I recently attended a webinar about enterprise applications of virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR, collectively known as XR). The webinar organizers promised that the panel of talented XR speakers would discuss current deployments of enterprise XR, measurement metrics, data and analytics strategies, return on investment (ROI), proofs of concept (PoC), ideal project size, hurdles, and more. Instead, what I heard was a rehearsal of the same old tired talking points we’ve all heard or read dozens of times now. No one directly discussed data, metrics, or efficacy, despite repeatedly being asked by the moderator.
Unfortunately, this is all too common. These three panelists discussed how great XR is for “creating empathy” and the importance of “full immersion” into an experience. They mentioned examples of XR flight simulators, military training applications, surgery applications, and jet engine design schematics. These are all cool applications of the technology, no doubt, but nearly every XR speaker, panelist, and journalist I’ve encountered over the past few years has referenced them ad nauseam. They’re not new or inspiring anymore. I’m guilty of this too, as I’ve written about some of these same examples before, especially in my early columns.
How we got here
This happens for several reasons. First, many panelists, speakers, and writers come from management, marketing, and PR backgrounds, and they’re not the engineers or developers actually creating XR products and experiences. This means they’re good at speaking, writing, and connecting with people, but often they don't have the technical expertise or experience to understand and discuss new examples and tech use cases. Instead, they talk about what they know or can easily find on Google.
Second, developers and engineers (a.k.a. techies) often speak on panels or write articles, too. Sometimes techies are fantastic in these roles, but sometimes they’re not so skilled at communicating with a non-technical audience. I know this is a stereotype, but engineers and developers often get mired in the details and lose sight of the big picture that will help an audience gain the context necessary for understanding the material.
Few people skillfully bridge that gap of soft communication skills with hard technical skills. However, speakers and writers aren’t entirely at fault. In fact, the third and bigger problem is that there aren't that many new examples to be found, at least not publicly. Corporations aren't talking about the most cutting-edge stuff they’re working on because they don’t want to let competition in on their secrets. This is a mistake that hurts everyone. Corporate brands benefit when they promote their research and emerging tech projects. They gain credibility as industry leaders, which in turn helps them get more customers, attract and keep more talent, and partner with or acquire more innovative startups. This leads to yet more cutting-edge R&D, creating a positive feedback loop. Everyone wins: the company grows, we get better products, and journalists have more interesting examples to write about. For example, Sony shows off its futuristic skunkworks XR projects at SXSW every year, and as a result they get a lot of media attention and new superfans.
Fourth, journalists are always in a hurry to meet a deadline. They don't have time to interview engineers, developers, and other industry experts, so they just Google a few examples and call it a day.
The final reason for the overuse of talking points is that even though XR technology is advancing rapidly, enterprise XR applications are taking a while to catch on. The projects that do successfully germinate and grow are all grass roots. That is, they’re spearheaded by lower-level employees, not management and executives at the top, as it typically takes a long time to get management and leadership buy-in on emerging tech proposals. While we’ve all heard about the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR, few people have actually tried out a VR headset themselves, so they don't really get it yet. Even fewer people have tried AR headsets such as the Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap. It’s hard to convince budget-minded executives why they should care when they’ve not yet experienced an overly-hyped new technology for themselves.
How we can fix it
I have several ideas for solving the problem of tired XR talking points. First, techies need to develop more soft skills and perhaps even get MBAs. (If you do, you’ll be unstoppable.) Second, fuzzies (i.e., non-technical business people) need to start developing and maybe take some online programming courses or attend a coding boot camp. (You’ll be surprised at the opportunities that will open to you.) Third, managers and executives need to open their minds and see the benefits of investing in emerging technologies, and then talk about what they're doing more openly. (Create an XR experience and then put a headset on your boss to let her try out the application herself in order to get her full buy-in.) Fourth, techies and fuzzies need to sit next to each other at the office. When companies fully embrace and practice gesamtkunstwerk, new ideas and solutions will emerge as potential case studies for XR and beyond.
Additionally, writers and speakers need to dive deeper with their research, find better examples, and offer real analysis. (Ahem, that goes for me, too!) We need to critically analyze the current emerging XR technologies, trends, and problems faced by people in a variety of industries and write about the companies that are deploying novel XR applications. Remember, you're not a thought leader unless you think. Instead of agreeing to sit on a panel, which often doesn't offer much of value to the audience, create a solo presentation that offers real value and insight—without blatantly pitching a product offered by your company.
We all need to focus on collecting better data, using more analytics, and developing better metrics. We all need to expand our vision of what is possible and start using technologies like XR in inventive new ways, whether at the enterprise level or just as individual creators. Today’s emerging technologies are so powerful, we can create just about anything we want. As we do this, not only will our talking points improve, but we will change our businesses, industries, and lives for the better.
If you’re looking for new perspectives, examples, and research on enterprise XR—besides reading my monthly column and the rest of Learning Solutions, of course—you may also want to check out:
The eLearning Guild's DevLearn Conference and Expo, October 23-25, 2019, website opens in June
Kelly, Kevin. "AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld," Wired. 12 February 2019.
Road to VR. Blog and news site.
UploadVR. Blog and news site.
Voices of VR. Podcast.