The shift to visceral virtual experiences

If visceral virtual experiences will change the way we communicate for the better, how can your business get involved now?

By Martin Sawtell, XR Director for the CTO Office, Dell Technologies and Jonny Wood, Strategy Lead at Dell’s Experience Innovation Group in Singapore

In this remote-first working world, what follows Zoom and Microsoft Teams? How about holographic presentation with depth-sensing? The emergence of immersive technologies, underpinned by a next-generation connective fabric, will enable end-users to more cogently, powerfully, and viscerally access virtual experiences. This is now an imperative given so much of our lives has transitioned online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Very soon a no-frills video call interrupted by deeply irritating internet lags won’t cut the mustard. Hence, businesses should be actively investigating how they can build customer loyalty and affinity by providing a more sensory experience online.

In fact, in this on-demand (online-services driven world), businesses should be looking to create end-to-end environments rather than discrete, transactional substitutes. They’ll need to access emerging technologies to do so.

If this is the direction society is going in, how can your business get involved?

A new language of collaboration

Imitating reality is a significant challenge. Experts—be they technologists, animators, or developers—who try to create digital versions of real worlds spend vast amounts of time and energy on their attempts to replicate real people, things, or phenomena. However, how we have been accessing these picture-perfect imitations is still quintessentially technical and inhuman. Relying on a computer mouse and keyboard undermines the near-real-world experience. Until recently. A growing body of work is underway to make the subtle turn of a wrist, an elegant swipe or pinch, the means of accessing the digital world.

While this shift to natural inputs will not take place overnight, we can already see evidence of a new, non-traditional language of collaboration. At the most basic level, Augmented Reality applications, like emoji in video chats on phones, show how we’re using the technology in our hands to create collaborative experiences that blend the digital with the real world. More complex deployments of Virtual Reality, such as HoloLens and Oculus Quest 2 headsets, drop users into an immersive digital world of interactive 3D spaces that feel exciting yet exceedingly familiar—enabling users to intuit how to interact with the spaces surprisingly quickly.

These technologies provide new ways to interact with both virtual objects and our real worlds, with no additional effort on the part of the user. They add an extra, digital layer to reality—but in a human-relatable way.

From video to richer connections

All of which takes us to this point: A talented automotive designer working with colleagues and external partners thousands of miles apart, yet able to collaborate on a digital twin of a soon-to-be-launched electric vehicle as if they’re in the same physical workplace. They do this through their virtual reality headsets, underpinned by high-speed networking provided by 5G and edge computing, which pushes the data-intensive processes—such as the rendering on a headset display—off-device. These foundational technologies will manifest all manner of new, visceral experiences in three key ways:

    • Augmented collaboration—Virtual experiences will become so visceral and immersive that they’ll imitate the tangible qualities of two people talking face to face. These virtual experiences could be augmented with contextually aware, data-driven technologies to convey what even in-person communication can’t muster.
    • Blended, sensory computing—Computing power will be everywhere in all things, acting as a mesh: content and tools will be stored and accessed across clouds, all of which will unlock a more fluid, constraint-free experience for users. Multimodal interfaces will enable workforces to interact with people, content, and tools in a much richer way.
    • Collective intelligence—Technologies like digital twins will allow us to share knowledge and tap into expertise from a distance. Such advances will mean the expert doesn’t need to be physically next to you anymore, and the richness of experiences will help people be more productive working virtually than they might face to face.

Enabling the move to visceral experiences

While the ultimate visceral experience provides the sense of being in the same room as the person you’re talking with, wherever they’re located, visceral doesn’t have to mean photo-real. It just has to provide great interaction and boost productivity.

We’re already seeing interesting developments. VMware’s Project VXR provides an enterprise platform for virtual technology. Epic Games, meanwhile, has unveiled MetaHuman Creator, a new browser-based app that empowers game developers and creators of real-time 3D content. Finally, the US military has awarded a contract for more than $21 billion to develop VR headsets that overlay key information into soldiers’ fields of vision.

The applications we’re seeing right now are just the start. Business leaders need to ask key questions: What can we do with the technology, what do we need to do to support these experiences, and what do we need to build at the edge to process the data?

Also, harness the new level of awareness around remote working from the past 12 months to run new experiments. Start by mixing up the meeting tools you use to bring greater acceptance of doing things virtually.

Ensure your business and workers’ homes have good Wi-Fi. Establish the processes to integrate these technologies into your workflow. And, crucially, figure out what’s the worst thing that could happen in your business and minimize that security risk.

Get there by taking small steps

This new era of visceral experiences is happening now. Powered by 5G, all manner of virtual, experiential technologies are emerging. But a word of caution—trying to imitate reality can be uncanny and distracting. There will be all kinds of new pain points and opportunities as you experiment. You can move in the right direction now by using stepping-stone technology to convey body language and presence.

Remember, focusing on utility and usability doesn’t require complete virtual immersion, but it does necessitate incremental experimentation. A version of the ‘Ready Player One’ future is coming. The key is to be ready and relevant.