The impact of immersive, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies – collectively called Digital Reality – will be as monumental as personal computing, the internet, and smartphones.

We are in the middle of the fourth major technology shift. You might think that sounds grandiose, even dramatic. But whether you feel it or not, we have already begun a massive shift in how we work, interact, and consume information. It’s fueled by the rapid maturation of immersive, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies – collectively called Digital Reality™. The impact of these technologies will be as monumental as personal computing, the internet, and smartphones. Now is the time for businesses to embrace and invest in it. Those who do will be in a position to gain competitive advantage over those who wait.

Real-world applications of these technologies are happening as we speak, across every major industry. With improvements to battery life, a more robust app ecosystem, hardware price-points decreasing, and social resistance easing up, digital reality is enterprise-ready. While network, bandwidth, and security issues are still being worked out, the momentum has been building – 2016 was the year of experimentation and proof of concepts. Whereas 2016 was the year of the proof of concept (i.e. a standalone test with little expectation of being carried forward), in 2017, we saw a wave of pilots and prototypes (i.e. small tests that can be expanded for industrialization), where companies test ideas with the intention to scale. In 2018, we’ll see more and more companies moving toward industrialization, scaling their pilots into robust programs.

The earliest adopters are already in their second or third pilot iterations, with a few even further ahead of the curve. BMW is already using virtual reality in its auto design process. Air France has started deploying immersive entertainment experiences on some flights. Implementation of digital reality will continue to accelerate – the International Data Corp. estimated that augmented and virtual reality spending will soar from $9.1 billion in 2017 to $160 billion by 2021.

In the year ahead, companies should focus on enterprise-level development and deployment in five strategic ways:

  1. Connect: “Cooperation without co-location”
    The ways digital reality will help workers to engage, share information, and support colleagues in other locations will go much deeper than “souped-up” video teleconferencing. See-What-I-See technology will help field workers connect with remote specialists who can help assist with complex equipment repair issues. Scientists separated by oceans will be able to perform collaborative research in “virtual sandboxes.” Teams will be able to work together on virtual whiteboards or digital models that can be manipulated in real time. Social will move into a completely new dimension.
  2. Know: “Knowledge data sets for knowledge workers”
    Digital reality will offer knowledge workers access to specific information in-context when they need it to complete a task. With digital reality glasses, construction engineers will have access to detailed descriptions of a project’s electrical and plumbing parts, and also how the individual parts will fit into a wall. This could be used in any initial conceptualization phase, from architecture to supply chain mapping. Virtual collaboration can be further enhanced with immersive analytics. Combined with historical data on urban cellphone tower placement, engineers could virtually move cellphone towers around a map to gauge the potential impact that each placement could have on nearby residents’ quality of life.
  3. Learn: “Training in context”
    Some pioneering companies are using digital reality to immerse trainees in lifelike situations that would be too expensive or logistically impossible to recreate on the ground. In its training simulation, KFC places employees in a virtual “escape room” where they must successfully complete a five-step chicken preparation process before they are released.
  4. Explore: “Test drive a new experience”
    Consumer-focused use cases are proliferating across the retail, travel-hospitality-leisure, and real estate sectors as vendors use digital reality to bring potential customers closer to the products, services, and experiences on offer. Estée Lauder has launched an AR virtual makeup mirror on its web and mobile sites that adjusts for light, skin texture, and shine so that users can virtually try on product shades using their photo or live video. Meanwhile, guided virtual visits will be able to transform the real-estate industry and the way agents work on a daily basis – they may never have to show up for an open house again.
  5. Play: “Immersive entertainment”
    Use cases and full deployments of digital reality technologies in gaming, storytelling, and live events are varied and numerous—and will likely become more so in the coming years. IDC projects that the investment in AR/VR gaming use cases alone will reach $9.5 billion by 2021.

We all need to remember that on this side of the transformation, the future can look opaque, and the five areas above are only starting points. Much like the mobile transformation, we can’t yet see what, in hindsight, will someday be obvious. Ten years ago, if someone told you that the average person would spend five hours a day on their mobile phone and touch it more than 2,500 times per day, you’d think they were crazy. Now, it’s how we live.

It might just take that one simple, killer app to bring the full potential of digital reality into focus. That app could launch tomorrow – what do you think it will do? And will your company be ready when it comes?

Allan Cook is managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Global & US Technology, Media & Telecommunications Sector leader for Deloitte's Operations Transformation practice, with more than 25 years of industry experience. Allan works with a wide variety of organizations building their innovation strategies, corporate visions, and business plans. His client work has focused on strategy, scenario planning, business transformation, innovation, and Digital Reality™ (augmented reality/mixed reality/virtual reality/360/immersive). 

This article has been adapted from a chapter in Deloitte’s 2018 Tech Trends Report, Digital Reality: The focus shifts from technology to opportunity.

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