Collaboration tech: AR/VR, AI and intelligent bots
Consumer driven yet with business value, these emerging technologies can be powerful resource multipliers when correctly applied, finds ALEX MEEHAN
10 October 2018 | 0
With augmented reality (AR) mostly found in high-end smart phones and virtual reality (VR) headsets commonly used for gaming purposes, it is tempting to write off the technologies associated as not having serious enterprise applications.
But along with artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of bots, they are actually at the forefront of new developments in the way that teams collaborate, blending presence and visualisation with more traditional productivity tools.
However, for many it remains true that the only experience they have of using these kinds of technologies is in consumer-orientated products, most famously in the case of virtual reality performed with a smart phone slotted into a cardboard case. So how do you explain the true potential of these technologies to enterprise users?
“It’s probably a cliché, but it’s really a technology that has to be experienced in order to be appreciated – and by that I mean properly experienced on a full 6DoF (six degrees of freedom) headset, as opposed to sticking a phone into a €5 piece of cardboard with some cheap plastic lenses inside. People will often try bad VR or AR and write off all VR and AR as bad as a result. I’d like people to try something that works well before they make a judgement on it,” said Niall Campion, managing director of virtual and augmented reality specialists VRAI.
“If they don’t do that, then they won’t appreciate the functional use of the technology. We don’t do any games or movies — everything we do has a functional business purpose. People don’t often appreciate these other uses, and how the technology is a powerful tool as opposed just being a better way to play Call of Duty. But increasingly this is becoming less of a problem as these functional uses become more mainstream.”
VRAI is a good example of a small yet innovative Irish company doing real business with these next generation technologies. It recently completed a project with the United Nations in Somalia that made extensive use of VR.
“The problem was how to show the civilian side of the UN the challenges that the military side faces on a daily basis. It was too dangerous to take the civilians out of the protected compound into the country, so we made a VR experience of it,” said Campion.
“We filmed for real with a 360 camera in Mogadishu, then built a VR experience around that. It’s always important for us to create a sense of authenticity in our experiences and this approach — filming for real — allowed us to do that. And the results were evident once we started showing it to people. The camp counsellor for example, who had never left the compound, said as soon as she took off the headset ‘now I know what my colleagues actually do’.”
By way of a less dramatic commercial example, Campion offers the case of an AR application it built for Samsung designed to facilitate the company’s mobile sales team in Ireland and Britain.
“At any given time, Samsung could have hundreds of salespeople on the road demoing phones. These are premium devices, so they’re expensive — even at cost. By building an AR application that has realistic 3D models of the various phones in the range, Samsung made significant savings around the cost of hardware. They don’t have to hand out hundreds of devices anymore, they can hand them out virtually,” he said.
Campion acknowledges that VR was largely developed as a consumer application but argues that the very fact that it is consumer-ready means that it is easily accessible and affordable.
“That has driven the current wave of VR. However, as a company, we actually don’t deal with business to consumer content at all. Everything we’ve created to date is functional content for businesses. That can range from marketing experiences to raise awareness around a particular product or service, to training experiences to help prepare staff for risky or hazardous scenarios they could potentially find themselves in. VR is a great tool for this – for putting people in scenarios that are too dangerous or too expensive to recreate for real,” he said.
Ultimately, Campion thinks that VR, and probably more likely AR, will become as important to Irish businesses as the mobile phone or the computer. The real question surrounds the time scales involved, and this is something that Mark O’Regan, chief technology officer for Dell EMC Ireland, thinks will be sooner rather than later.
“All technologies start off with low rates of user acceptance, but that changes as the use case is continually proved. We’re already seeing these technologies gaining in popularity in the telco space for example, where artificial intelligence and the use of bots is becoming more common, and VR and AR are also being used a lot,” he said.
“But to be honest, virtual and augmented reality had a troubled reputation in the business community until relatively recently. They were very hyped and were held out to hold potential that was a bit ‘too much too soon’ for the consumer arena. If you look at what Google was doing with Glass for example, it was way ahead of its time, and that worked to its disadvantage.”
But around a year and a half ago, things started to change, and a resurgence in interest started to occur.
“For example, we started to see these technologies used to launch cars. You could showcase the technology, bring it to expos, and people could come along before the car was launched and get a feel for what it would be like to sit in it,” said O’Regan.
However, it is in the enterprise arena that he believes the most use cases for these next generation technologies will emerge.
“We’re already taking these things and using them to solve business problems and to accelerate business advantage. While the consumer market will absolutely grow with the involvement of organisations like ourselves, Lenovo, HP and so on, that’s only going to accelerate. But the real application of these technologies is going to be in enterprise,” he said.
