Computers and artificial intelligence have come along at an exponential rate over the past few decades, from being regarded as oversized adding machines to the point where they have played integral roles in some legitimately creative endeavours.
The launch of Microsoft’s Hololens holographic technology and accompanying headset in early 2015 was proclaimed by industry pundits as a technology for marketers to watch because of its ability to change the way consumers interact with brands and products.
Accenture Australia managing director of R&D, technology and innovation, Justin Baird, has been working on a range of use cases on this type of mixed reality experience.
He caught up with CMO recently to discuss the rise of mixed reality, its application in marketing and consumer engagement, and the technology explosion that should see it become mainstream.
What’s the big deal about mixed reality?
People know the concept of virtual reality experiences; in some ways people have also been playing with these technologies for a while, but it’s not made its way into consumer experiences or for marketing and product functions. But it’s an interesting capability to be leveraged in both of these areas.
Mixed reality is about bringing together the physical world and experience you have in a real environment, but adding different types of digital content. It’s the ‘holographic’ experience we’re all hearing much more about. Mixed reality is real-world content but with digital content enablement.
I previously worked for Google and brought the first Android devices to this market. Some of these capabilities were emerging then, such as turn-by-turn directions in Google Maps, but think how improved that would be if those were presented as a real-world picture in front of you. It’s about the next-generation digital experience.
What is making mixed reality a reality now?
It’s the combination of technology elements plus the concept of having wearable displays. We’ve seen a number of wearable displays coming out that are head mounted, and that’s creating an situation where these new experiences will give people an even better view of a combined digital and physical environment.
One of the biggest opportunities for mixed reality from a marketing point of view is to give consumers the chance to interact in new ways with demonstration products and the value they provide, as well as how they impact their lives. For example, you could put on a headset and see what a product looks like in your house.
It’s about taking that experience away from a 2D screen and bringing that into a properly rendered environment.
What other types of applications are there for mixed reality?
Another one is improving a person’s ability to work with and service products. One of the case studies Accenture has been working on with mixed reality and to showcase Microsoft Hololens is creating new experiences around Bombadier and its airplanes. We’re using the technology to demo how an aircraft works, changing the marketing and sales process. This creates rich experiences because someone who comes to view product can interact directly with that product. They can use their hands to point and click with things in their digital vision. You can also give all information on that but it allows the consumers to drive the experience the way they see fit.
What are the challenges to mainstream mixed reality adoption?
At the moment, you’re talking about head mounted wearable displays, which are not cheap. But through technology improvements, these will quickly become ubiquitous. Technology and the cost of access to it changes so quickly, over a short timeframe, and it will become more accessible to consumers.
Right now, experiences give marketers access to that mixed reality environment. It’s not about technology for technology’s sake or being a zealot, it’s about using this to create new types of experiences. When you give people these types of experiences, they can quickly visualise, and they’re able to walk around and see something in context. That’s very effective. It makes it a lot faster for people to get on-board and be interacting quickly.
How can this work in practice in the workforce?
Bombadier created these experiences, which are great for clients, but the company is also taking it to the engine repair, maintenance and field teams. At present, staff have to walk around with paper-based manual information, which is not efficient and often quickly out of date, and they have issues around that type of support information management. Now that can all be real time, streamed to their device. This reduces errors, increases support quality and also decreases training time.
Just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve been working with another organisation to make an app where you can visualise and see where problems are from a datacentre-style scenario. For example, if a switch is failing, a technician could walk in and the Hololens will tell them where that switch is and put them in front of it, plus give them specific information to fix it.
What needs to be in place for these types of approaches to be delivered?
Some things could be challenges. Let’s say you’re using Hololens and walking through a large environment: You need to know your location inside that environment as well. GPS doesn’t work inside the building, so near-field devices and beacons can be used in offices or datacentres for localisation. There are some peripheral technologies lending support to this.
But with the Internet of Things and all these devices coming online, it makes it even easier to integrate. You could have a whole network of devices online, and you’d be able to walk up to that with a Hololens on and see data come up in real time in front of your eyes.
With a lot of technologies like this, people will use them and they works pretty well, with about 90 per cent accuracy. Speech processing technology is a good example. Once the technology gets to 95 per cent accuracy, people end up using them a lot more. With Hololens, mixed reality and IoT, we’re on the cusp of great momentum where we’ll see a lot of value coming from these things.
People have already started doing things similar to this, such as trying a dress on virtually in a retail environment. You could see how Hololens would make that more realistic and improve that experience. It’s about taking the 2D world and shifting into a 3D world.
Hololens has the best complement of associated technologies plus a good screen when you’re looking through it. You could do similar things with a smartphone, using Google Cardboard and its 3D viewer. But right now, with the way these technologies are, having the screen superimposed on your vision, Hololens is the most state of the art.
So when realistically will this take off?
In Australia, there are more than 200 companies working in the virtual and mixed reality area. Right now, revenue on virtual reality style products is projected to increase from US$90 million in 2014, to US$5.2 billion in 2018. So it’s already growing at a pretty crazy rate. That includes Facebook’s investment into Oculus Rift – just in the last two weeks, the company has come out with hand controller to go with it. This new capabilities will push these experiences to the next level and make them even more realistic. Just imagine the Hololens version of Pokemon Go game – it’d be fantastic for people who love that stuff.
From a marketing perspective, the big thing here is boosting customer’s imaginations and enabling them to experience what a new product would look like in their house, or making things appear before their eyes. It doesn’t take a pitch or positioning to immerse someone in the experience. That’s where a lot of this type of technology will flourish in marketing and media space. You won’t need to capture attention as they will be immersed by it.