June 4, 2021
We don’t make it a habit of closely following consumer XR news, but it’s undeniable that the pandemic has accelerated AR/VR awareness among consumers, in particular the use of Oculus VR headsets and (mobile) AR shopping apps. So, what does growing consumer comfort with extended realities mean for enterprise? (I promise I won't use the word 'Metaverse'.)
In 2019, I wrote a blog post titled “When is the Time to Talk About Consumer-facing AR Apps in Enterprise?" Now is the time to revisit this topic: Not only has Covid-19 forever reshaped how we work but competition has been heating up among the big tech players to develop the first pair of successful consumer-grade smart glasses. Apple leaks and news out of Facebook Reality Labs are a daily occurrence, and Microsoft recently confirmed it’s developing a consumer version of the HoloLens. So, let’s explore what the arrival of mainstream AR glasses and increasing commercial use of VR will mean for enterprise, from heavy industry to office work and everything in between.
FIRST, THE RUMORS
While it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on inside Apple, there are strong indicators that augmented reality is important to the company, including CEO Tim Cook’s own words to the effect, recent acquisitions, and numerous patents. If rumors are to be believed, then, Apple is working on two devices: A high-end headset with both AR and VR capabilities that could arrive as soon as 2022 (unlikely) and standalone AR glasses that may come to market in 2025. From what we know about the earlier device, it’s likely geared towards developers and building up app support for Apple’s eventual AR glasses as opposed to true mass-market appeal (not all that unlike the first Apple Watch).
As for the tech itself, Apple has been working on advanced eye tracking capable of detecting where a user is looking as well as iris recognition (login) and foveated rendering (extended battery life). Apple’s headset is rumored to have 8K displays and weigh as little as .33 pounds, which is higher resolution and about half the weight of current market devices.
While all bets are seemingly on Apple to ‘nail’ the consumer/prosumer AR category, it’s not the only horse in the race. As the WSJ put it, “companies are spending to overcome technical and ethical hurdles as they try to bring the personal computer of tomorrow to people’s faces.” These include Niantic, nreal, Snap (which just revealed its 4th-gen Spectacles), and Vuzix. Even Google is likely to try again at consumer smart glasses.
We’re not talking about camera-equipped sunglasses or basic connected eyewear but rather sleek, powerful glasses that will ultimately replace our smartphones and computers. Mark Zuckerberg calls AR glasses “one of the hardest technical challenges of the decade,” the task being essentially to fit a supercomputer into a pair of comfortable, fashionable glasses. For Apple, this holy grail device is several years away. In the meantime, the big tech companies are focusing on a range of AR, VR and MR projects and, in most cases, dipping more than a toe into the world of enterprise.
WHERE THE MONEY IS
Perhaps the most profitable company in Mixed Reality is Microsoft, which reported 44x growth in remote assistance on the HoloLens 2 in 2020 and recently scored a $21.88 billion contract to make HoloLens-like devices for the U.S. Army. Facebook has had work apps on its Oculus VR roadmap for a while, and Apple’s big iPhone deal with Delta (19,000 iPhone 12s for Delta’s in-flight staff to use in training and customer service) indicates it’s eyeing the augmented enterprise, too. This trend didn’t originate with the coronavirus pandemic but undoubtedly the rise in remote work in response to COVID-19 ignited such efforts anew. In other words, enterprise has always been where the money is in XR but working from home (WFH) has expanded the immersive enterprise, underscoring the importance of this market and bringing XR into consumers’ homes.
THE NEW NORMAL
In addition to knocking down the cultural and technical barriers to WFH, COVID accelerated digital transformation by several years (according to McKinsey), as businesses were forced to adopt emerging technologies like XR, AI and cloud computing to continue operating. Use of AR glasses for remote support increased as SMEs were unable to travel to solve customer issues, and automotive and other designers who were already using VR/MR brought their headsets home. New, however, was a surge in demand for immersive solutions to collaborate and work productively from home among more traditionally office-bound workers. Concepts like virtual meetings and the virtual desktop went from futuristic and weird to highly desirable, receiving renewed attention from Big Tech and startups alike. In addition, all kinds of workers – industrial and white-collar – were onboarded or trained in XR for the first time. This represents a breakthrough for XR in the office (as opposed to industry), something that was likely still several years away pre-pandemic.
A WORTHY QUEST
COVID-19 put the value proposition of immersive technologies front and center for a wider range of users and IT buyers. While the use cases for frontline workers were already obvious (guidance, maintenance, repairs, inspection, collaboration, etc.), the same could not be said for desk-bound information workers—that is, until the mass experiment in remote work initiated by the pandemic. Now, as companies try to imagine a hybrid work environment that reintroduces the benefits of in-person meetings without forcing employees to wholly abandon their new WFH lifestyle, Apple, Facebook, and their peers are seeking to build the tools for it: Platforms that will change the way people communicate with family, friends and colleagues. We're not talking about mere entertainment devices but rather nothing short of the next era of interfaces for both our personal and professional lives.
In summary, what we’re seeing is a trifold convergence fueled by the global pandemic, with profound implications for the future of every type of work: Widespread practice and acceptance of remote working + Rising awareness and use of immersive apps by housebound consumers for e-commerce, entertainment, study, fitness, and more + The race to bring wearable AR to the masses.
PwC forecasts that around 23.5 million jobs around the world will use AR/VR by 2030 for training, meetings, and customer service. Hence the timeliness of Apple’s AR glasses and similar devices, which will feature in future remote work and hybrid office setups. Consumer XR devices also present opportunities for new revenue streams and services in retail, travel, hospitality, airports and field services, not to mention the applications for AR/VR in consumer-facing aspects of more industrial businesses (ex. factory tours).
Enabling customers to benefit from XR technologies has been long overlooked as a use case in enterprise. While we wait for mainstream AR/VR wearables, consumers could be experiencing the tech in wearable form factors without having to buy or own devices themselves if brands were to provide or temporarily loan devices to them. This was true before 2020 and especially now that more people have tried XR equipment for work and entertainment under quarantine.
TIME FOR B2C
B2B use cases in which manufacturers send smart glasses to customers for remote technical support, inspections, etc. increased due to COVID. But what about a parallel B2C use case, in which consumers are given smart glasses during their interactions with a business, whether at a store location or as part of a delivered kit? A Kelowna animal sanctuary shipped VR goggles with a virtual experience of its farm to people when visits declined during the pandemic. Airlines and tourism groups turned to the same tech to keep the travel bug alive among would-be travelers when it wasn’t safe to fly. Pandemic or no pandemic, it’s time for organizations to innovate around available XR devices in order to engage with consumers in new ways.
In other words, brands should take advantage of the greater exposure AR and VR have received over the past year. The pandemic created genuine demand for XR content to replace in-person experiences not only when it’s unsafe to have them but also when it’s inconvenient or costly to do so in the future. eMarketer expects 58.9 million people to use VR and 93.3 million people to use AR at least once per month in 2021. That’s 17.7% and 28.1% of the population respectively! As consumers become more and more familiar with AR/VR, companies can set themselves apart and foster future revenue-generating applications by offering wearable immersive experiences even before Apple, Facebook or another player is able to deliver mainstream consumer smart glasses.
Image source: Technizo Concept