“Example include the oil and gas industries, where it’s difficult and dangerous to take people out onto oil rigs in the middle of the ocean, or clean rooms, where crazy high standards have to be maintained. If you can train technicians and engineers in virtual reality environments, it’s a lot cheaper and safer than bringing them into the field. In some environments, there is real physical danger of losing a limb or even your life so why wouldn’t you approximate that situation for training purposes in a virtual world? This is something we’re seeing more and more of around the world, and in Ireland. Immersive experiences are really useful for these situations.”
John Savage, co-founder of IT consultancy ActionPoint, said that his company has a particular focus on doing research into emerging technologies in order to position itself well to offer any advantages they might hold to its customers. It’s in this context that he’s looked closely at VR and AR and the associated technologies that go with them.
“If we’re talking about mainstream business adoption, I think we’re around three years out from augmented and mixed reality applications being used in business. Obviously there are early adopters and use case scenarios right now for some companies, but in terms of mainstream adoption, I think it’s a little way off yet,” he said.
“The business case for AR is much stronger in my opinion than it is for VR. I think VR will be used predominantly as an entertainment tool, but AR has an exciting future in terms of being used for digital work instructions. This is the idea that an operator is doing a task on a production line, an AR system can understand where they are on the production line and what they’re doing and can then bring in the exact amount of explanation required in their line of sight to help them do the job.”
This is a powerful tool for giving people context to their situation, using hands-free technology. It is also not hard to see the application of AR in the context of training.
“If you have an operator that’s new to a job, they can be given a seamless overview of how to do that job from the perspective of hand movement. That is hugely powerful because a large amount of management time is spent on training people. Also, once someone is trained, how do you validate that they’re doing the job properly?” Savage said.
“If they’re wearing an AR system, you have a record of exactly is going on. You can gather information about what they were looking at, where their hands were and what buttons they were pressing at any given time. For highly skilled jobs, that’s incredibly powerful.”
From a collaboration point of view, one of the areas where AR can be really powerful is in remote assistance.
“We used a Microsoft Hololens in a situation where I was at a trade show in Austin, Texas. I brought a physical demo unit of a piece of kit with me and it got broken by the airline I flew in on. I had to rebuild it from scratch despite having never built a unit like this before,” Savage said.
“I wore a Hololens in Texas while a developer here in Ireland logged on to Skype. They could see exactly what I was doing and could talk me through how to do it using my exact field of view. That’s extremely strong from a collaboration point of view. I could point at something and say ‘what’s this?’ rather than having to describe it down the phone. He also stopped me from making a mistake because that he could see I was about to make. It worked seamlessly.”
Taking an overall look at the potential for these technologies moving forward, it seems likely their development will diverge from that of consumer equivalents. While gaming, social and communication applications take one path, it is probable that medical technology, exploration, mining, training and other fields – in fact any situation where it could be an advantage to have expertise in one place and guided human or robotic hands in another – will go a different way.
“From birth, humans intuitively learn through touch. We don’t need an instruction manual to use a pen to draw. We pick up and hold objects, and when we close our eyes can immediately enter a new world of imagination,” said Gary Tierney, managing director of HP Ireland.
“Interaction with technology should be just as intuitive and fluid, and it’s these driving principles that inform the development of immersive computing at HP. We believe it is time for the business world to catch up on the power of technology seen in the consumer sphere.”
Tierney believes that by harnessing AR and VR tech, companies can collaborate better, take physical experiences into the digital world and build a globally available working environment that is personalised to suit the strengths of the individual.
“AR/VR is helping companies turbo-charge their R&D process – moving from design and prototypes to product in less than a week. HP customers, using our workstation PCs and Mixed Reality headsets, have even been able to remove prototyping, going from sketch to production in 72 hours,” he said.
“This gives engineers, manufacturers and designers the power to completely reinvent their products and machines, because for the first time they are able to determine and interrogate the properties of each part or product they create with hair-width precision.”
Meanwhile others are finding innovative ways to use these technologies. In 2017, Lloyds Banking Group in Britain started using a VR set-up to aid its recruitment process, putting candidates through dummy trials and making them carry out work-based tasks in a virtual environment in order to gain a better idea of their skillsets prior to hiring. Is this likely to become common practice? It is hard to see why not.
One thing is certain, once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very unlikely to go back in. Artificial intelligence and mixed reality applications represent a genuine evolution of the interfaces that people use to communicate with technology, and with companies like Apple, Google and Facebook putting significant money into mixed reality tech, the odds are it will be something we will all have to get to grips with soon.