Markets and Trends

How COVID-19 Drives Demand for Commercial AR and VR

Learn how enterprise organizations are utilizing augmented reality and virtual reality technologies in response to COVID-19 with IDC's Tom Mainelli.
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The rapid shift towards working from home has impacted pretty much every type of company under the sun. Some of the most impacted businesses include industry verticals. These companies leverage front-line workers who, among many other things, build products on manufacturing lines, provide remote repair services, operate heavy machinery, manage complex logistics warehouses, collaborate in real-time with far-flung experts, and more. As companies continue to adapt to the continuing challenges COVID-19 represents, an increasing percentage of them are looking to technologies such as augmented and virtual reality to help get the job done.

Virtual Reality in Business

Virtual reality (VR) technology involves the use of a VR headset that, when worn, places the user into a different reality than their current real one. VR has been around for a very long time, but the modern era of VR kicked off in 2016 with consumer-focused products from HTC, Oculus, Samsung, and Google. Since them, VR has struggled at times to catch the imagination of consumers. Early adopters tended to favor the units for gameplay and 360-degree video. The pandemic has certainly spurred interest in VR for more mainstream users, as people—quarantined at home—have looked for new things to do. That growth has been hindered by supply shortages of some of the most sought-after devices such as the Oculus Quest and the Valve Index.

And that consumer-focused product shortage has been exacerbated by the increasingly strong demand for VR in the enterprise. With pioneering players such as Oculus and HTC standing up commercial-specific offerings, and other viable players such as Varjo, HP, Pico, Lenovo, and others also focused there, demand on the commercial side has grown dramatically.

How does one use VR in a commercial setting during a pandemic? The most-used current scenario has to do with training. Traditionally VR training focused on physically training a new employee to do things such as run a high-dollar machine that would be too expensive to take out of service for use in training. Increasingly, companies are using VR to train physical skills that improve through repetition. For example, using a sprayer to paint the exterior of an automobile during the manufacture or repair process.

These types of physical training situations continue to increase and become ever-more-realistic as VR technology brings to market new features such as eye-tracking, hand tracking, and higher-resolution headsets. Also, we see VR leverage in other unique ways, such as in soft skills training and in-depth collaboration. In the former, the headset wearer is learning a soft skill such as public speaking, de-escalating a tense work situation, or even how to fire an employee. In the latter, firms are beginning the realize the real-world benefits of having employees in two different places occupy the same virtual space to speed design processes and drive unique new collaboration opportunities.

We’re are at the beginning of all the ways that companies will use VR during the current pandemic and in the future. Over time we’ll see more use cases surge, from using the tech to educate students, to driving large virtualized events we once attended in person, to spicing up everyday conference calls. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the broader VR industry right now is that many sought-after headsets have months-long backlogs to acquire. The demand has far outstripped the current supply. And a company cannot move to establish a VR game plan without enough VR headsets.

Augmented Reality’s Role

One of the advantages of most enterprise AR software solutions is that they can typically offer a baseline of service using the smartphones and tablets that an organization already has. Whereas VR is all about placing the user into a new, virtual reality, augmented reality is all about enhancing the reality we see around us. And so, at the most basic level, we can do this by hold a phone or tablet in our hand, screen facing us and camera facing out, with digital objects or information placed on the screen in the context of the room or space the device sees through its camera.

Enterprise-focused AR software plays such as Atheer, Microsoft, PTC, ScopeAR, Ubimax, Upskill, and others have created platforms that can leverage these mobile devices. Still, things get even more interesting once you put on an AR headset from the likes of Epson, Google, Microsoft, NReal, RealWear, ThirdEye, Microsoft, or Vuzix.

One of the critical use cases in AR today, regardless of the form factor, is around “see what I see” remote assistance. Think about a video conference call, except in this case one user is in the field, while the other is not, and instead of the camera pointing at the person in the field, it’s aimed at the object to which they are requesting assistance. This lets the person who is not there walk the person on-site through the process, pointing to levers and buttons and annotating details on screen. While this use case will suffice for many, where things get interesting is when this capability moves to a headset, freeing the person to use both hands to do the job at hand.

While “see what I see” remains probably the most important and sought-after use case in AR, we also see strong demand for AR capabilities that let companies put digital data where and when it is needed. So, for example, a repairman standing in front of a broken machine who can pull up the digital schematic of that machine on their smartphone or headsets and review the annotated steps for repairing the machine. This is much more efficient, and leads to better outcomes, than forcing someone to review a paper manual.

Another key where we see growth for AR is in both knowledge capture and transfer. In many manufacturing industries, a key long-term challenge is the fact that many of their most valuable employees, with decades of institutional process knowledge, are moving quickly toward retirement age. Traditionally, organizations have tried to capture what these employees know through written manuals or perhaps videos. With the right AR headset and platform, these workers can demonstrate key processes in real-time, capturing them in the headset, and then adding annotation and other important detail after the fact.

The company then uses the resulting output as a training method for the new employees, who can walk through the process using instructions created by the experts. These types of learning tend to help employees learn faster and retain more, speeding them toward viability. And it is much more interesting than sitting in a classroom looking at blueprints and listening to lectures.

We are experiencing challenging times at present, as people and businesses try to adapt to a changing environment, different job requirements, and restrictions on movement. Both AR and VR are still relatively new technologies with limited footprints inside most companies, but we believe both will play an essential role in moving forward to our next normal.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is impacting the global economy at nearly every level. Anticipate market challenges, keep business moving, and forsee what recovery could look like with IDC’s extensive COVID-19 research and advice.

Tom Mainelli manages the Device & Consumer Research Group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories, inclusive of both home and enterprise markets, as well as IDC's growing consumer research practice. The device research includes PCs, tablets, smartphones, wearables, smart home products, thin clients, displays, and virtual and augmented reality headsets. He also manages IDC's supply-side research team that tracks display and ODM production across a wide range of products. In his role as group vice president, he works closely with company representatives, industry contacts, and other IDC analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis across a wide range of both commercial and consumer topics.