A decade ago, if someone had told me that I could visit Rome and Barcelona while sitting on my couch, I would have laughed it off. I mean, how can you possibly ‘visit’ a place without leaving your home? The idea would have sounded far from reality, and probably a hoax. Today, if you tell me the same thing, I will smile and tell you that these two cities are not the only places you can visit. The immersive tech has made it possible for us to live, and more fundamentally, experience places, moments and even events in a way that is close to reality, and more than just a 2-D video experience. The purest form of immersive tech that most of us have already experienced is in the way of 3D movies, Instagram filters, and Snapchat’ bitmoji’. Excitingly, this is just a small part of user cases that immersive tech presents. Newer innovations in immersive technology are making the experience even more life-like. For example, immersive tech is helping Walmart in training its executive to deal with the most arrogant of the customers. TopShop changed fashion shows for millions of people by introducing immersive technology in the London Fashion Show. They practically let the people enjoy the fashion show as if they had the front row seats. Here in Singapore, ST Engineering has created Incident Response Interactive Simulation (IRiS) that helps the organizations in reproducing real-life environments in a virtual world and train the employees and officers for difficult situations.
But What Is Immersive Tech?
Immersive technology is a group of techniques that help create a virtual world that looks and feels like the real physical world. Immersive tech usually does this by the process of simulation. It is called ‘immersive’ because the user experiencing these simulations gets a sense of immersion, or being a part of the simulated environment. While immersive technology creates a pseudo world, it can have physical objects that interact with the virtual environment and fire events and actions. For example, soldiers training for special ops can be given fake guns (material objects) with sensors and buttons to fire incidents in the stimulation.
Immersive technology has three components:
- Perception: This includes the hardware and equipment required to simulate an environment. A few examples include 3-D displays, surround sound systems, haptic technology, and holography.
- Interaction: The technology or hardware that facilitates the communication between the user and the virtual world, like gesture recognition, speech recognition, use of remote controls, and more, is called a medium of interaction.
- Software: The bridge between all the components and the simulated world is called the software. This component carries the information, renders it, handles the interaction from the user and the environment.
Popular Immersive Technologies
While immersive tech is still very young, a subset of it has gained popularity and found its application in several areas of our physical world. The most popular of these technologies are 360, AR and VR, and the combination of both: MR. Let’s read a little more about these.
- 360 : It is the most popular, and quite easily accessible, immersive tech at our disposal. 360 is a technology that captures the physical environment all around us. The final result can be a photo or a video. 360 has found its way to video platforms on the internet like YouTube and Facebook. 360 is one of the first immersive technologies to be materialized, and as of today, it has matured into a stable form. Producing 360 content is so easy and cheap that a medium-spec smartphone can do it.
- VR or Virtual Reality: Virtual reality is a technology that creates an audio-video immersive experience. The user is shut out from the physical world and absorbed into the virtual world, which can mimic any real-life scenario or a wild fantasy scenario. VR experience is usually achieved by wearing a head mount display called the HMD. The advancements in VR have helped us in reducing the cost of developing HMD at the expense of lowering the quality of VR experience. The least expensive HMD can be created out of a cardboard box, called the Google Cardboard while the true VR or highest quality experience is still a costly affair and required high-end computers.
- AR or Augmented Reality: Augmented reality is a technology that involves displaying virtual images or digital objects in the real world. Unlike VR, in AR, the users are not shut from the world. AR combines the digital world and the real world to create amazing experiences that can be used in a variety of ways. You may not have realized, but if you have ever used Snapchat or played Pokemon Go, you have already experienced AR.
- MR or Mixed Reality : Mixed reality is a combination of everything that we have read until now. So, essentially, AR + VR = MR. It means that while the user is not entirely shut from the environment, it still uses a head-mounted display to show different things. MR is the latest trend in immersive technology and needs much exploration. It promises to take the VR experience to the next level, and it will be interesting to see how it does it!
How is Immersive Tech Helping Businesses?
Amazingly, immersive technology has found its application in several business scenarios. Let’s go through some compelling use cases of the utilization of immersive tech.
Immersive technology has helped the tourism industry in influencing the customers in ways that were earlier impossible. The VR and 360 allow the companies to offer a virtual demo of the destination even before reaching the place. It is an effective way to market the properties and holiday packages since it dives directly into the buyer’s emotions. Furthermore, AR can be used to give information, fun facts, and trivia about various spots and buildings of historical and geographical importance when people are physically at the destination. It can get done through immersive glasses. The airlines and ships can also use VR to help the clients that are afraid of traveling through air or water by immersing them into an altogether different experience.
