Virtual Reality in Business
How are businesses going to work with VR in the future?
How VR can shape enterprise applications and business work
Reality - the most obvious and natural runtime of existence. From the perspective of living beings, reality is mostly what you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. If those sensory perceptions are consistent, fit together and make sense based on what for example a human being has learned and experienced since childhood, the environment and surroundings are considered as real and truthful. In case something doesn’t satisfy consistency and known patterns or is simply too abstract, the human brain is very good at recognizing irregularities. It is therefore a great challenge to make something artificial appear realistic.
As long as an artificial entity is obviously abstract, the human brain can accept it for what it is - not real. The same is true when something is close to being realistic, so that it is perceived at almost the same level as a real entity. In case resemblance to a human is intended to be achieved, the brain is even more sensitive. An imperfectly resembled human being like in robotics or computer animation can even provoke strangely familiar or uncanny feelings of uneasiness and revulsion in observers – welcome to the uncanny valley!
What if not mimicking reality itself could be the supreme discipline when it comes to making humans comfortable in an artificial environment like a computer-generated virtual experience?
Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology to experience virtual (computer generated), immersive environments and contents. Immersive, cause the real world isn’t visible anymore when the user wears a VR headset. Such headsets are usually equipped with two high-resolution displays that are positioned right in front of the user’s eyes. Furthermore, there can be additional sensors like external cameras to enable features like passthrough or tracking purposes. Tracking for example of hands, physical objects, or the user position in the room to prevent collisions while being in the virtual reality.
But there is and will be more in the future to further improve all areas of use from gaming to business with additional sensors and functionalities, all packed in an ergonomic device the user wears - just a little heavier than prescription glasses of course.
Known from the video game industry, the possible uses of virtual reality have become more and more interesting and relevant for business areas in recent years. Virtual Reality (VR) requires dedicated hardware in form of head-mounted devices to experience virtual, immersive environments and contents. With different functionalities, the virtual reality technology opens more and more areas of application.
With the passthrough functionality, VR headsets use external cameras to stream the outside world to the user’s view. This can be used to still see physical objects of the real world like desks or keyboard.
On the Meta Quest 2 for example, the user just needs to softly double-tap one side of the headset to activate passthrough and switching between VR and a video stream of the real world. The passthrough quality can range from low resolution black-and-white (Meta Quest 2) to high resolution in full color ready for threading a needle (Varjo XR-3). And technology is improving. Compared to the Meta Quest 2, the Meta Quest Pro (available since October 2022) passthrough comes with 4 times more pixels and in color.
Another technological advancement of latest VR hardware generations is about eye tracking or pupil-tracking to be precise. Eye tracking is beneficial to achieve different functionalities. One use case is to track the users’ eyes and transferring that to its avatar to enable eye-contact between avatars. While that would increase the immersion in the virtual world, eye tracking also comes with a great potential to increase performance which is called foveated rendering. It's about optimizing the rendering workload by reducing the image quality in the user's peripheral field of view and only rendering a higher LOD (level of detail) where the user is focusing at.
Another possible use of eye tracking is to enable eye control for the user. Eye control uses the user’s gaze, focus time or conscious blinking to interpret control intentions. For a deep dive into eye control – also independent from VR context – check out the respective Eye Control community article.
Already with the current generation of VR headsets, the performance has come to a level, where it’s possible to run lots of apps directly on the headsets without the need of using the computing/rendering power of an external device such as a computer with a powerful dedicated graphics card (and cable attached to the VR headset). With the upcoming generations of VR technology, the performance and features will continue to increase while the devices also improve in terms of ergonomics, weight, higher resolutions, and optical brilliance. So, from more realistic virtual environments to high-quality augmentations to photorealistic avatars with eye and facial tracking, there's plenty to look forward to.
Virtual Reality in business context?
Virtual Reality can not only influence where we work but it can also help to improve the way how we work for example for users like architects, engineers, builders, creators, and designers. With evolving technology, the growing ecosystem and various initiatives and collaborations of several companies, VR technology steps more and more into the business context to improve work across many different industries and the enterprise over time. Key markets for VR or immersive technologies and applications in general are gaming, entertainment, automotive, retail, healthcare, education, aerospace & defense, and manufacturing.
For more information on how VR might influence the future of work, please check out the related blogpost The Future of Work and Virtual Reality.
