virtual avatar experience at a more affordable and accessible level.” The future is obviously on the side of VR and AR conferencing. For companies considering whether or not to go all in on XR, they should remember James Goldsmith’s sage advice – “If you see a bandwagon, it’s too late.”
Let us know if you would like to discuss how XR might help your organization be even more effective in today’s remote meeting and distance communications world. You can reach us at our website or email us directly.