A view on where AR/VR is headed, roundtable discussion from those who know

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Recently, Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, hosted a roundtable discussion with five other industry executives to discuss the current state of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). The core question at hand: whether AR/VR is finally poised for its breakthrough moment – and if so, what barriers might need to be removed to usher in this new era.

The participants included:

– Asif Rana, COO of Hexagon, a provider of sensor, software, and autonomous solutions

– Martin Herdina, CEO of Wikitude, an augmented reality technology company

– Susanna Holt, VP Forge Platform, Autodesk, a provider of 3D design and engineering software

– Thomas Schuler, CEO of Halocline, a developer of VR products for production planning and manufacturing

– Tony Fernandez, CEO of UEGroup, a user experience agency

A lightly edited and condensed version of the conversation and their unique perspectives follows.

Q: At various points over the past decade, many of us have believed that AR/VR was ready to really take off in the industrial setting – but it hasn’t happened yet. What are the barriers that are standing in the way of that widespread adoption, and what should the industry be focusing on?

Asif: One of the fundamental things that we tend to forget when we think about commercializing a technology is the user experience. I think one of the main hurdles of AR/VR in the commercial usage is we don’t think about the full user journey or what the full end-to-end solution looks like.

Martin: For a while, there was such a focus on technical benchmarks that nobody really talked about what could be achieved with AR/VR. Even when people did start to talk about what could be achieved, they didn’t really look at the full picture and at how things could be scaled beyond a single isolated use case. As long as that underlying basis is missing, widespread adoption of AR/VR will be hampered.

Susanna: I think one thing that’s lacking around AR/VR is pre-processing of data and data preparation – from CAD design data, to mesh poly count reduction. That kind of stuff needs to be automated, robust, fast, and scalable. And at the moment, all of that still seems to require too much manual work to really enable this AR/VR takeoff that we’ve been anticipating for the past 20 years.

Tony: I think the core issue is that AR/VR did not emerge from a human-centered point of view. It emerged from a technological exploration point of view. And what that has meant is that the human factors of this technology are terrible.

To take the case of VR: Who thought it was going to be a great idea to duct tape a TV to your head and blindfold you? Meanwhile, with AR, one of the problems that we continually run into is arm and body fatigue from having to hold up a device. Because AR/VR technology hasn’t centered around the reality of the human body, how it gets fatigued, and how people feel motivated to use their bodies, it will continue to have a difficult time breaking through to the mainstream, regardless of the value proposition it may offer.

Q: From what everyone’s saying, it seems that the user experience is one of the big barriers to mainstream adoption. What needs to be different for people to feel comfortable? How can companies remove this barrier?

Tony: I think mobile AR is a really difficult problem to solve. And again, part of the problem with most existing AR solutions is that they require people to use their bodies in unnatural ways. From a hardware perspective, we’re going to be much closer to solving that problem once we get to some sort of compact glasses. Of course, glasses come with their own problems around power and where to place the battery and so on. But I think that’s what AR’s waiting for, in terms of a hardware platform solution.

Asif: I wonder whether there are the same expectations on an enterprise level as at a consumer level for AR/VR. I say that because in the enterprise, you do see technology that’s not so comfortable to use – but it delivers such a high value that it’s used anyways. So, perhaps the AR/VR hardware is “good enough,” and it’s the content side that deserves more focus to deliver applications that can really make an impact and deliver value. Either way, I’d say that if the hardware companies focused on more business cases, that would be helpful to the enterprise sector.

Susanna: It’s true that the enterprise use case may put up with all sorts of inconveniences. But when I think of a use case for us at Autodesk, which might be an architect or structural engineer at a construction site or building site, inconvenience can quickly become a safety concern. AR provides a limited field of vision. In normal life, we don’t just look straight ahead – we’re constantly taking in things occurring on the periphery. Excluding that visual information in a potentially dangerous environment like a construction site does strike me as a risk factor. So, the hardware has to be natural to the way we conduct ourselves as humans in a particular environment.

Martin: I think the most important point that people have hit on is that things have to feel natural. When you wear a HoloLens, it’s cool, but it’s nothing that you would want to wear for 10 hours per day at your workspace. Another aspect that companies should address is the fact that so many AR use cases totally lack context. For example, why would you use AR to project a team roster on your desk when there are so many other user interfaces that make so much more sense for that objective? AR needs to really link reality to a reasonable set of content.

Q: Lots of big names – including Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, to name a few – are heavily investing in the belief that the barriers around AR/VR adoption are being resolved and that this an area that is ripe for explosion. All of your companies are, to varying degrees, investing in that belief as well. What makes you optimistic that AR/VR is getting close to a real breakthrough? What drives your confidence?

Thomas: It takes a long time to bring hardware technology from an early prototype to a usable product. You have to really keep at it for quite some time. What makes me optimistic is that the hardware vendors are still investing in it and pushing it forward – they’re not standing still.

At the same time, more and more content is now being produced that makes more sense. I think more people understand now that you need a different set of tools for AR or VR rather than taking the same old tools that you had before, but just manipulating them differently. So, while the progress might be slower than everyone expected, that progress is very much ongoing. That makes me optimistic that we are on an eventual path towards more widespread adoption for AR/VR.

Susanna: Well, let me turn this question the other way around. We’re hearing so much from our customers about how AR or VR is needed and how they’re expecting it to play a bigger role in their workflows. Some of that, of course, is a reflection of hype that they see in the media, but a significant proportion of it is a reflection of real need.

For example, while wearing a HoloLens headset might be uncomfortable today, it does allow you to make those important decisions much faster than having to look at something, take a photograph, go back to the office, think it through, discuss it, and so on. It will speed everything up. It’s about faster decisions, better decisions. There’s a real need in the market – so that bodes quite well for AR/VR, because a lot of technological advancement and evolution is driven by market need.

Tony: I would say AR/VR will break through if it can focus on its fundamental promise, which is to reveal information and perspectives in ways that would be difficult to do any other way. I’m not necessarily a believer that the way most companies have defined AR at this point is necessarily the path forward. For example, AR doesn’t necessarily always have to be visual in nature, right? It can be haptic in nature. It can be lots of other things. But visual is the primary road for now, and I think the need to visualize information that is otherwise difficult to do any other way or get access to any other way is going to drive the solution.

Martin: At my company, we perhaps have a unique perspective, because we have thousands of developers using our tools on a daily basis to create AR use cases, and we can see what those people are working on. The things they are doing today with AR are substantially different from what we saw two or three years ago. There are still people working on proof of concepts, but the number of people who are moving from POC to commercial grade installations – and the number of use cases we see that are no longer for two or three or five users, but 10,000 to 20,000 users – has rapidly increased in the past year.

Also, from a finance perspective, AR is no longer tapping into the budgets of the innovation units – it’s tapping into the budgets of the actual business units. That’s the ultimate sign that technologies like AR/VR are starting to take hold in the enterprise space.

Asif: There are at least three reasons why I’m very feeling positive about AR/VR. The first is the acceleration of digitalization that has taken place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many, many systems are getting digitally transformed, and digital journeys that might have taken years to complete are now on the fast track. So, the ground is really set for AR to make a move.

The second reason is that digital process management has really evolved. The journey really starts with connectivity first, then it goes to the integration, then it goes to the digital workflows. Once you have the workflow, to augment the workflow with AR is very straightforward.

The third reason is the advent and proliferation of smartphones and tablets that are loaded with the sensors and features that are required for AR/VR. These devices are now at everyone’s fingertips, ready to be used for various advanced workflows. So, really, I think the time is very, very good right now for AR/VR.

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