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Is it time for enterprises to revisit virtual reality?

Apple's new Vision Pro headset is again boosting interest in virtual and augmented reality. Is hype turning into opportunity?

Johannesburg, 27 Feb 2024
Rudolf van der Gryp, Senior Business Development Consultant, Data Sciences Corporation.
Rudolf van der Gryp, Senior Business Development Consultant, Data Sciences Corporation.

The classic view of technology progress uses the model Gartner first suggested. A technology has to pass through a hype period, then a low point of disillusionment, and then it might find its way into practical use cases and broader adoption. Technologies can shoot through this journey or get stuck along the way. Many fail, or they change dramatically from where they started.

But virtual and augmented reality technologies feel like exceptions. Their graphs resemble ongoing waves of hype and disillusionment, or perhaps even a circle of one into the other. Each generation does things better, yet they are still fringe technologies. The Vision Pro, Apple's long-awaited venture into the market, has again stirred up a lot of hype and hope, and some of its use cases open exciting possibilities.

"We're seeing a lot more general use cases," says Rudolf van der Gryp, Senior Business Development Consultant at Data Sciences Corporation. "For example, you have a laptop with a small screen. Pop the Vision Pro on and you suddenly have a larger work area and multiple screens. You could sit on a flight or at an editing desk, and interact with your computer in a bigger way."

Apple's VR revolution

The Vision Pro might break through the barrier to help virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) become more mainstream. While it is very expensive, functionally limited and bound to Apple devices and software, the device still makes its point by raising the bar substantially.

"I definitely think Apple has put a stake in the ground to say that your level of immersion in the VR world will not be the same. If you look at the Vision Pro, as a piece of tech it's quite over-engineered. But they've put everything into this device to say that this is what we can do with the current technologies. As new technologies develop further, it will only get better."

The VR and AR market is littered with failures and struggling ventures. But the technologies aren't failures. Large enterprises and public institutions have been using VR and AR for decades. Even Google Glass, the controversial AR glasses that infamously failed to wow consumers, inspired products that live on in industry applications such as design and training. Some of these examples are not what you'd expect: for example, Walmart uses VR training to prepare staff for hectic Black Friday crowds.

VR and AR's growing potential

Enterprises have found good uses for AR and VR, which are improving and growing with new technologies such as interactive holograms and aerohaptics. Some of the concepts might seem too cutting-edge or even gimmicky, and only time will tell on the value of some of these technologies. But time is also moving quickly. The Oculus Quest, which turned VR into a standalone device, only debuted in 2019. Five years later, the Vision Pro has people driving around wearing VR headsets.

People walking around in VR bubbles is a bit dystopian. Yet, the pragmatic applications are interesting, especially when incorporating drones or digital twins. And chalk another one up for the Vision Pro: by adding Apple's Siri, it formally brings agents into the VR space. Large language generative AI is the next logical step. And we can take that further, says Van der Gryp: "Imagine a lesson where they use AI to recreate a historical figure? I can have a conversation with the realistic likeness of this person. For example, in science class, imagine you're learning about the theory of relativity from Einstein."

The idea is not absurd: last year, a French museum hosted a Vincent Van Gogh exhibition, and trained an AI with the artist's diaries and letters to become a digital avatar visitors can talk to.

Be prepared with an agile foundation

Does the Apple Vision Pro and its peers, such as the impending Meta Oculus Quest 3, mark broader enterprise and consumer adoption, or yet another swell and crash of the AR/VR wave? An enterprise may have many or only a few use cases for AR and VR. The best strategy to be prepared with an agile technology environment.

"Everything starts with that modern data centre, having a cloud or container-based consumption model where you can spin up workloads and shut them down quite easily. You can't run these types of projects through the traditional IT procurement cycle of getting a spec starting and then going out on an RFP and then ordering servers and then waiting for the servers to come in. That takes too long and costs too much. With modern IT infrastructure, you'll have the freedom to experiment and find those use cases that work for you."