The businesses have been opting for experiential marketing where a company showcases an upcoming or a best-selling range of products or services through different technologies. The companies create virtual experiences that can be enjoyed by the customers before making a purchase. Such an experience helps the customer in understanding the product. Also, the user establishes a connection with the product, even before making a purchase. Volvo used VR technology to market its XC90 at a trade show to spark an interest.
Retail businesses can also build other exciting concepts like interactive mirrors that let the shoppers try different dresses, shoes, and accessories from the catalog without actually wearing them. Design Orchard uses such interactive mirrors in its retail space. Plus, the mirrors can be used to upsell the products or suggest other products that can go with them, such as stilettos with a little black dress or a jacket that will pair up well with the selected bottoms. These are all virtual experiences that can influence buyers’ purchase decision.
- Online Shopping
Online stores and retailers have an even better opportunity at using the immersive tech. Being on the phone allows them to enter the homes of the users through cameras. The feed from the camera can be used by the applications to create AR experience by placing the items on the screen and letting the users experience how a particular item will look in the house. This concept can be used to market products like furniture, glasses, cutlery, clothes, accessories, shoes, electronics, and possibilities are endless.
Apart from the regular VR, the markets can go a step ahead and create an even more immersive experience by using different sensors in the phone, like modify the brightness of the screen, feedback on movement of the phone, sound on traveling speed, and direction of the user. The only thing you need is a storyline, and the technology is already present to create the experience.
There are two ways in which healthcare workers can use immersive tech. The first is by providing a more comfortable experience for the patients through VR. A university study in Canada proves that an enjoyable VR experience can help reduce pain in the patients by taking their mind of the wound or the therapy. The university established this after testing it on the cancer patients who responded positively to a VR game that they were asked to play while undergoing chemotherapy. The same concept can also be applied to patients dealing with stress and trauma. The government of Singapore, along with several other players, is also looking at the possibility of reconstructive surgery. Such initiatives will allow the patients to view the outcomes of the operation before it happens.
The second is by involving immersive tech in training and real-life scenarios. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) is working along with a team of experts from Side Effects Asia Pacific Pte Ltd (SEAP) to develop immersive modules to train the next generation of healthcare workers. Medical students can be put into surgery simulations and taught about the human body. Thanks to VR, institutes will be able to reproduce all kinds of scenarios for the students to experience and learn. Such experiences will help students in becoming better doctors. Also, such simulated training is cost-effective and 100% safe since the same scenario can repeated time and again with different variables for an indefinite number of students.
Not just at the elementary level, immersive tech can be used to train professionals too. For example, firefighters, police officers, and emergency workers can be prepared in simulations. Like doctors, these professionals will also have a better learning experience and perform better when required.
At the school level, immersive tech can be used to make learning exciting. Students can take turns and experience simulations of different natures. Elementary classes can visit the virtual jungles and see animals in their natural habitat. Middle and high school students can explore remote locations which are inaccessible like monuments, rocket launch pads, car race tracks, shipyards, nuclear reactors, factories, and farms to learn about different things in a first-person experience through a VR.
- Video Games
Video games have been making use of immersive tech for a long time. The two major players in the gaming world, PlayStation and Xbox, have mastered the art of creating unmatchable VR experiences. Their devices allow the users to dance, fight crime, play sports, and even ride an airplane while sitting on the couch. Pokemon Go is a fantastic example of AR in video games. The game enabled the Pokemon enthusiasts to watch and catch Pokemon in the real world, much like the animated series. How? They did it by producing AR models in the real world that people could find through their phone cameras. The game used the real-world map, topology, and landmarks to create different in-game touchpoints. People loved it.
The current level of immersive technology has enabled developers to achieve an unimaginable realistic level of creation. Raw Data is one such example that has left people in amazement. The sheer details of the characters, the sharpness of the environment, and the immersive experience of the whole scene exemplify how VR is revolutionizing video games.
Here is a trailer of Raw Data to impress you.
Can SMEs Use Immersive Technology?
SMEs can use immersive technology; SMEs should use immersive technology. The use of immersive technology creates exciting content. The tech indulges more senses than the other mediums. It is why people fall in love with the experience that is created using immersive technology. Immersive tech elevates the experience. Such experiences are useful in evoking emotional responses that are favorable for the business. Remember the Netflix example!
