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XR applications are already changing businesses

Many still regard the metaverse as a technology looking for an application. Yet company leaders would be surprised to learn how commercially usable augmented and virtual reality applications already are

Many companies see the metaverse as the newest frontier in digital collaboration and cooperation, and the media paints pictures of future landscapes that will simplify our lives or threaten our societal fabric. In actuality, many extended-reality (XR) applications already exist and are helping industries and individuals to design operations and services more effectively and efficiently. XR captures the spectrum of augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), which share many characteristics but are rarely interchangeable.

Japanese telecommunications provider KDDI recently unveiled an AR service that enables users to interact with companies’ offers, even entire urban environments, having implemented the application in the shopping district of Ginza in Tokyo, Japan. “Digital human as a service” features an avatar that interacts with customers via the camera view of a cellphone. A superimposed line of arrows guides customers towards promoted sections of the shopping district, such as an art exhibition.

The main implementation challenge was to get many value-chain partners to cooperate. KDDI provided the 5G connectivity, AWS Wavelength contributed mobile-edge computing, Mawari created the AR content, Sturfee took care of outdoor mapping and Immersal worked on indoor mapping to augment real-world spaces with digital content.

Speaking about KDDI’s deployment at SWSX 2022, Leslie Shannon of Nokia used it as example to illustrate that such a setup requires agreement among many partners so that technology and content components can come together.

Technological issues exist – for instance, outdoor and indoor mapping need to work seamlessly for proper handover between the apps. But Shannon stressed: “My experience is that the technology is never the hard part; it’s the legal and the business agreements.”

She notes that all partners need to see benefits in the collaboration, but even then, questions such as “who faces the customer?” and “who provides customer care?” remain.

Shannon also provides an example how city governments and communities can leverage these new technologies. The City of Wellington in New Zealand created a virtual representation of the city – Buildmedia created the digital twin. This VR representation has transformed how Wellington manages operations. The digital twin of the city visualises, for instance, how and where water levels will rise in the streets as a result of climate change.

A city council member noted that this visualisation stopped the discussion about whether there is a problem and moved in towards what the city could do about flooding.

“If you just look at a spreadsheet, you are not going to see the problem,” says Shannon. “It’s when you put data together and you represent it visually that you viscerally understand the issues.”

Testing ‘what if’ scenarios

She maintains that a similar approach can help corporate decision-makers to see problems they didn’t even know existed. Then managers can test “what if” scenarios by using such digital twins and consider new approaches. Nokia says it is seeing a lot of interest in digital twins, particularly for manufacturing. Virtual representations of products and components enable users to take them apart and look at it in ways that cannot be done in the physical world.

Vesa Koivumaa, head of growth for industrial equipment provider Wärtsilä, says digital twins also make it easy to assemble geographically dispersed team members. Meeting participants from all over the world can access information remotely, discuss the issues at hand, and change designs collaboratively.

Geoff Bud, head of software partnerships for headset manufacturer Varjo, notes that automotive design teams have been using VR for about 10 years now. Virtual environments allow designers to walk around representations of models and point out elements of the design that require attention. Using a three-button mouse to click on objects to manipulate them is not intuitive – instead, VR caters to human understanding and sense-making.

Koivumaa elaborates on the use of VR in design applications that Wärtsilä is involved in. He notes that the design of seafaring vessels and industrial applications is very expensive. Until now, there has always been a lack of customer input when designing components, and it was very difficult, if not impossible, to involve end-users in meaningful ways. For instance, the captain and crew of a cruise vessel had very little opportunity to have their opinions heard when working on layouts of upcoming ship and deck designs.

But now, with digital twins, a crew can look at the design plan and expected operations to provide feedback about their preferences and make potential change requests. And for the design team, it is easy to move components and controls around without the previous need to change orders and associated costs of tens of thousands of dollars or more.

In a recent article, Markus Mannevaara, Wärtsilä Voyage’s senior director of rapid innovation, says “We simulate accurate conditions in VR and, for example, can have a captain test the features of a future bridge.

