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Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are playing an increasingly important role in the 3D Experience and in the digital transformation of companies. We met Filippo Rizzante, CTO of Reply, to offer an overview focussed on the evolution of the immersive technologies business. Reply is a multinational company with more than 7,000 employees and is one of the leading international consultancy and digital services companies.
Let’s take stock of VR and AR current situation.
These are innovative technologies that are currently experiencing a fast growth; they have an enormous potential for mass diffusion in the near future. In the consumer sector, there is certainly still a long way to go. I am thinking, for example, at the usability of devices and at the user experience that mark the success of a technology in everyday life. Augmented Reality – and Mixed Reality too –, should indeed have an easier job, since it overlaps with reality. In the case of pure VR, I think it can become popular in some niche contexts, such as operators’ training or simulations, but it is less immediate at the consumer level. The times of Ready Player One and its entirely virtual digital dimensions currently represent a distant scenario. This is due not only to the technologies needed to develop them but also to the whole perception and experience background that should be built around consumers.
What do we need today to reduce this gap?
More advanced hardware and software technologies that are able to interface the user with the proposed applications in a natural and easy way. This would allow developers to take full advantage of those potentials that today are primarily theoretical. If we consider the consumer market, I believe that Augmented Reality will be able to gain ground on a larger scale in shorter times, while pure VR will probably remain more attractive for enterprise applications. In this sector, the implementation areas are well-defined and new technologies can kick in to optimise existing processes.
In any case, I would not be so categorical in the distinction between Business and Consumer, since the former is historically conditioned by the diffusion of the latter, from which it can benefit in many respects.
Reply strongly invests in this technological context
With regard to new technologies it is necessary to make evaluations with medium and long-term prospects, then, evaluate the investments and the acquired know-how accordingly. This is the reason that pushed us to focus on products that are beyond our core business, as in the case of Theseus VR, developed by Forge Reply. It is a video game for Sony Playstation VR, in third person, with a very particular concept; it is based on the famous mythological story that sees Teseo confronting the Minotaur. We were well aware of the risks deriving from competition in such an innovative context but we decided to finance the project anyway. And we had favourable results, in many aspects. Naturally, it is my personal satisfaction to see teams of boys and girls with mixed skills being so passionate about such a challenging project. What’s more, we realised that the background of acquired skills is useful also for the development of enterprise solutions. This market, though still in a primordial phase, is undoubtedly destined to gain more and more importance.
The gaming sector has taken the first step in the spread of VR but, today, the development is still left to independent productions. The big names predominantly invest on traditional platforms, still.
At a recreational level, so far only Pokemon Go has managed to generate a volume of business of extraordinary magnitude. But we are talking about AR in the mobile sector, where billions of devices are available; these numbers are not even close to the current spread of systems based on PSVR or SteamVR.
At Reply, we firmly believe in the potential and advantages of VR and AR. We recently strengthened Area 360, our research centre, and we moved it to one of our Milan offices. The centre is equipped with laboratories in which we currently experiment and develop immersive applications and devices. We are also collaborating with many partners and companies interested in this kind of technology.
Where would you place VR and AR in business applications today?
VR finds its place in the field of industrial simulation and virtual prototyping. These realities are already operative and the inclusion of immersive technologies generates significant advantages in terms of costs reduction and reduced development time. Not to mention the new features, such as the possibility of experiencing the product on a natural scale.
Some industries, such as automotive and large manufacturing, are already successfully using VR in their business workflow.
Augmented Reality – and Mixed Reality too – is even more interesting because it extends this perspective to many new applications thanks to its natural capacity to integrate with other technologies, such as the internet of things and artificial intelligence. One of its main strengths is to share the viewer’s point of view in a real context. This is a fundamental feature when it comes, for example, to applications for logistics or industrial maintenance. In these environments, it is possible to instruct and guide workers remotely and even show them an overlay with all the contextual information needed in the real situation.
Furthermore, we can not fail to mention the contribution of AR and VR in digital marketing. The performance and the human involvement in the presentation increase significantly the perception of the product, helping the customer in the purchase. These technologies also offer many advantages to companies in terms of logistics.
We can extend what we said about VR and AR to many technologies of the Industry 4.0. The Digital Transformation everyone talks about is actually progressing quite slowly, despite what it might seem. Why are companies not rushing to use the advantages of new technologies? Logically, it would be reasonable to expect so.
In the case of Reply, of course, this problem does not even arise because of our core business’ nature; in 1996 – the year of our foundation – we were already operating digitally and we were connected to the web.
I suppose that almost everyone today has grasped the advantages that can derive from the digital transformation. Nevertheless, the top-level management does not always guide their companies towards innovation. There is a short-term vision, there are barriers in terms of mentality and organisation. The technologies are already here for everyone to use, but they are not actually used. For large “traditional” companies, this transition phase is a very demanding challenge.
…even though we live in a time in which opportunities are not lacking, at least in theory.
The barriers to entry depend on two factors: the threat of big names and the proliferation of technological startups.
In the first case, we are talking about entities with an unreachable economic power. Giant companies such as Amazon and Google develop the technology that is required to expand their business to different sectors, trying to impose a monopoly. First, they try with a solution of their own. If they fail, they resort to the direct acquisition of competitors or they set up an arsenal of technologies that almost always gets them what they want.
As for startups, they represent a threat for traditional companies in a different way than big giants do. Yet, they create a considerable number of new competitors on the market.
How can companies survive in this grip?
Technology is the way to go. It is necessary to have the courage to insist on new technologies. The first attempt hardly is the right one. Failure on the first shot is normal. If you want to achieve a goal, you must apply corrective measures and keep trying until you get it.
It is impossible to apply the same return expectations of consolidated businesses to the new technologies. These are situations that vary at different speeds, according to parameters that must therefore be measured with other logics.
Traditional companies must also base their business innovation on the assets they already own, that provide them with a solid starting point. If entrepreneurs renounce their traditions, they risk being in the same condition as startups. What has been acquired over the years can also facilitate the differentiation that makes a company harder to attack for the great giants we have mentioned. These reasons, combined with the certainty that the right technologies are available, convince me that companies today can successfully renew themselves thanks to digitalisation.
There is so much talk of skills. Almost all companies complain of the small number of young people with technical training. What is the reason for this gap?
In this case too, there are many factors. Above all, the fragmentary vocational guidance, in my opinion, does not offer a real outlook of the opportunities that the new technologies – and the professions related to them – can offer. If the opportunities were more evident, I am convinced that young people would take advantage of them. In our field there are currently a lot of work opportunities. We need more engineers and technicians than there are really available. In general, education should take into account the real needs of the labour market. I am referring to the humanities, which could be much more beneficial if only they were able to train hybrid figures, by equipping them with the essential technical knowledge that can be used in new areas. Technologies such as VR and AR require, for example, the contribution of psychology or neuroscience. These disciplines can be used to study human behaviour in the context of the whole immersive experience.
As a result of these considerations, our research centre on immersive technologies, Area 360, began collaborating with the Auxological Institute of Milan. We are working on the development of two CAVEs, that is, immersive rooms where virtual reality is currently used for rehabilitation support. This is a practical and tangible example of how the collaboration between different scientific and technological fields can really contribute to improving people’s lives.
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