How IT can prepare for VR, AR and MR in the enterprise

Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality tools are coming to the workplace sooner than you think. Is your IT department ready?

Reality ain’t what it used to be. Augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality tools are creating a lot of buzz — as well as a lot of potential headaches for IT departments in everything from networking and security to data retrieval.

Even understanding what each of the terms refers to can be confusing, as they aren’t always used consistently. The term “mixed reality” (MR) was coined by researchers Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino in 1994 to refer to every sensory environment in between the purely physical and the purely virtual. But over time, it fell out of use in favor of the more specific “augmented reality” (AR) for digital information overlaid on the real, physical world and “virtual reality” (VR) for a completely digital environment.

Over the past few years, Microsoft has revived the term “mixed reality” to market its HoloLens product, and vendors now tend to use the term to refer to the projection of 3D virtual objects or holograms into physical space. With AR, the digital overlay usually appears to float on a plane in front of the observer, while with MR it’s possible to walk around a virtual object to see it from all sides.

One other difference: While today’s VR and holographic MR applications typically require specialized hardware such as glasses or headsets, AR is already being built into apps for ordinary smartphones and tablets, as evidenced by last year’s Pokémon Go game craze. Pokémon Go laid a social as well as technological foundation for the adoption of AR, says Tuong Nguyen, a principal research analyst with Gartner. “It made people familiar with the idea that if I hold up my phone, I expect to see some type of digital representation overlaid on the physical world. It caused a behavioral change even if you didn’t play the game.”

Whatever flavor of reality you prefer, the technologies hold a lot of promise for businesses. “We already have enterprises that are investing in AR,” says Mark Sage, executive director of the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance, a nonprofit trade organization promoting the adoption of AR. Companies typically deploy the technology for specific use cases or to solve particular business problems, Sage says. “It’s all about improving performance and creating efficiencies.”

“When you think both AR and VR, think of them as user interface technologies,” says Nguyen. “There’s a handful of horizontal applications for AR, like task itemization and pick/pack lists. I put on my [AR] glasses, and it says, ‘Hey Tuong, you’ve got to go down to Aisle 13, Bay 4 and pick this off the shelf’ and maybe overlay a little map.” And both AR and VR could prove useful for design and collaboration, he says, enabling building engineers and construction workers to visualize how structures are going to look in place.

“The field service world is another one,” adds Michael Fauscette, chief research officer at B2B reviews platform G2 Crowd. “Say you service a solar farm and you have to make a repair. If you have AR capability, you could see the work order, see the process, even see an overlay of the repair — there are all sorts of opportunities to put that data into your field of vision that makes it so much faster and easier to do your work.”

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