Read more about the metaverse

Nokia’s Shannon points to another example from the construction industry. In Australia, Telstra provides 5G connectivity for partner Taylor Construction to develop virtual models of facilities and sites. Christian Neyle, IT manager at Taylor, describes the advantages of VR like this: “We can now take the models that we actually use for the building, before the building is built, and start to detect things like clashes or areas where the hydraulics need to go that may not have actually been feasibly designed properly yet. You can put these headsets on, walk through the empty building you’re about to fit out and go: ‘hang on, the model isn’t right here’.”

Shannon echoes Koivumaa’s comments about the cost of change orders, paraphrasing architect Frank Lloyd Wright: “It’s much easier to make changes with an eraser than with a sledgehammer.”

Besides the design of physical objects, VR can help to improve operations. In April 2022, the Kraft Heinz Company announced that it would work on digital twins as part of its metaverse initiative to enable logistics managers to address supply-chain problems effectively. To achieve this goal, Kraft Heinz is partnering with Microsoft.

The company’s executive vice-president, Judson Althoff, says the collaboration enables Kraft Heinz to leverage “data analytics and the industrial metaverse to co-innovate and create hybrid experiences that will ultimately put goods into the hands of retailers and consumers”.

Koivumaa also highlights the benefits of VR in training applications. Previously, the cost of physical simulators ran to millions of dollars and then the devices were stuck at one physical location – users often couldn’t find the time to travel to the simulators. Now, with VR, users can access training simulations whenever time permits.

Reducing the need for travel also supports many companies’ efforts to decarbonise their operations, and VR enables business partners and team members to engage effectively, reducing the need for physical travel.

Koivumaa points out that many customers and the media tend to talk about such technologies as if they were still five to 10 years into the future. That is not the case. Obviously, technologies will get better every year and the benefits of AR and VR will continue to increase for users, but the applications mentioned above already exist and Wärtsilä is making use of them. Nevertheless, many organisations are cautious of hype, and there is a feeling that metaverse-related applications are at the hype stage.

Medical applications of VR

Varjo’s Bud refers to the ongoing use of VR for applications in other industries. Varjo is working with clients in the medical field to create immersive representations of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT or CAT) scans, for instance. VR solutions also enable medical personnel to collaborate on medical imaging in virtual settings. Many meaningful healthcare applications exist, both for diagnostics and therapeutic treatments.

Varjo is working with Finland’s Tampere University on medical imaging by employing VR, multi-sensory presentation and haptic feedback to make sense of imaging data. VR also can be used in diagnosing degenerative muscle disorders and in the treatment or reduction of post-traumatic stress disorder. The medical and healthcare field will continue to benefit by developments in XR.

Meanwhile, entertainment companies’ use of virtual production tools – such as Epic Games’ Unreal engine or Unity Technologies’ solutions – is another commercial application highlighted by Bud. XR tools enable directors and visual-effects departments “to anticipate what they are intending to do before they get out on the set and start burning a lot of money per minute”, he says. The cost differences between changes made in VR and the physical world are a recurring theme across industries.

In fact, VR will create completely new forms of entertainment. A Computer Weekly  article, The beneficial (and frightening) implications of virtualising reality, looked at the use of virtual concert experiences involving late celebrities – such as rapper Tupac Shakur and singer Whitney Houston. Now entire virtual environments can be created around late artists. The Brook metaverse features the world of The Notorious B.I.G. His former manager worked with Surreal, Willingie and ZOAN to create the virtual environment.

Miikka Rosendahl, founder and CEO of virtual-world creator ZOAN, works with many companies that want to enter the metaverse to sell their products, using such environments as new retail channels. In education, the EU-funded European Consortium for Innovative Universities (ECIU) is taking steps towards a virtual university with ZOAN’s help.

The current infatuation with the metaverse as an all-encompassing virtual environment obscures the many applications that are already available and the many benefits they are already creating across industries and operational tasks.

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small data, big disruptions: how to spot signals of change and manage uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser, strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.

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