From Surviving to Thriving: XR Helps Enterprises Stay Cutting-edge, beyond COVID-19
An in-depth article by Emily Friedman at AREA member BrainXChange reviews how various companies have managed to use VR and AR to stay cutting edge beyond COVID-19.
Over the last several months the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped how companies in all industries think about remote work. For one, COVID-19 forced businesses everywhere to quickly improvise work-from-home arrangements in compliance with varying travel bans, social distancing and stay-at-home orders. In turn, the virus has (arguably) ‘made the case’ for the role of remote in the future of work, proving that work-from-home is possible on a greater scale and in a shorter timeframe than previously imagined. Why is this a good thing? ReadThe Case for AR/VR Remote Work from Home.
To maintain operations and keep employees safe in the ongoing pandemic, more and more businesses are turning to augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR or XR), particularly XR remote support, training and collaboration solutions. A big step up from familiar video conferencing solutions like Zoom, AR/VR allows teams to effectively collaborate, train, and deliver services from a distance. (Basically, you don’t have to completely cease operations.)
In a lot of cases (as you’ll read below), the pandemic ‘simply’ pressed fast forward on companies’ existing AR/VR plans. Though there were plenty of case studies demonstrating the benefits of immersive tech at work pre-pandemic (not to mention the first rollouts at large companies), we were likely several years away from widespread daily use of these tools in enterprise. Thanks to the virus, what was expected to take five to ten years occurred in a matter of weeks or months—an incredible transformation when you think about it. Microsoft has seen a 13-fold increase in remote assist on HoloLens 2 since January, while other AR/VR solution providers have been offering their products and services for free to assist small businesses. The following are a sample of forward-thinking companies using XR ‘on the daily’ during quarantine:
Two years ago, the New Zealand-based electricity and gas supplier purchased a basic HoloLens kit in hopes of using the device to perform tasks typically carried out in person by local and overseas experts. Unfortunately, the technology didn’t stick then. Fast forward a few years to when coronavirus convinced the company to revisit HoloLens in an effort to keep several major engineering projects on track. Now, Genesis is using the technology multiple times per week and will continue to do so beyond the pandemic to cut down on engineers’ travel.
To perform remote/hands-free inspections and even virtual certifications, an on-site engineer wearing HoloLens shows aspects of a project to different experts. Genesis is also eyeing the mixed reality headset for training, to help fabricate replacement parts for machinery no longer produced and to capture (i.e. record) older engineers’ institutional knowledge.
Since 2016, Lowe’s has delivered XR apps to help customers measure rooms at home, locate products in store, and even virtually practice home improvement projects. For the quarantine, the home improvement chain launched Lowe’s for Pros JobSIGHT powered by Streem, an AR video chat solution allowing Pros to conduct virtual home visits with homeowners and clients. These contact-free consultations are critical, as homes are no longer just ‘where the heart is’ but also serving as work offices. Pros can troubleshoot issues, using an on-screen laser pointer and AR ‘quick-draw’ to guide customers through the consultation or a simple repair.
The automobile giant was already using virtual reality in vehicle design; the virus, however, took the technology from the office into employees’ homes, enabling Ford designers to finish up development on the Ford Mustang Mach-E and begin work on a brand-new car from home. Represented as avatars with emotive movements and voice, Ford’s designers can review CAD-generated models of in-development vehicles ‘together’ in a virtual studio. Though VR won’t replace clay modeling (at least not yet), Ford has been researching technologies and tools like haptics and Gravity Sketch to imbue digital work with some of that same hands-on physicality.
BNP Paribas Real Estate / Cornell
Conscious of the cost and carbon footprint of constant overseas flights, the BNP Paribas subsidiary was already using Spatial pre-pandemic to broker corporate deals across the world. Agents’ work has continued despite stay-at-home orders thanks to the VR meeting solution, which allows them and their clients to manipulate and walk through 3D models of properties. At Cornell’s med school, clinicians are also using Spatial, wrapping HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap One headsets in PPE in order to connect with remote colleagues during rounds (thereby limiting exposure).
This Netherlands-based system integrator specializes in joining technology. As some of its machines are made to order, customers would often travel to AWL in Harderwijk to perform Factory Acceptance Tests (FATs). When the pandemic hit, AWL worked with Recreate Solutions to take this process virtual. Using HoloLens and Microsoft Remote Assist, customers can connect to an AWL representative who can, in turn, share design documents and place 3D annotations in the customers’ world to guide them through machine delivery and service requests.
Broadband Internet provider Cox Communications considered using AR in customer service before this year. What the pandemic did was add urgency and so in March, Cox rolled out AR to its 5,000-strong workforce, including home technicians and contractors. When a customer needs help installing internet service, an email or text is sent to the customer’s phone or tablet to begin a virtual call with a Cox Technician. The software is by Help Lightning Inc. and only available to residential customers as of now; however, Cox intends to keep using it after the pandemic subsides and perhaps offer it to business customers to save time and money in the future.
If you needed a sign that remote work is the future and not just a condition imposed by a global pandemic, this is it: Facebook recently announced it will allow employees to request permanent remote status and will open up new roles to remote workers. The company’s Head of AR and VR also teased a vision of remote work, an eight-second video of a prototype augmented workspace with both AR and VR features and both new and everyday inputs. It appears the social media giant is accelerating work on passthrough, hand tracking, realistic avatars, spatial audio and more during Covid to meet this vision of the future of work.
Pre-pandemic, family-owned Garvey Corp had weekly ‘virtual’ meetings, sharing pictures and video from the plant with people off-site. Factory Acceptance Tests, however, were performed in-person by the customer. When COVID was declared a pandemic, Garvey remained open, but customers could no longer come in to inspect equipment before having it shipped to their factory. The New Jersey manufacturer began offering virtual FATs (essentially video conferencing) as well as augmented reality to enable Garvey service techs to see into a customer’s factory and guide them through a machine modification.
CNH is one of the world’s largest capital goods companies. One of its brands, New Holland, has been using Librestream’s Onsight AR solution to deliver continuous support to its large dealership network during quarantine. Using live audio and video, digital images, and drawn cues viewed through the customer’s mobile device, New Holland’s remote experts have been able to keep customers’ operations running throughout the pandemic. AR plays a role in commercial sales, too, enabling dealers to do virtual walkthroughs with a New Holland expert before taking a new piece of equipment into the field.
In light of social distancing and since many of its customers are considered essential, Electrolux fast-tracked the launch of its mobile AR remote guidance app “Two Pairs of Eyes.” The app provides remote, contact-free support to customers with Electrolux professional food service equipment. Electrolux technicians can guide customers through basic servicing and MRO tasks, in addition to providing remote training and product tutorials. Electrolux has found that problems are being solved 30% faster with the app compared to regular video calls, and with 50% fewer errors.
Remote work via AR/VR is more than viable. While XR was ‘nice’ and innovative to have or test as a company before coronavirus, the technology has become vital during the pandemic. The next question is what will the return to ‘business as usual’ look like? Will the rush to go remote stop? Will we ever fully return to pre-covid working conditions or will these remote AR/VR solutions last, enabling portions of the workforce to continue working from home?