Using immersive tech also gives an edge to the businesses over the competitors by introducing concepts like try before you buy. This concept materializes exponentially well on mobile devices. Gucci developed an AR experience for its buyers wherein users could select the shoes and point it towards their feet and check how the shoes would look in reality. Commune, a furniture retail store, was able to create a similar experience for its clients using VR and AR. SMEs can indulge in creating such experiences using their mobile apps and websites.
For in-store experiences, SMEs can employ the concept of interactive mirrors. Here is a small video on how Timberland did it for their stores to inspire you.
And, if you think since you are not in the apparel business, will it work for make-up industry, here is another video by a Make-up brand, Sephora, to show how AR can be implemented in the store.
Creating immersive technology also increases customer satisfaction since buyers build an instant connection with the products. However, some studies claim that this decreases the returns since VR can make the customers realize that they do not want a specific thing in their vicinity. Well, this is pure calculated risk which the SMEs need to evalute before incorporating this technology into their business, but worth a try since it dramatically increases customer satisfaction.
Another primary reason why SMEs cannot ignore immersive tech is its ability to give them a strong position in the current economic condition. COVID-19 has decreased the spending power of people and has brought with itself the concept of social distancing. A practical business knows that it will have to deal with these issues for some time; hence, it needs to find its way around it. Immersive tech gives the businesses an easy way around this problem by letting it provide an immersive experience to its clients right on their phone. The companies can invest in creating immersive content and use it on their social media, websites, and other online outlets and let the users experience it. The stores can also minimize the number of people touching the product by helping them try the products using AR screens and mirrors. By doing this, a business reduces the chances of spreading the virus through its premises. Moreover, it also saves the cost that would otherwise add to the sanitization efforts.
The Challenges for SMEs
There are three major roadblocks that an SME has to cross before it can develop an immersive experience:
The concept refers to the kind of experience that a business wants to build. There can be different applications of immersive technology, depending on the niche and business models. Earlier in the article, we discussed a few ideas that the businesses have been using to deploy immersive technologies for their benefits. SMEs can pick a few ideas from such examples. Another way is to zero down on the problems that are faced by the clients. For instance, due to the pandemic, the customer will refrain from trying clothes in the stores. In such a scenario, AR can help businesses lure customers into the stores and promise a touch-free experience.
Similarly, at multipurpose stores, people will like minimum interaction with the store employees and would like to refrain from touching samples. Such stores can use AR on mobile to enable the customers to view extra info about the products by merely pointing their mobile cameras at the products. Web applications, mobile apps, and websites can use some AR to make the shopping process engaging. VR content can be created and used on social media channels to promote products and establish an emotional connection with the customers. Businesses need to step in their clients’ shoes to understand the problem areas and how VR, AR, and MR can be used to solve these problems.
- Cost & Time
It is also essential to understand that every application bears a different set of costs. Companies looking to create 360 degrees experience can do it at an affordable price. Companies that are willing to dive deeper into the immersive tech might need to shell out a decent amount of money. A simple VR can cost up to 3,000 USD and take around 5 to 7 days to complete. However, with the increasing complexity of the experience, the cost and time increase. For example, a fully immersive online shopping platform can increase the project’s budget by 25,000 USD. This investment covers the documentation, development, and implementation cost. However, since the products will keep on adding and getting sold out, the additional cost is added to the project in the terms of hiring technical people and training them to keep the immersive systems running.
But the big question is – is it worth it? As per PRNewswire, the returns are dependent on the nature of business and the quality of experiences created by it. Creativity in the background is one of the significant factors that contribute to the returns. Enjoyable experiences have garnered fantastic response and retention rate for companies. While the engagement has been amazing, the returns for some brands have dropped. This is due to people losing interest in the product due to bad quality of experience. On the other hand, companies that have deployed immersive tech for training saw an increase in the employees’ performance by up to 70%. Therefore, it is safe to say that immersive tech is a powerful tool, but needs careful planning and strategizing.
There is no doubt that immersive experiences evoke emotional responses and make people loyal to a brand. However, developing and deploying immersive technology in the current form can be a costly affair, if not planned right. However, given the customer satisfaction and the increase in ROI that businesses can expect after implementing immersive technology, this can become the real deal. What makes me even more confident about immersive technologies is the movement of big technology companies into the immersive tech field. Google has worked on various VR and AR projects. Microsoft is exploring a new form of immersive tech known as the extended reality with its device Hololens. Apple acquired NextVR, a VR start-up catering to sports. All these moves by the corporates indicate that immersive technology is going to get more business relevant and profitable.