Virtual worlds and digital assistants conquering the business world
ANDREAS TH. FISCHER, FREELANCE JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR IN BERG AM STARNBERGER SEE
For a number of years now, virtual reality has been an established fixture for consumers, who use rather clunky goggles to experience it in a playful manner. Now, virtual reality and digital assistants are making inroads into the business world, changing the way people work and relate to each other. The future has arrived and is changing all our lives.
Five years ago, Google was one of the first companies to launch a large-scale trial with Google Glass to merge the real world with the virtual one. However, this attempt failed dismally. Hardly anyone wanted to be a „glass hole“ and come under suspicion of using the spectacles to surreptitiously record the people around them. The spectacles went on sale in mid-2014 only to be withdrawn from the market a few months later. However, this did not stop the Internet giant from continuing its research into the spectacles.
Now, Google Glass has re-emerged in a new enterprise version at prices that put it way beyond the mass market and show where the journey is headed. Namely, directly into companies as a new instrument for work for allowing customers to explore new worlds or perhaps to book their next holiday safely and convenientlyfrom home or a branch office. Thus, travel companies such as TUI and Neckermann are already offering customers the possibility of exploring holiday destinations virtually at many of their branches. Equipped with VR glasses the customer can take a guided tour of the cabins on board a cruise ship and search for his favourite table in one of the restaurants before boarding the ship.
The “Pokémon Go” phenomenon
Summer 2016 saw a breakthrough for augmented reality: the new smartphone game Pokémon Go was being played by more than 30 million people within a short period of time. The game superimposes fantasy creatures from the Pokémon onto the player’s real world. In doing so, it implements basic AR technologies to create a game and doesn’t even require expensive additional hardware. However, its success has since peaked and currently only around 5 million people are still searching for fantasy creatures and treasures. But this does not alter the fact that Pokémon Go has exposed many people to AR and VR for the first time. The German business weekly “Wirtschaftswoche” thus referred to the „victory of the digital cobolds“ as a “perfect example of how innovations can be established in the market”.
Many different realities: augmented, mixed, virtual und assisted reality
These days, there is no longer just one kind of virtual world. Scientists Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino coined the terms “augmented reality” and “mixed reality” back in the 1990s to signify virtual worlds closely linked to reality, of a type currently being planned by furniture retailer Ikea for example. Using an app, which is currently still under development, customers will be able to take a photograph of their own living room with their smartphone and then superimpose furniture in matching colours onto it. Apple is supporting these plans with ARKit. This software will enable developers to program new smartphone apps to blend the real world with the virtual world. It will come with iOS 11, which is expected to be released this autumn.
By contrast, the term “virtual reality” stands for worlds that are largely or even completely virtual. Wearing data spectacles such as the Oculus Rift, users can move around in this world almost without restriction. Examples include the nascent VR attempts by TUI and Neckermann. However, carmakers are also planning to present new cars to their customers using this technology. Indeed, entire data centres can be planned and entered virtually. This helps to detect and avoid planning errors more easily, thus saving costs.
The machines are coming
Automated learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are currently in the headlines. Thus, new kinds of frameworks, for example, are offering the opportunity for developing virtual assistants. Chatbots rather than more expensive employees will then be handling communications with customers and users. These virtual robots will assist with searches of online stores, answer customers’ questions, arrange appointments for teams and reserve theatre tickets. According to a study by Tractica, the sales of virtual digital assistants (VDAs) are expected to rise to just under 16 billion dollars by 2021. Market research company Crisp Research considers automated learning and digital assistants to be one of this year’s ten most important technological trends alongside virtual and automated reality.
A further area of relevance for companies is assisted reality. This is where the new Google Glass Enterprise and the Microsoft Hololens come into play as they allow employees to view current maintenance information on the display fitted to their data spectacles. This gives service technicians supplementary information on the system they are working on, thus obviating the need to look it up on a laptop or tablet. In this way, industrial group Thyssen Krupp wants to lower service times and costs for its elevators, for example. At the same time, many automotive OEMs are also looking more closely at assisted reality for the same reasons.
Logistics companies such as Deutsche Post, DB Schenker and DHL as well as Amazon have already successfully completed tests using the new technology to improve the efficiency of their warehouses and logistics hubs. Working instructions can be displayed in light-weight data spectacles worn by employees to speed up processes and reduce errors. Large groups such as SAP are also involved in these applications.
The advantages of combining the real world with the virtual one are obvious: warehouse or service staff can view the information that they require via their data spectacles, while customers can examine interesting products at ease and with an unprecedented proximity. Large and small construction projects become easier to plan, thus avoiding the risk of expensive errors. For this reason, it is only a question of time before virtual worlds and digital assistants find their way into more and more parts of our lives and the business world.
The future has arrived. Let us embrace it.