No limits when using VR for enterprise

VR is slowly starting to make inroads in the corporate market due to a new breed of companies offering platforms of limitless potential. Paul Milligan reports.

VR seems to have been around forever yet still resides firmly in the ‘next big thing’ category. Like all new technology this is due to the time it takes to achieve the right combination of availability, affordability, convenience and ease of use. But we are now at that point says Tomas Budrys, marketing manager from SaaS company MeetinVR. “2019 was a breaking point for us in terms of demand. When wireless headsets were released (ones that do not require a powerful PC), we saw a lot of interest coming from enterprises, because suddenly it became €300 for a single unit, and it was ergonomic, and portable, and lightweight and powerful enough to have meetings.”

enterprise VR
pic: meetinVR

Running alongside this development has been other factors too which suggest that now is the time for the enterprise market to fully embrace VR tech. First, we have seen the desire for HMD (head-mounted display) companies such as HTC and Oculus to focus increasingly towards the enterprise market. We’ve seen the introduction of VR environments built for enterprise that work well without headsets, and we’ve also seen the Covid-19 pandemic radically change how enterprises approach office life and manage remote working. We spoke to a range of those working in the VR for enterprise sector including software and hardware providers to see what they can offer enterprises, why VR goes way beyond just simulation, and how Covid has changed everything.

The most natural market for VR in enterprise is for simulation, and not much that has happened in 2020 will change that, VR works great for that sector. What could prove significant for adoption is the use of VR for business communications. But how likely is it, and are there any barriers to adoption left? “If there is anything that prohibits people from jumping in it's the status quo of ‘this is how we work,” says Gabe Paez, CEO and founder of immersive remote collaboration platform The Wild. “People are being so disrupted right now in terms of how we've worked for many years that I think this is a right time for adoption, the price point is excellent and the hardware is better than ever.”
Engage Conference Lecture enterprise VR
pic: Engage

Much like those IPTV providers who spent years waiting for the rest of us to grasp why streaming was a good idea, those in VR have been ready and waiting for enterprise to catch up. “Before Covid hit I would have said we were a training and education company, now we’re a communications company. Covid hasn’t required us to make anything additional, it’s just now we've got opportunities to sell it elsewhere,” says Dave Whelan, CEO of Immersive VR Education, the developers of the Engage platform for VR.

VR is being embraced by enterprise as we speak, eXp Realty is a huge real estate company based in the US with only virtual offices, all online meetings are held in the VirBELA platform, with each of their 28,000 employees represented in avatar form.

Conference Speech Presentation - Theatre enterprise VR
pic: Engage

The current structure is not helping though says creative technologist and founder of EvoCreate Michel Buchner, and is also stopping the AV sector from getting involved. “VR manufacturers all want to do it by themselves, whereas system integrators could be of great help, answering the brunt of the questions and taking care of the practical implementation of these systems. It’s now a matter of demoing these possibilities to clients but the manufacturers don’t have the capacity for this, the system integrators are not aware of these possibilities and the software vendors are not used to work with system integrators or external consultants.”

One thing VR can help with is that age old problem, which has only been exacerbated by Covid-19, reducing inefficient and costly business travel. “To push the world forward, we need to spend more time thinking and less time traveling. And to execute the next big idea, we’ll need more space to think than a laptop or phone screen can provide,” says Aaron Dence, product manager from VR workspace start-up Spatial. While the likes of Zoom and Teams have kept us all working in 2020, there is growing unrest among users complaining of ‘Zoom fatigue’, too many dull online meetings are causing users to switch off (physically and mentally).

spatial VR
pic: Spatial

“When you ask if video conferencing is going to be the future for remote work you get a collective sigh from everybody because we've all been living it for the last six months,” says Craig Kaplan, chief customer officer, VirBELA. “While businesses have now jumped into Zoom and Teams, everybody agrees that something is missing. A real ‘event’ is a ‘leaning in’ experience whereas a video streaming event is a ‘leaning back’ experience,” adds Buchner.

the wild igloovision enterprise VR
pic: The Wild

It’s something those in VR are only too aware of and are actively working to solve those issues (and turn to their financial advantage). “We developed a camera that looks at the bottom of my face to make sure that my chin and my mouth, if I puff my cheeks out, if I smile, is mimicked in the avatar. You're not losing that personality contact and you can then be in that moment,” says Graham Wheeler, HTC EMEA general manager. “We believe that communication using VR is the next step, it’s much more engaging than two dimensional communication like Teams, but at the same time, it has the simplicity and ease of a Teams call,” he adds. Wheeler says that the Taiwanese electronic giant expects b2b to be the growth area of VR by the end of 2020, “The pandemic is causing more people to look at it now, but at the same time, we always predicted that even before it took hold. We have a very big focus on driving up b2b because it follows the historic new technology curves to everything that has come and this is b2b’s time.”

