For the last three years, I’ve been helping Australian businesses to apply extended reality (XR) to achieve their strategic goals. People always want to hear about the immersive fan experience I helped create for the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust. But the most exciting, impactful XR experiences I’m seeing are completely transforming Australian businesses—in often very unexpected ways.
Imagination plays a huge and critical role in the implementation of XR. Seventy-eight percent of Australian executives believe it will be important to leverage XR solutions when engaging with employees and customers. However, they’re struggling to understand exactly how to do this. Thinking creatively is crucial. This technology is new and evolving, and companies who are leading the way are constantly exploring new applications.
Healthcare ahead of the curve
In this regard, healthcare is an exemplar, using XR across a wide range of applications to enable ground-breaking leaps forward. Last year, in a medical first, surgeons from around the world donned virtual reality (VR) headsets to jointly operate on a patient in London. Now, Australian scientists are walking around inside cancer cells visualised as an interactive virtual reality landscape. The immersive technique, developed at the University of NSW, is accelerating the process of scientific discovery, allowing scientists to see how cells behave in a way never before possible.
Already, surgeons are practicing routines in virtual operating theatres. VR is being used to: spark memories in dementia patients, treat PTSD in those coming back from war and distract patients from the side effects of chemotherapy. We’re also seeing the use of VR for creating empathy with people suffering from depression, showing users what it’s like to "walk in their shoes."
Applying XR to your business
To date, most businesses have been experimenting with XR in the context of sales and marketing gimmicks. In fact, the most compelling use cases today are transforming employee and customer experiences.
Boosting productivity with connected workers—Wearables give workers hands-free job information such as business processes, instructions and advice—in the moment, as they need it. Step-by-step visual instructions improve the speed, quality and safety of site workers undertaking manufacturing, assembling, repair and maintenance tasks. If people need more help, digital coaching allows workers to interact virtually with offsite experts.
In hazardous and large industrial work environments, workers wear location and hazmat sensors that can monitor, for example, levels of environmental toxin exposure, as well as the worker’s location. In a warehouse, digital navigation and real-time object recognition help pick and pack workers to find the fastest route to each item.
In a rescue situation, fire drones with thermal cameras stream information about the fire’s progress to the VR headsets of firefighters on the ground, allowing a complete view of what is happening elsewhere in the building. Firefighters receive early warnings of soon-to-collapse walls or potential explosions, with AI engines providing insight and advice based on the 360-video feed coming in.
Making training safer and more effective—By placing people directly into any setting, XR also delivers firsthand experience with dangerous situations or machinery without real-world risk. New workers can be trained virtually on oil rigs, fishing boats and hazardous plants without putting them or their trainers in danger.
Even in safe environments, immersive experiences stick more in memory than others. For example, to prepare first-time managers and store associates for the mega "Black Friday" shopping day, giant retailer Walmart uses VR to simulate the experience of dealing with Black Friday crowds. Walmart says its associates retain more with VR training and has decided to roll out VR training at all 200 Walmart Academies national wide.
Extending your workforce—Through immersive experiences, businesses can tap expertise in thousands of skills from anywhere in the world. And as XR-based remote control of physical systems becomes common, companies will be able to hire manufacturing, assembly and robotics expertise from a global pool of the best candidates, regardless of where they live.
Increasing cultural understanding—The ability to allow people to walk in others’ shoes is proving a powerful means of creating a more cohesive culture. In one mining company, office workers were constantly complaining that engineers on site took a long time to return documents. After a VR education program that put office workers into the simulated mine environment, those with desk jobs had new respect for what their engineering colleagues were dealing with.
The use cases above are what’s possible right now. Within five years, the physical hardware capabilities and cost will catch up with the software, creating whole body suits that deliver a completely authentic tactile experience—almost indistinguishable from reality. People will smell the smoke and feel the heat in emergency training. Virtual meetings will occur with the same impact as those in person.
At the same time, XR technology will gather more and more biometric data, tracking metrics like galvanic skin response and heart rate variability to indicate stress levels, or brain waves to find out when employees achieve a "flow state"—the optimal state of consciousness where people perform at their best. What companies will do with this data is up to your imagination. The only certainty is that some form of XR will soon be embedded in business as usual.