And a new technology oftentimes also changes the way how we work. The virtual reality experienced with a VR headset makes it for example possible to really focus on tasks as the outside world (reality) is effectively blocked while wearing the headset und doing that one single task in the virtual environment.
Imagine in comparison a typical work environment as found today with let’s say a computer as main work device. It already provides multiple channels like email, phone, chats, or videoconferencing to connect the user. In addition, a mobile phone is likely to be nearby to provide further channels like messengers, more phone calls, and emails or just the latest contents from social media. And at any time, the user is also exposed to reality as such – especially in environments like the home office.
While communication and collaboration are good in principle, being exposed to multiple channels all workday can be distracting and keeping the user from getting into the flow state – that ideal state where a person works with best focus and productivity. And there is more…
“To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”
“To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”
But what happens when putting on a VR headset? The user gets instantly blocked from several channels having no choice but to focus on the task in the virtual reality. No mobile phone display, no email envelope visibly popping up and reality is off to a certain degree. By its very nature, VR requires to focus on single tasks. Users can fully immerse themselves in tasks and ultimately increase their productivity by getting and staying easier into a flow state than possible with multiple potential distractions.
Another example of increased focus in VR comes with avatars. Think of a meeting in VR and being represented by your avatar. Compared to a usual remote conversation, there is less likelihood of something else being done at the same time, as the avatar would then be doing the same. So, meetings in VR end up in being like attending meetings in reality.
With avatars in general, VR adds also another dimension to the digital identity of enterprise users as besides usual information, which is part of digital identities like personal information, tool preferences, schedule for the day, authentication information or settings for the work environment in general, the user also gets visually represented by its avatar which can either be chosen from existing ones or self-generated and modified.
Nowadays, most avatars consist of head, upper body, and hands (without arms) to mimic the most important parts for collaboration but also to not cause confusion in terms of body parts – imagine seeing your legs moving in VR while you’re actually sitting in a chair wearing the VR headset.
With evolving technology especially in terms of tracking, also the look and the possibilities of avatars will change. Besides hand-tracking, which is quite advanced already, devices like the Meta Quest Pro or the Varjo XR-3 also allow eye-tracking and facial expression recognition, that will enable avatars with natural abilities like making eye-contact, raising an eyebrow or just laugh – similar to real life people. A few years further in technology and performance, avatars will reach a photorealism – Meta calls them “Codec Avatars”. How about having multiple avatars for different occasions, like a realistic one for serious business meetings and a crazy one for the afterwork game in VR?
As the avatars above show, a user in VR can already look similar to what they do in real life, but they don't have to. Avatars can differ in appearance and characteristics. Deviations from real characteristics can also influence behavior in the virtual environment which is known as Proteus effect. It proposes that an avatar's visual characteristics and traits are associated with specific behavioral expectations and stereotypes. That means, that the users themselves as well as other users will engage in those expected behaviors an avatar represents. Utilizing the Proteus effect for instance in a training scenario, where the user learns to give speeches, an avatar depicting a different body image, could result in a confidence boost that makes it easier for the user to deliver the speech. Ideally, what has been learned can then be transferred to the real world.
In this way, the digital identity is enriched with additional attributes and possibilities in the context of virtual reality or the metaverse. In addition to avatars, assets from virtual environments or even an entire personalized environment can also be part of one's digital identity or the virtual counterpart.
Design for the Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is about immersive experiences. But what does that actually mean in a business context? The difference of VR immersion comes from shifting the user’s perception of information and control in general. At a usual IT workplace, the user perceives information from the outside in. Screen in front while actions are controlled via keyboard and mouse. Experiencing a virtual environment with VR glasses and the use of appropriate controllers or ideally just hands shift perception and control from the outside in. The user is immersed in the content, data becomes literally tangible and the possibility of visualizing information in three dimensions and handling it more intuitively can improve cognitive processing, since a more intensive linking to sensory impressions is made possible.
The visualization and handling of data in particular, bears also lots of new possibilities and potentially different approaches. While on a usual IT equipment like a PC or workstation, data is put into files which then get stored in folders. If data is needed somewhere else, it gets copied or put on a data carrier. How could that be realized in a virtual environment? Maybe the file can actually be visualized as a physical file that can be grabbed by the user just as a real one. To bring data afterwards for example from a personal VR analytics environment to a VR meeting, the user could simply put that file into a virtual backpack and pull it from there again to share it in the meeting.
