Extended reality: the next big thing?

The past couple of years have seen something of a surge in interest among the AV industry in virtual technologies. Ian McMurray ponders whether that interest may be misguided.

The XR Summit – a one day conference – returns to ISE next year (the last ever ISE in Amsterdam: in 2021, it moves to the Fira de Barcelona exhibition complex with its significantly greater capacity than the RAI) after making its debut in 2019. ‘XR’, if you haven’t been keeping up, is ‘extended reality’, a catch-all term for all the realities that aren’t real. (In other words: virtual reality, augmented reality, enhanced reality, mixed reality and so on.) That the conference is running again tells me that a) someone, somewhere believes that XR is relevant to the AV community, and b) there was enough interest at the first event (by all accounts, 116 people turned up) to make it worth running it again.

However: we encounter a couple of problems straight from the get-go (as our American friends like to say). The first of these is that, while XR is a convenient catch-all term, its constituent elements – VR, AR, MR, ER – may have the same technology roots, but the applications themselves are quite different.

Immersive, deteriorating

Virtual reality, for example, creates something completely beyond real reality – a digital world that you can inhabit that’s completely divorced from the outside world. It’s typically immensely immersive – and can be incredibly disorientating. Thus far, VR has primarily been a gaming technology, largely made possible by platforms like the Oculus Quest and Rift headsets. Sony launched the PlayStation VR, while PC gamers have the HTC Vive.

Augmented or enhanced reality, however, blend the real world with the digital world – overlaying the sights, sounds and experiences that are normal to us with digitally-generated information. The best known example is probably Pokémon Go. Launched in July 2016, it generated 752 million downloads and $1.2 billion in revenue. Somewhat brief-lived – is anyone even still playing it? – it could be said to have brought AR to the mass market. If you weren’t one of those 752 million, you may not know that Pokémon Go uses a mobile device’s GPS to locate, capture, battle and train virtual creatures which appear as if they are in the player’s real world location.

So: VR and AR are quite different in what they do. The second problem, though, is that there are two very different kinds of VR. The one I described earlier is the one people are most familiar with – the one that involves wearing a silly hat. However, aficionados of Star Trek: The Next Generation will be very familiar with a different kind of VR in the form of the Holodeck – a room that participants can move around in and engage with an entirely virtual world. No headgear required. It could be used for either recreational or more serious purposes. We’re not yet fully able to recreate the Holodeck experience (even if we have managed to recreate the personal communicators that allowed you to talk to anyone, wherever you or they are… Allegedly, Martin Cooper at Motorola invented the first mobile phone, citing Star Trek as his inspiration) – but we’re getting closer all the time.

Confusion

A third problem (no-one expects The Spanish Inquisition…) is that combining these disparate technologies – VR, AR, ER – into one convenient pigeon hole can
easily cause confusion. More than one company has said to me that prospective customers have come to them saying they need a VR solution, when what they mean is AR – or vice versa.

And, it turns out, customers are indeed asking for VR and AR solutions. Capgemini recently reported that enterprises are deploying AR and VR technologies in their businesses. The company found that 82% of organisations implementing AR/VR claim the benefits are either meeting or exceeding their expectations. Beyond that: 50% of the enterprises surveyed not actively working with XR technologies say they plan to do so over the next three years – and 46% of companies said they believe the technology will become mainstream in their organisations within the same time period.

There appears, then, to be a commercial market for VR and AR: they’re not just technologies for gaming. The question for the AV industry is: is it a market for today’s integrators? Many point out that the AV industry has traditionally been about shared/collective experiences – and thus far, for sure, VR mostly hasn’t been that. Pokémon Go, in its unique way, perhaps was.

Not yet clear

On the other hand: what about applications like board rooms, training rooms, huddle rooms and so on? VR could perhaps turn those into immersive experiences – although why anyone might want to do that isn’t yet clear. AR, on the other hand – overlaying data onto real world images – may well find a home in those environments.

There are, however, many industries – mostly those that design things – could certainly benefit. Imagine being able to thoroughly create and debug a product or a building or whatever in virtual. It should be said that retailers have had some success with virtual changing rooms. invidis consulting is one of the foremost analysts in the DooH field, and is pretty bullish about XR in retail.

Obvious opportunities

I’ve passed over the obvious opportunities for VR and AR that exist in the AV industry – visitor attractions, theme/amusement parks, simulation and so on – because those are the province of a relatively few integrators. The opportunity there, according to those who play in those spaces, is unquestionably enormous.

Are VR and AR solutions looking for a problem – much as 3D turned out to be (although there are those who believe that VR/AR deliver the value that 3D was meant to deliver)? The answer, despite the cynicism of many, appears to be “no, they’re not”. There’s already extensive take-up of XR technology, and it seems to be delivering real benefits. There may, however, be a reason for integrators to start to learn what’s involved and begin to develop the necessary proficiencies – or at least, partner with a company that has them – that has nothing to do with the technology. Back in the day, when I trained as a salesman, I was taught that ‘account control’ is everything. ‘Allowing’ a VR/AR company into your customer could turn out to be the thin end of a very big wedge. Such partnerships may be the way forward for many integrators.

Extended reality is, I’m certain, an opportunity – but an opportunity for the AV industry? Me? I’m still not sure. It’s certainly something I’ll be following closely, as I’d recommend anyone with an eye on the future of their business to do – and if I can find the time among my other ISE duties, I’ll be at that XR Summit next year. I’d love to think I’ll come away convinced that virtual technologies may just be the next big thing for audiovisual companies.

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