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Trend #52: Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Business

By: Kristen Auletto, Research Associate

In the summer of 2016, Pokémon Go became a global phenomenon by bringing the digital world and the “real world” together. This mobile app, which was downloaded over 500 million times, is a location-based augmented reality game. Users across the world walked around their neighborhoods, holding their phone cameras up to various buildings and landmarks. They were looking for digital creatures that would appear on the screen, superimposed over their real life surroundings, that they could “catch” with the swipe of a finger. Pokémon Go faded in popularity, but the game was one of the more prominent mainstream developments in the field of augmented reality and virtual reality. The popularity of this game signified that virtual and augmented reality were about to be the next significant trend in technology.

Many people are still trying to understand what virtual reality is, and how it is different from augmented reality. According to the Virtual Reality Society, virtual reality is “a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person.” People can become immersed in the virtual world and become a part of it. Virtual reality stimulates the mind to create the illusion of reality. A person dons a headset or goggles and is transported into a new world. On the other hand, augmented reality is a blending of virtual objects in the real world. Augmented reality superimposes images onto the real world rather than creating a whole new digital world. Augmented reality often takes advantage of smart device cameras to add digital objects or effects to an image of the real world. While both of these technologies are of interest to businesses, augmented reality is much more accessible and widespread than virtual reality at this time.

Both VR and AR technology are gaining heavy investment from tech companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, HTC, Lenovo, and Samsung. The industry is currently worth approximately $19 billion and is predicted to grow between 34-40% by 2023. Virtual and augmented reality are slowly becoming accessible to the mainstream public, but the technology is still too expensive for widespread use. While costs are decreasing quickly, currently affordable technology provides a lower quality experience than do costlier options.

To combat this problem, companies are developing a wide range of VR and AR options. Lower cost options use smartphones, while thousand-dollar high-performance systems are generally not for personal use. Prices have been dropping in recent months as companies struggle to compete for market share, which indicates that these devices are likely to increase in popularity.

Virtual and augmented reality have endless potential to impact the business world. Some industries, such as medicine, aerospace/defense, engineering/manufacturing, entertainment, gaming, and tourism, are well-suited for VR and AR. However, all types of businesses can benefit from this technology. It can touch almost every aspect of business, from product development to customer service to HR to sales. Organizations such as Ford, UCLA, Airbus, Snapchat, Sotheby’s, Carnival Cruises, The North Face, Marriot, and The Line are already using virtual reality in many ways.

The retail and ecommerce space has great potential to reach customers in an impactful way using virtual and augmented reality. Retailers can give shoppers the option to “try before they buy” in a completely new way. Many home furnishing companies such as Ikea and Wayfair have augmented reality apps that allow people to virtually place furniture or decorations in their homes before making a purchase, for example. Clothing, accessory, and makeup retailers are creating ways to virtually sample their products, which presents a new way to promote products and interface with customers. AliBaba and eBay have both experimented with virtual department stores, in which customers can see displays and make purchases with a nod of the head. Retailers are also using VR/AR to bring customers into traditional brick-and-mortar stores. The North Face, for example, recently used a VR headset in-store to allow customers to experience a winter landscape as they shopped for cold-weather gear.

Virtual reality has vast potential in marketing. Marketers can test displays or ads before actually creating them. Product prototypes can be developed virtually rather than using costly physical materials. It is reported that Ford saved $8 million dollars by testing new car parts virtually. Advertisements can be immersive, three-dimensional experiences that truly make products come alive to customers. VR/AR helps to build the emotional connection that marketers seek. Products and promotions can be made interactive as a way to make them stand out among the competition. 19 Crimes Wine, for example, has exploded in popularity thanks to an augmented reality app that allows each bottle’s label to come to life. Snapchat has experienced success with sponsored “lenses” that brands such as Taco Bell and Universal Pictures have used to create an augmented reality experience. These types of marketing efforts have much higher engagement and return on investment than other digital campaigns.

In human resource management, the recruiting and training process could benefit greatly from VR/AR. Potential candidates can have the chance to complete job simulations and experience the work environment without the same level of risk. The hiring process is expensive, and virtual reality can help prevent job turnover by giving candidates a realistic understanding of what jobs will be like. Virtual training can prepare new employees for their jobs in a more realistic way.

Business communications could change as well. Employees and clients across the world can use technology to host virtual meetings, conferences, and work spaces, eliminating the need for expensive travel and creating a better experience than a traditional video call.

While reality technologies bring the potential for positive change to businesses, they also have several issues that could be problematic. The cost of virtual reality devices and software is simply too high for more businesses to invest heavily in it. On the plus side, investors are seeing the potential of this technology and are willing to contribute funds to make the technology more accessible. Companies that want to implement VR/AR need to prove the value, and there isn’t enough information available to do so. As businesses start to experience success with the technology, they will need to track metrics to show success.

Another potential downside is that virtual reality has the potential to eliminate jobs, or at the very least, to change the nature of many occupations. If virtual shopping takes off, for example, the brick-and-mortar retail industry could suffer even more than it already has. Interior designers might be made obsolete. The tourism industry could suffer a decline if people believe they can get a similar experience from wearing headsets while sitting on their couches. Engineers/product designers who are in the habit of using certain software programs and/or physical materials will need to learn new technological skills to design products using VR and AR. However, many analysts are confident in the potential for virtual reality and augmented reality to create jobs rather than to take them away. It is difficult to predict the types of jobs that will become available in the future, but those who have a good grasp on these technologies are likely to succeed.

Overall, the impact of virtual/augmented reality is still widely unpredictable, but the possibilities are promising. Businesses that are able to successfully be “early adopters” of this technology will likely set the precedent for the future. Product design and development, marketing and customer experience, HR functions, and ecommerce are the most likely to experience changes as this technology becomes more and more accessible.

Classroom Implications

Students should understand what exactly virtual reality and augmented reality are. They should test out an example, such as Pokémon Go or the IKEA place app, which are both able to be used for free on a smart device. Even Snapchat and Instagram include augmented reality features (Lenses) that students probably use on a daily basis without even realizing it. After experimenting with these tools, students should brainstorm ways that this technology can be used in different business functions. They might provide examples of augmented reality marketing campaigns that they have seen or witnessed already.

Students should also spend some time reviewing past technological revolutions and how they impacted different industries and business activities. Doing so can help them consider how great of an impact VR/AR can have on retail, marketing, HR, etc. They should understand the value of embracing new technologies rather than being resistant to them. Finally, students should understand how knowledge of VR/AR could help them become more employable in the future.

Links for further learning:

Example technology — Microsoft HoloLens:

The future of virtual reality in business:

How reality technology is used in business:

Examples of augmented reality campaigns:

If you were an educator in attendance at MBA Research’s Conclave 2017 in Vancouver, Washington, you may remember one of our business speakers, Rick Turoczy. Rick is the Cofounder of PIE (Portland Incubator Experiment). Rick also helped cofound Oregon Story Board, a company committed to mentoring, teaching and advocating for VR in education. Oregon Story Board is a great resource for use in learning more about innovation in VR education.