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Extended reality software gets pandemic lift

Extended reality software is not new, but the Covid-19 public health crisis has seen it take on a new lease of life as organisations face up to virtuality

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:

Case study: Panasonic Heating and Cooling Europe

Panasonic Heating and Cooling Europe has implemented an AR system in its field service operation as part of a wider move away from a product-centric business model towards a service-based one.

The air-conditioning provider originally started trialling the cloud-based IFS Remote Assistance tool in two pilot sites in the UK and Germany during the first lockdown in the spring in order to provide customers with remote support.

But Karl Lowe, the company’s head of European service, says that although the technology was initially perceived to simply be a “sticking plaster to help us in the short term”, the trials revealed “many additional benefits that we’d not foreseen at the start”. A key benefit related to the amount of time it was possible to save field technicians in travelling to customer sites.

“If something goes wrong with an air-conditioning system, people mostly say it’s a warranty fault, but in 95% of cases it’s actually an installation error,” says Lowe. “The IFS system enables us to identify the problem quickly before we go on site, which is costly for us and means customers have to wait two or three days for an engineer. So it’s about providing more efficient and effective support.”

The system, which went live across Europe on 1 October this year, acts as a second port of call if it is not possible for a technician to solve customer problems over the phone within 10 minutes, the idea being that “a picture paints a thousand words”, says Lowe. If the problem is too complex to deal with using either approach, a site visit is then arranged.

As to how the AR system itself is used, customers are sent an email link and, once accepted, they point the camera on their device, which includes a mobile phone, tablet and PC, at the air-conditioning unit in question to enable remote diagnosis of the fault.

Introducing air-as-a-service

There are then two options: on receiving a frozen image, remote technicians and engineers can either add notes to it or they can merge video streams from their own and customers’ devices. In this instance, their hands appear within the customer’s device viewer, enabling them – or on-site technicians in difficult cases – to follow the guidance provided by remote experts to repair the fault themselves.

Taking this approach enables the company to pool expertise and share knowledge from its teams across Europe. It also reduces Panasonic’s environmental impact and cuts operational costs because technicians no longer need to be on the road as much.

As Lowe points out: “Labour is an expensive asset and it costs about £350 a day to have people on the road, and that’s before you factor in traffic and the additional hours they may need to work. So if we can make people more efficient, it’s a win-win.”

With more technicians’ time being freed up, the aim is to provide them with online training around Panasonic’s entire product range and the growing impact of the internet of things to prepare them for a move to a monthly subscription-based business model based on a range of service packages.

Lowe explains: “It’ll be less about products and more about solutions, so we’re thinking about ‘air-as-a-service’, whether it’s dry, warm or cold. It’s a game-changer in an industry that is only just starting to move that way, but it would be about giving customers the unit for free and charging for remote services, such as maintenance and optimisation for energy efficiency.”

The idea is that rather than pay for an engineer to come out when things go wrong, the unit would be monitored remotely and, if a fault were spotted, the IFS system would be used to sort it out. The air-as-a-service approach is currently being trialled in Denmark and is due to go live across Europe in April next year.

 

Case study: Vungle Creative Labs

Vungle Creative Labs has introduced a series of immersive video adverts as a stepping stone towards offering a full AR and VR experience in 2021.

The 360-degree video technology was initially tested with adverts for five marquee clients in the spring. But one of the first assets to go live promoted Activision’s Call of Duty first-person shooter video game, with the aim of helping consumers to “go behind the gun-and-shooter narrative”, says the mobile advertising specialist’s vice-president, Si Crowhurst.

Immersive video was picked as the medium of choice not only because it “promotes the title in a dynamic way”, but it also bridges the gap between traditional video and enables customers to interact with a virtual world, says Crowhurst.

Also, during testing, 360-degree video was found to be the “sweet spot that was most effective in getting people to buy” as the novelty and immersive nature of it “hooked them in”, he adds. On the one hand, novelty makes a “stand-out impression” and creates a “halo effect”, which generates “excitement and attention” and encourages people to share the advert more than if it were static.

Creating more engagement

On the other hand, it is about creating engagement. “The first and last six seconds of a 25-second advert are the most important,” says Crowhurst. “The first six are important to hook people, and the longer they stay in the ad, the more likely they are to engage with the title, especially if there’s a strong ending.”

To this end, the advert itself connects directly with the 360-degree video advert’s end card and triggers the launch of the Apple App Store to make it easier to buy the game.

As to why the decision was made to go down the immersive video route first before leaping into either AR or VR, Crowhurst says that although both technologies are part of the company’s strategy going forward, he sees it as a process of “leading people towards future innovation”.

“It’s about educating the market – people need to have the experience and see the value before they make the shift, so we’re gradually nudging the depth of interactivity,” he says.

Crowhurst also predicts that immersive video, AR and VR adverts will all have an appeal beyond the gaming world. “We’re just scratching the surface in terms of multi-sensory experiences – for example, in an automotive advert, you could include haptic road bumps,” he says. “It could almost be like playing a game in an advert.”

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