THURSDAY 15 FEB 2018 11:12 AM


Exploring the corporate uses of virtual and augmented reality can be as imaginative and surreal as a trip to Wonderland. Brittany Golob reports on new technologies

When Alice went down the rabbit hole, embarking on her journey through the alternate world of Wonderland, she “never once consider[ed] how in the world she was to get out again.” Throughout her adventures she meets vivid characters like the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts; she experiences joys and perils. Ultimately, though she returns to reality. She sits on the grass with her eyes closed almost believing she is still in Wonderland. The ‘curious dream’ lingers in her imagination, if not in front of her eyes.

Donning a VR headset, though it doesn’t involve the decadent delights of Wonderland, offers a similar experience. Putting the headset on is like taking a nip from the ‘drink me’ bottle. Removing it is waking from a curious dream. What the user is left with is a full imagination and an unforgettable experience.

Virtual and augmented reality, have been on the tech horizon for years, but have only just begun to be adopted for business use. As with many new technologies, gaming and novelty come first, followed by the first wary, yet bold, business applications. Then, as the tech improves, mainstream adoption ensues.

For VR, AR and mixed reality – a sort of in-between space merging the immersion of VR with the more accessible graphics of AR – the next year is billed to be a big one. Early adopters are already unveiling exciting pieces of content and immersive experiences for PR, marketing and B2B purposes alike.

But there remain challenges for businesses barring widespread implementation. Quality, accessibility and cost are high, but the willingness to experiment is perhaps more challenging. “If clients aren’t technologically adventurous, they’re not clients that are willing to imagine with you, for them it’s a very jarring experience and they don’t understand what they’re seeing,” says head of marketing at Trafalgar Square venue 8 Northumberland Avenue, Sami Badrakhan. The venue has experimented with VR, AR and mixed reality, in addition to immersive technologies like  lighting, holograms and perception mapping.

Marketing expert and entrepreneur Steven van Belleghem says companies need to have exactly what Alice had – imagination. “I think that companies need to become more extreme and really ask themselves in which places of the customer experience are machines more valuable than humans? And, if you find those places, then you just need to invest more in machines in those parts of the process,” he says. Carrying out research for his latest book, ‘Customers the Day After Tomorrow,’ van Belleghem found that machines can be used to compensate for a lack of efficiency in the workplace, typically in operational roles. But, that companies should similarly invest in humans as in AI or other forms of technology to provide excellent service and carry out the roles machines cannot.

“You also need to be very extreme and look for places where humans can add more value and then invest more in humans,” he says. “My conclusion is that for most companies actually, the technology part is starting to become really easy because they buy it, they outsource it, they programme it and after a while they know how to deal with it. The human part is actually the really difficult part.” Having the dexterity of thinking to invest in both tech and human capital is where the future lies for customer service, he says.

Those at the forefront of embracing artificial intelligence have learned this. Companies that have implemented AI technologies in call centres or online have to complement them with real humans as quality-checkers. Others use AI as support mechanisms for people in customer-facing roles, to great success. Implementing effective VR, AR and mixed reality experiences has similarly required a simultaneous focus on employees and on customer experience.

Virgin Holidays just unveiled its first immersive storefront. Cardiff’s V-room offers a VR experience to give customers a better idea of the holiday they might be purchasing. And, Jaguar Land Rover released a VR experience pack to its dealers last January enabling users to explore new cars inside and out – even before release. “As if our vehicles weren’t exciting enough already, this new way of buying a car will engage customers further with our innovative capabilities. The VR Experience will also help retailers to break the ice with customers and inject even more fun into the process of buying our vehicles,” said Andy Goss, Jaguar Land Rover group sales operations director, upon its release. BAE Systems similarly uses a walk-through simulation for its warship designs. These forays have primarily been marketing mechanisms to enhance the customer experience.

At 8 Northumberland, the use of VR, too, was expected to be primarily a sales tool. In reality, it has proven to be the rabbit hole to a new wealth of technology enabling the production of more engaging, immersive events.
Badrakhan and 8 Northumberland Avenue’s owner, Charles Boyd, first explored 360 degree video as a means of showing potential clients what the event spaces look like. But for in-person sales, the more valuable development came with the transition to a full-VR experience allowing users to see what events are like as they take place. That has been more useful off-site than on, unexpectedly for Boyd and Badrakhan. “The use case is a bit different to what we imagined. I think sometimes you’ve got to play around with the technology to get the best use case,” Badrakhan says. “If you’re going to play with a research and development budget, definitely set the benchmark for what you want to learn or what you want to integrate into your sales process or what you want to get out of it; but don’t expect it to be revolutionary.”

