Extended reality software gets pandemic lift

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Although so-called extended reality (XR) software has been around in various shapes and forms for years, business interest in the technology has risen dramatically since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many organisations that had previously been evaluating or doing proof-of-concept work with XR swiftly decided to roll out the technology as a means of conducting activities remotely. Rather than continuing to explore the possible transformational shifts it could generate, the focus moved to using the software to ensure that operations such as production lines could be kept working.

As Angela Ashenden, principal analyst in market research firm CCS Insight’s digital workplace practice, says: “For large enterprises, the pandemic, as much as it could, came at the right time in the curve to capitalise on extended reality. The key is the technology’s relative maturity in the augmented (AR) and mixed reality (MR) field, where it has now reached a point of starting to become interesting.”

Adoption has also been speeded up by the fact that – unlike virtual reality (VR), which requires expensive headsets because of its immersive nature – AR-based applications can be accessed via smartphones and tablets, says Annette Jump, senior director analyst for research and advisory firm Gartner’s emerging technologies and trends research practice.

The most prevalent pre-pandemic use cases were in areas such as supporting front-line field service workers when inspecting and fixing problems with infrastructure such as water pipes or equipment on oil rigs. Since then, adoption has flourished in sectors ranging from healthcare and logistics to manufacturing.

Adoption only limited by the imagination

Manufacturers, for example, are now using the technology for remote prototyping, product demonstrations and remote field service to maintain assembly lines. In hospitals, medical staff are using devices in Covid wards to enable them to care for patients with the help of remote specialists, while warehouse workers are employing the technology to help speed up the picking process.

“Adoption is happening faster than we expected due to the opportunities presented by augmented reality, which are only really limited by the imagination,” says Ashenden. “It now feels like there’s a real appetite for this as there are areas of the market that desperately need to scale up their capabilities after having reduced their workforce, having less ability to move employees around, or needing to reduce their operational cost base – so there’s more of a business case now.”

Also, once the “initial hurdle” of justifying the technology’s deployment for one activity has been cleared, other opportunities tend to show themselves quite quickly and adoption often snowballs, Ashenden adds.

Key benefits include reducing the amount of time it takes to perform tasks, especially in remote locations, which in turn reduces downtime, boosts efficiency, improves service quality and reduces costs.

But the VR side of things, meanwhile, “isn’t getting as much love at the moment”, says Ashenden. Not only are headsets and other equipment expensive, but the technology’s use cases are also more limited than AR and MR’s to things like training and collaborative design.

An optimistic future ahead

“There are only so many scenarios where it’s necessary for employees to be fully immersed in a virtual environment,” she adds. “But training and virtual onboarding in particular have benefited from people’s lack of ability to travel.”

While VR may already be “fairly mainstream” in adoption terms, says Gartner’s Jump, she predicts it will be another one to three years before the same is true of AR, and more like six to seven years for MR – despite the current rising levels of uptake in the enterprise space.

“Covid was a big driver for bringing things forward for immersive technologies – Gartner’s term for XR – by a couple of years,” she says. But the technology is “still emerging”, which means not only that “things are changing quite quickly”, but the overall market is also “quite fragmented”, she adds.

Nonetheless, it is now possible to buy more “productised” applications than before, which means no longer having to either build them from scratch or develop a suitable user interface yourself, says Ashenden. This means that although the technology is “not quite off-the-shelf as it still needs to be integrated into your processes”, the barriers to entry are lowering.

As a result, Ashenden is optimistic about the technology’s future. “We don’t know exactly what will happen with the economic situation and how it will affect things, but there do seem to be more customer reference sites for buyers to speak to, which makes it easier to invest,” she says. “So it feels like we’re at a real tipping point right now.”

Here are examples of a couple of companies that are using XR to positive effect:

 

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