It might sound playful, but it gives a basic idea of the potential of making business processes more intuitive through immersion and collaborate remotely in environments more similar in look and behavior to reality than a usual remote meeting with activated camera.
How to create Virtual Reality in business context?
A new technology with a completely different user experience and concepts that differ greatly from known and proven patterns requires a sufficient and well-defined technology stack to enable integration with existing enterprise technologies.
First, there is the question which tools, environments, and ecosystems a company favors for VR or metaverse related developments. The two most likely candidates to name here are Epic’s Unreal Engine and Unity. While personal licenses are free, using those tools at enterprise level isn’t and is usually charged per seat and year.
As Unreal Engine and Unity are nothing less than engines for game development, also the development experience differs from what software developers are usually accustomed to like writing code in environments like Microsoft Visual Studio, Eclipse, or browser-based tools for cloud developments. While for example Epic’s Unreal Engine is written in C++ and allows of course also to use C++ in development context, most of the development- and creation tasks are executed in the editor following a low- or no code paradigm – which by no means is to be understood as simple.
Source: ZANA World prototype blueprint
Source: ZANA World prototype blueprint logic to sit on a chair (which is treated as a vehicle)
Creating Virtual Reality
To develop and create content in game engines like Unity or Unreal Engine, high computing power is required especially for the GPU. So besides at least an Intel i7 or similar CPU, also a dedicated graphics card is required such as one of Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3000 series or the upcoming 4000 series. And to experience and test VR developments, also a VR headset is a must as by far not everything can be tested thoroughly via the game engine’s editor, on a usual display or with just mouse and keyboard instead of the dedicated controllers of a VR headset.
In addition to the basic development environments and tools, there is of course more in form of the corresponding ecosystem which either exists already or need to be established within companies to step into development for virtual reality, the metaverse or the 3D internet.
- additional tools like the Blender to create 3D assets
- using marketplaces like that for Epic’s Unreal Engine to get plugins, 3D assets or other tools
- design guidelines and UX concepts for VR environments and business processes
- platforms for integration and harmonization of the ecosystem like Nvidia's Omniverse
- company or solution specific connectors to the ecosystem – for example, based on Pixar’s Universal Scene Description (USD), the common denominator in Nvidia's Omniverse, to bring together all possible tools, formats and content in a unified form - from 3D or CAD models to Unreal scenes, avatars and much more
VR Application Type
Similar to gaming in VR, there are two different ways (or application types) to step into the metaverse. The first one is developing and running an application standalone on VR devices. This requires a certain computing power from the VR device and moderate performance needs from the application itself to ensure a smooth experience. The other application type is using PC VR which is basically a VR device connected to a PC to use its GPU for processing. In most of the cases, a PC VR connection requires a cable (like 3-5 meters USB-C/3.0) or a really fast router to establish a Wi-Fi connection for streaming. The difference of PC VR to standalone is just the possible visual quality of content and environment.
If for instance Epic’s Metahumans in a high LOD (Level of Detail) should be part of the experience, most likely a PC VR scenario is needed to process it.
VR for business or connecting business with the metaverse is not only about creating appropriate environments, use cases and business content using the new technologies. It requires integration in existing system landscapes and backends of enterprises as well, to really connect both worlds and make them interoperable.
Such integration can start simple by following an API driven approach that connects the VR application via REST to e.g. a cloud backend using for example the VaRest plugin from the Unreal Engine marketplace. Next level would then cover authorization and authentication between metaverse and business landscape. Regarding security topics, the upcoming generations of VR hardware that will also have a higher focus on business applications to hopefully enable a business ready security level.
Potential of VR in enterprise context
Does VR technology have the potential to gain a foothold in companies and industries, to complement or even disrupt existing processes? Of course, no one can say that, but there is definitely a movement to not only advance and improve the technology, but also increase its use and influence in the business sector. Companies like Meta, Nvidia, Microsoft and Apple are increasing their efforts related to Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) or Mixed Reality (XR) in general. More business-focused applications, new generations of hardware, campaigns to explore the potential impact of the technology, and also greater customer interest in use cases utilizing immersive technologies indicate a trend that is taking the technology into more and more areas beyond just gaming to use.
The next few years will show if VR or related technologies could be the next leap in business technology and how we work. Stay tuned!
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