What it's really like being the "VR person" at your company

Written BY

Emily Friedman

February 11, 2020

Written by special guest blogger Scott Burkey, VR/AR Product Lead at WestRock (all views are his own)

On April 1st, 2019, I received a message on LinkedIn from a recruiter telling me his client wanted to talk to me about managing VR/AR for his company. I was already ‘up to my eyeballs’ in VR for a professional sports league and thought that I was out on the front edge of innovation. When the recruiter told me his client was a global consumer packaging company, I couldn’t believe it. The time had come for virtual and augmented reality to take a seat at the table in B2B and it was going to be huge. Since then, I’ve discovered that there are more and more people like me doing what I do for companies like mine. In fact, they were already doing this when I arrived in the factory a year ago. Retail, healthcare, automotive, manufacturing, energy, construction and agriculture are already putting augmented and virtual reality to work, and the list goes on and on--I was shocked to say the least. After I took the role and spoke at my first industry event a few months later, I began meeting people who were delivering the same technologies I deliver with the same obstacles and confusion I have. Industry events in the XR space right now sometimes seem to be more group therapy than anything. I’ve begun to sit and have lunch and talk to others managing XR for big companies and here’s some of what we've discussed:

“It’s tough being the VR person in my company!”

We kind of joke about it but as XR Product people we’re seen as snake oil salesmen one day and technology saviors the next. I get everything from, “Oh I’m so glad you're here!” to “That’s ridiculous and my factory workers will never use it.” When I talk to executives in the field, I never know what sort of reception I will receive. Within our companies, it’s mostly open arms—thank goodness: Executives across all industries are seeing the value of using augmented reality to connect workers, train new hires and impact production numbers. Younger workers are embracing it and senior workers are glad to see a new way of capturing important domain knowledge. So, my/our job is essentially a combination of salesperson, educator, analyst and storyteller. All the while, we’re trying to build support for AR/VR one demo at a time and learning that managing XR in a large company is as much about relationship development as it is about application development.  

“This industry is nuts right now!”

Let’s face it--we’re back in 1995 again with all of the hype, land-grabbing, startups and bankruptcies in emerging tech. Devices come and go while middleware platforms mature and grow. Use cases solidify and case studies get updated. Everyday, somebody puts on the Oculus Quest for the first time and loves it while someone else gets a bad demo of a head-mounted device and writes it all off as ‘junk.’ When I talk to people running VR and AR for energy companies and automobile brands, they agree that it’s a balance of keeping our ears to the ground in a constantly changing landscape and watching where our companies have pain points so we can get a solution in place that helps our employers and customers. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced in 23 years of working in technology and I have to say……I’m having the time of my life.

“Which vendor do I believe?”

Something that comes up a lot in our conversations is how to tell which vendors are ‘shooting us straight’ and which are over-selling their capabilities. Demonstrations work great in an Innovation Lab or Customer Experience Center, and then you find out just how much work went into creating that Warner Brothers-quality demo being shown to executives in private. The worst part is that some solution providers are selling magic to stakeholders in our companies and tainting the waters well before we can set realistic expectations internally. The truth is that right now there aren’t a lot of solid, long-term data points and case studies to show who has the best solution and what sort of ROI you can really expect. It will take a while. Mysteries will be solved and the proverbial chaff will be separated from the wheat. Product prices will come down and feature sets will get more robust in the coming years. In the meantime, enjoy being at the very front of a huge wave of technology that is starting to drive some serious advancements in business operations.

“Ugh..not another headset that I can’t use.”

One of my buddies joked that he could line up all of the VR headsets, all AR HMDs (head mounted devices) and all tablets and phones on a long table and not one of them would work in his factories or offices or for his field service technicians’ daily duties. For me, in factory worker training and support, the devices either aren’t safety rated or they have tinted lenses that are too dark for the working environment. The software either doesn’t run on iOS devices or it doesn’t work in offline situations. The glasses either don’t fit with safety glasses or they’re too heavy for extended use. Don’t even get me started on audio quality! Again, I say that experience has shown us it will all improve in the near future. Everything will settle down and the market will shake out just fine. A couple of years from now, we’ll be looking back at the devices we had in 2019 and comparing them to brick phones and typewriters. The ‘good ol’ days’ it will seem. But for now, be careful before deploying a device (AR or VR) widely within your company. Think about all of the variables at play like usability, support, warranty, ease-of-use, connectivity and battery life.

One thing of real comfort to all of us delivering AR and VR solutions in the enterprise is knowing that we’re all in this together. Even the slickest vendor salesperson still loves the technology and wants to see these products bring value in the factories. Even the most useless device on the market right now has played a part in shaping this industry and its direction. Even the goofiest blog writer ever (yours truly) has helped somebody make some sense out of a dynamic and crazy time in technology. It will all work out, so just enjoy the ride and get together with others in the same boat for lunch to support each other.

About the author:

Scott Burkey leads the Extended Reality Products in the Innovations and Emerging Tech group for Westrock, a global manufacturing and consumer packaging company headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. He takes a pragmatic approach to implementing new ways of making training more effective and supporting front-line workers. Having worked as a software developer for over 20 years at companies like CNN, TBS/TNT and Coca-Cola, Scott now champions new technologies in the manufacturing industry which he believes will be one of the biggest adopters of AR/VR in the near-term. Prior to WestRock, Scott delivered VR products for theNational Basketball Association. He serves in an advisory capacity to a commercial drone company and several non-profits that change lives even without VR headsets and drones. Scott is a United States Marines Veteran who enjoys running and eating with his wife and four children in Atlanta, Georgia. All views are his own.

Image source: Forbes

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