Some of the challenges for 8 Northumberland, and with the technology itself, is the accessibility issue. VR headsets are still relatively pricey and still relatively bulky. For that reason, augmented reality has become one of the key ways in which businesses are beginning to invest further in such technologies. In B2B relationship management and in employee training, AR has found a home.

At an event in London’s Science Museum, industrial property developer Segro plc implemented an AR experience that allowed the 100 high-level attendees at the event to engage with Segro’s properties with 97% of attendees citing a positive experience. Siemens has also used AR as a way to train and engage employees around corporate change, to great success.

But one of the more common uses for augmented reality is through branded content. London-based experiential agency Landmrk has worked with musicians, television shows and brands on immersive, mixed reality experiences to support marketing campaigns. The agency’s work has focused on mixed reality and browser-friendly experiences to overcome some of the barriers to entry that fully immersive AR presents. It’s hard to get people to download an app. It’s hard to cater for all levels of smartphone graphics. It’s hard to get companies to commit to something experimental. Mixed reality is a way to ease companies into the technology and the benefits it can provide in terms of audience engagement and brand awareness.

One project from Landmrk was a partnership between Carling and Tesco, in which music producer Jonas Blue encouraged followers to visit Tesco and take home a free four pack of beer for a chance to be in one of his upcoming music videos. The mixed reality app led to increased awareness for Carling among the brand’s target audience.

Seth Jackson, co-founder and CEO of Landmrk, says this kind of engagement is going to become more accessible. “I think the real turning point is not going to be another useful application that makes it quicker and easier to build 3D objects in real time environments, it’s going to be when augmented reality hits the browser – when anyone can click on a link and they’re in an augmented reality experience. That is coming very soon.”

That will require investment and internal buy-in, though not necessarily as much as when creating full VR content. Van Belleghem says a focus on convenience and customer service are necessary to facilitate the successful implementation of digitally enhanced experiences. But, the content must be of an excellent quality. “Every supplier has a smartphone and they spend 80% of their time with a digital superhero company like Facebook, like, like Amazon. That creates the psychological effect where that is what you expect from everyone in the world, and from your B2B partners,” he says.

Many of these barriers and obstacles will become alleviated as the technology improves – and it is, at a rapid pace. The proliferation of smartphones has eased the shift to. Van Belleghem says 2018 will see the beginning of mainstream AR, with smartphones the primary interfaces. “If you do it smartly, you can actually position yourself as a really innovative company,” he says. “If you really want to position yourself strongly as an innovative player, there are opportunities to do something smart with AR.”

Advancements, alongside a greater willingness on the part of corporates to take up the new technology, could be the ‘drink me’ bottle allowing entrance to Wonderland. But, imagination, creativity and curiosity are – as for Alice – the keys to unlocking this new reality.


A rush of blood to the head
By Hubert Grealish, founder, GWorks Communications Consulting

One might say that experience is the reality we expose ourselves to, and in some instances crave. Written communication, on the other hand, may sometimes be too vague and open to interpretation, as is the case in many business, government and law communications. Governments and the media are both guilty of pushing language to its limit, like several folk trying to describe the same meal.

With advances in augmented and virtual reality though, we bring the dishes to the users, with visual detail rich in imagery and data; helping our brains digest vast amounts of content while freeing them to emotionally engage. To that end, we have the chance to ‘show and tell’ in new ways which can inspire and win business.
We can immerse ourselves in a given situation directly, with fully surrounding impressions and data trails of reactions, for teams to build and work with. Think of the old 2D blueprints coming to life, in rooms we can walk through and feel.  

Within the larger companies we’re seeing upswing in experiential tools too, like at GE with its collaborations between global teams in engineering and healthcare. At GE, multiple users can activate its Holodeck to be almost ‘beamed up’ to a location or site, to inspect or manage an issue or project.

In augmented terms, we can paint pictures in semi-offline surroundings, enticing users in relevant and differing contexts– not least to bring a new technology to mass market, such as in travel and mobility. In demonstrating the benefits of live traffic information, one example I worked on was to create an efficient demonstration for TomTom, over a decade ago already. Without having to demonstrate the actual product, we were able to show the rerouting power of live ‘HD Traffic’ info, without setting foot near a car, or a satnav.

Compared to the saturated online ‘attention economy’ with its poorly filtered streams, we finally have a new visual landscape and exciting dimension, with real scope for improving conceptualising, planning, collaborating and improving productivity and design. I’ll be waiting to visit those trade fairs, network from the office or home, and maybe even bring it home with a 3D printed gift pen, if not a virtual business card too.

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