VR to some may mean a video game or even apps that would transform your smartphone into a rudimentary headset to allow you to walk about in outer space etc. And that is part of the problem, VR has a credibility issue which is hindering adoption in enterprises, luckily that is diminishing. “We are starting to come out of the gimmicky stage of Google Cardboard with rollercoaster apps. Quite often when I used to go to meetings, I’d ask them ‘have you tried VR before?’, people would say ‘yes I put my phone in a box and it me feel dizzy’,” says Whelan. The proposition to corporates right now he says must acknowledge offices won’t be going back to normal anytime soon and that VR can help workers feel less isolated. “It’s great for communication and social contact but can also be used for onboarding new workers in organisations and for sales training. It’s not a replacement for everything, but in 80 or 90% of cases there's a use case for using VR to really benefit employees, to up the retention level of staff or just to make better connections for people.”

Office meeting virBELA enterprise VR
pic: Virbela

Covid has undeniably seen a bigger push for VR, Dence says that pre-Covid Spatial had already sold to 40% of Fortune 1000 companies before the pandemic, who were using it (in VR but predominantly AR) to reduce time and cost on business travel. “Since Covid we’ve seen a 1,000% increase in usage and a surge of that interest has come from SMBs and consumers using VR headsets, all looking for ways to stay connected, motivated and productive while remote.”

One of the most interesting aspects of VR in enterprise is the ability for new platforms like VirBELA, Engage, MeetinVR and The Wild to create immersive environments almost limitless in scope. It is possible to create virtual offices which closely replicate real-life, with reception and lobby areas where you can meet and talk to other members of staff or clients, you can also create meetings rooms where people can pop in to say hello to those in the room, ask a question and then leave again. With the future of the workplace post-Covid still up for debate, a pitch to replace costly real estate with a virtual platform with unlimited ability to scale up is surely an attractive proposition right now.

VR platforms also offer a new way to host events. Covid has seen a huge rise in webinars as manufacturers look to push new products or training programmes Much like ‘Zoom fatigue’ however we’ve already seen weariness from integrators/consultants in a short period of time not only at the volume of webinars but also the rather dated ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentation. VR can offer a far more immersive webinar experience, attendees can take a 3D look around the product, have private conversations with the product manager or other attendees. Your potential buyer doesn’t have a VR headset? You can put one in the post, with new models selling for as little as €300 it won’t break the bank to build up a fleet of them to send out for events.

VirBELA Auditorium enterprise VR
pic: Virbela

While webinars have been on the rise during the pandemic, trade shows have all but disappeared. And this is another aspect where VR can offer something new and different. VirBELA and Engage are two platforms who have seen interest from trade show organisers this year. Emerge has been used by companies looking to offer an authentic trade show experience, like those off-chance corridor conversations, but in a new format. “Business people go to events to strike up business or to go and talk to a sales person on a stand, none of that was possible online with virtual events,” says Whelan. “We have exhibition halls where people have stands, you can move around in the environment. Because it’s 3D spatial audio you can have that private hallway conversation, you're not listening to everybody else inside, you can then go to
a conference hall and watch a keynote presentation, and you can lean over to the person next to you and whisper in their ear without disturbing anybody else. It’s a real conference experience.”

Another aspect of running events in VR is that you can have aspects that couldn’t possibly happen in a physical event. Whelan gives the example of a recent event for HTC where the CEO walked on stage flanked by fighter jets above, or a presentation about Covid where the audience were all wearing hazmat suits. With VR a little imagination can go a long way, and costs can be kept low i.e. no real fighter jets to source for the day.

Open Campus_Towers enterprise VR
pic: Virbela

The use of avatars in VR has been highlighted by some as a potential barrier to VR adoption. For a while now you are represented in a VR world by something akin to a Lego figure, and for the likes of Morgan Stanley or Pfizer that may not give off the level of professionalism they demand. But all that might be about to change. Most of the VR platform providers we spoke to are developing more lifelike avatars, including Spatial which already offers the ability to load a selfie within seconds to your avatar. “We continually hear over and over again that people want their avatar to reflect who they are as much as possible,” adds Dence. “My expectation is that companies like Zoom will buy a VR platform and then will make a corporate version of the existing avatar,” adds Buchner.

For integrators and consultants looking to advise clients on installing VR platforms for communications or events, the investment to be made is more in faith than money. Good wireless headsets are now available from less than €500, and there are software platforms like HTC’s Vive XR Suite built exclusively for enterprise. VR is attractive because it offers unlimited potential, it can be easily scaled at very little cost to each organisation’s needs, you need to increase the size of your event from 10,000 to 100,000 people? It’s a click of a button.

VirBELA Expo Hall - XL Booth enterprise VR
pic: Virbela

VR can offer things not possible in the real world and can offer a more engaging and immersive meetings experience, which is something there’s clearly demand for. This battle here is one of perception and mindset, do businesses see VR as a serious technology? It’s clearly a product with the wow factor when demonstrated, so it’s down to integrators and consultants to get it in front of clients to sell it as a productive, imaginative and immersive alternative to the status quo of Zoom/Teams etc as this final quote from Buchner highlights. “Try-out a selection of available collaboration software on a standard Oculus Quest2 and ask yourself what can it do for your organisation? Do we feel more satisfied after a meeting in VR with 15 people then in a Zoom?”


The Wild
HTC Vive XR Suite

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