Immersive technologies, like many other components of today’s digital revolution, aren’t new. Virtual reality, for example, has been adopted in the medical field, in the automotive industry and in flight simulators since the ’70s.
What changes today, and this is a general trend, is the market offering of increasingly sophisticated tools at ever lower prices.
We are talking about a price tag, for a virtual reality headset or HMI (Head Monunted Display), of hundreds of euros and 2’000-3’000 euros for augmented reality ( ten years ago the price level was tenfold….). However, since these technologies are also available on smartphones (and who doesn’t own a good smartphone today?), there might not be a real need to spend money on new hardware.
We have evidence that this is a market with a huge potential by reading about the billions of dollars technological giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are pouring into the development or acquisition of the best technologies.
Following recent developments and market offerings, there is today some confusion over the terms currently used to identify each technology. Let’s try to do bring some clarity.
Virtual Reality requires a viewer that hides the surrounding real environment and gives access to a computer generated, three-dimensional virtual world, where real time interactions are possible. We can move around the virtual setting and manipulate virtual objects. The main senses involved are sight and hearing, but there are solutions where, with additional equipment, other senses like touch or physical variables like acceleration are available. The user lives the experience of a virtual world in a way that is perceived as real and totally immersive.
Augmented Reality, on the other hand, requires a viewer which displays the surrounding environment where computer generated 3D content is superposed. The user can interact with this content , in real time, as if it was physically present in the environment. In technical language we say that the virtual object is “registered in 3D” to the environment.
There is a variation of augmented reality where digital information superimposed to the surrounding real world is not registered in the 3D. Since there is no registration, the experience is a very different one. The term “Assisted Reality” is often used. It’s a more popular technology in the business environment, with applications in remote maintenance and all along the logistics pipeline, The user can access product and process information, or even attend a video-conference, hands-free directly from the viewer display.
A final explanation about another common term, “Mixed Reality“. If we imagine a horizontal axis where at one end we have virtual reality and at the opposite end “real” reality , augmented reality will lay somewhere in between. Personally, I find augmented reality a better, clearer term.
The definition of each technology helps reveal the possible applications.
If we need to experiment in the real environment with an object that hasn’t yet been produced or purchased, the solution is augmented reality. Ikea, for example, developed a smartphone application that lets the customer view virtual furniture from the catalog directly in her home, before purchasing.
If there’s no need to view an object in a specific context, then virtual reality surely is a valid alternative. Less expensive (for now) and without distraction from the environment (light, other objects), delivers a realistic experience of a new product or environment. You can walk around a machine and take it apart piece by piece even if it only exists on paper. Or you may experiment with a new plant layout or construction before even starting building it.
If you “simply” need to view information on a viewer (construction details, real-time operating data, instructions, video conferencing), assisted reality is the right choice but not necessarily the cheapest one. While augmented reality is related to the consumer world and its prices, assisted reality is still focused on business solutions and therefore has a higher price tag, though you can also find consumer solutions for example for cycling.
Someone once said that talking about immersive technology is like describing a tv set over the radio. You absolutely need to experiment with it. So, I’m adding a short video where I use the three technologies on the same virtual object (it’s a freezer / refrigerator prototype that I made during my rapid prototyping experience at the Fab Academy).
Are they useful for selling?
In marketing and sales publications you can often read statements like:
“When we asked the buyers why they chose that supplier, 75% of them replied that the content that was shown to them during the meetings had a major impact on the purchase decision”;
“Over half of the new potential customers ask to see how the product works at the first call”;
“Suppliers who did not make it, did not have enough marketing material to help us understand how complete their offer and the experience of their company was.”
And if I look at my 20 years of sales practice, I confirm the hardship of dealing with poor product information.
Perhaps immersive technologies can help.
I strongly believe this is possible because “everything you can imagine is real” (Pablo Picasso).