Taking the Pulse: Extended Reality

To what extent are businesses offsetting limitations in "real reality", with freedoms and capabilities in extended reality (XR)? We asked IT decision-makers how they envision XR transforming their business and other industries.

Over the last few months, Dell Technologies has been “taking the pulse” of technology and business trends, by surveying 800 IT decision-makers (ITDMs) across 6 countries (U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Brazil, and China). This month we cast a spotlight on extended reality (a combination of augmented reality [AR], virtual reality [VR], and other immersive environments yet to be created).

The results are in. We interviewed Martin Sawtell, Software Lead for the CTO Office, Dell Technologies for his expert take on the findings.

We’ve just asked IT decision-makers about how XR will revolutionize business in three to five years. What strikes you the most?

Looking at the data, it’s clear that XR is finally bursting onto the corporate scene. We’ve spoken about its vast potential for several years, but that elusive tipping point isn’t so elusive anymore. It’s arrived.

Why now? In part because the pandemic has forced businesses’ hands to experiment with new technology and innovate within the current restrictions. More than three-quarters (77% of respondents) say they accelerated their plans to roll out VR/AR because of the pandemic. There are myriad possible reasons why. Being able to work, collaborate, and achieve goals in safe, socially distanced environments would certainly be a factor. With XR, the immersion can so be so vivid, users can still experience an emotional connection with their environment. Or see something they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see (such as the inner workings of a machine) within an AR overlay.

In fact, the research suggests we could be moving towards some level of ubiquity—i.e. everyone having an XR-enabled device. Today, three in 10 respondents say they presently have cutting-edge VR/AR, with natural user interfaces (interfaces/modalities that are so easy to use they feel natural). Forty-two percent believe these will be commonplace in their organization within one to two years; a further 16 percent project this will happen in three to four years. It’s not far-fetched when you consider that many phones are now VR/AR-enabled.

But what will they do with them? More than a third (34%) of ITDMs say they are already using VR/AR in “many different scenarios.” A further 38 percent expect this will be the case in one to two years; 17 percent forecast three to five years. That’s almost nine in 10 businesses.

We then asked questions about likely use cases. Across the board, respondents are zealous about the technology (except U.K. respondents, who provide more tempered responses). Emerging economies are particularly enthused. They express the greatest openness to try new things. Of course, this could be a cultural response and/or a corollary of having fewer legacy technologies to side-step. But they certainly have less to lose and more to gain.

Essentially, the push behind XR comes down to the age-old determination to focus on solutions, not problems. Recently, society has been beset by problems. But technology like XR can answer many of them with new inventive solutions.

What does the research tell us about how businesses can use VR/AR to be more productive and creative?

According to the research, more than three quarters (77%) of ITDMs believe VR/AR will enable people to be more empathetic, imaginative, and productive. They’re uniformly optimistic about XR’s contribution to their business in areas like marketing (79 percent believe it will promote their offerings/services in memorable new ways), and training (77 percent say it will enable them to train people “in the moment, on the job”). But they also envisage it being used across wider society within the next three to five years.

For instance, 87 percent believe VR/AR will soon be used to screen for high-risk jobs by simulating stressful scenarios and testing participants’ decision-making. Eighty-six percent imagine clinicians will use VR/AR to see inside the human body (and then use this view to walk patients through their surgical/medical plan). Eight in 10 envisage psychiatrists using VR/AR to help their patients “face” their fears and work through their trauma.

So are respondents right to believe XR will transform business and even the world as we know it?

It certainly has that potential but there are some caveats. Firstly, we need to resolve the growing occurrence of shadow IT. Currently, 39 percent of ITDMs claim their lines of business (LoB) are leading the VR/AR initiative/buying process: 87 percent believe this will happen within three to five years.

This is a red flag. A siloed and fragmented approach would not only result in standardization issues, it could also cause security gaps and vulnerabilities. In Brazil, 60 percent of LoBs are already leading the charge here. Across the Board, Brazil voiced the most enthusiasm for VR/AR (closely followed by China). We must be careful that exuberance doesn’t overtake the need to follow due diligence. This is borne out by our barrier question. Brazilian respondents are most likely to cite shadow IT as a barrier to VR/AR adoption.

The best way to stay on track is to assign the necessary checks and balances to a board member, such as a chief experience officer. Reassuringly, 64 percent of Brazilian respondents have already made this appointment (by far the highest percentage). They now need to make this role centrally accountable for all their XR endeavors.

Businesses will also need to address other complex challenges—such as a lack of skills to create VR/AR environments. This remains a top concern for all our respondents. It requires a joined-up approach with HR and links with universities.

I would hasten to add, however, that in these early stages, we don’t need perfect 3D objects that capture every feature perfectly. We just need information. High-fidelity treatment can come later. This is the season for fast-paced trial and error and innovation.

What does the survey tell us about the future of XR?

It tells us that we’re on track to overcoming physical communication boundaries with immersive digital ones. The pandemic has certainly accelerated this dawning. The question is: Will this momentum peter out once “normality” has been restored? Will 2020/early-2021 go down in history as just a blip or outlier in an otherwise unremarkable shift toward new ways of working and communicating?

I believe the genie is out of the bottle, but some users will still need to be convinced. For instance, for U.K. respondents, the biggest barrier to adoption was the belief that VR/AR remains unproven for business. As more use cases emerge, that perception will recede.

And while we may look back at this past year as just an aberration (let’s hope the worst parts of the year are just that)–even once the freedom to travel and socialize in-person is reinstated, I believe the convenience and possibility afforded by VR/AR to experience so many different environments and scenarios will be too intoxicating to walk away from.

The data cements, in my mind, the belief that we’re approaching a technological coming of age, where AR/VR will turn any object into a compute interface, enabling us to experience the world around us in new visceral ways. Understanding context, along with its physical limitations, will take on new dimensions.