In my last VRFocus article from September, I stressed the importance of Virtual Reality (VR) applications in focusing on usefulness and superseding reality. Then going on to highlight how content should be delivered via accessible (cheap and easy-to-use) hardware such as VR headsets connected to media boxes (e.g., Netflix) to reach mass market adoption.
Well, cases of such VR hardware are coming into play this year: Microsoft announced their VR OEM Windows “Mixed Reality” headset plans last year (previously called “Holographic”) and just provided more details at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, beginning with key partnerships with Dell, Acer, Lenovo as well as launching their developers kits. These easy-to-setup and more affordable devices have the potential to become a home accessory for the mass market (I am not covering the gaming or B2B industries, nor their customer base or high spec VR & Augmented Reality (AR) hardware in this article, and therefore not referring to those).
The headsets don’t require external trackers and instead use their on-board sensors to provide indoor tracking, as well as other technologies, to enable what Microsoft has coined ‘6 Degrees of Freedom’. Although they are still tethered – for the moment at least as the wireless technology has been changing a lot in the past few months with cheaper solutions being offered by many different providers – their setup seems to be as simple as plug and play.
Although their specifications are yet to be announced, at a price point of $300 one would hope they will be sold as bundles with new laptops and desktop computers. Indeed, as they are OEM and therefore built and distributed by computer manufacturing partners such as HP, Dell, Lenovo and more, it would make sense for Dell (as an example) to sell them as a PC with VR headset bundle this upcoming Christmas season. However, they could also lower the margins so much so that when someone is shopping for a computer the additional cost to add a VR headset would be even lower.
Also, one can expect GPU/CPU requirements and parts costs to go down, especially for the screens and chipsets; therefore, this will dramatically increase the accessibility in terms of cost and lower spec PCs requirements in future versions.
As part of the Microsoft developer community, the Windows “Mixed Reality” or “Holographic” developer program also offers the promise of attracting an enormous pool of Microsoft developers to develop news apps, as well as extensions and browsers toolkits.
Perhaps the most important aspect here is the potential for the Windows “Mixed Reality” VR headsets to become a home accessory sitting next to one’s printer. Imagine you are browsing a website and there is a VR button to visualise the items on your basket at their real size or to watch a preview of a potential holiday; one would just click, put the headset on, experience the products and services, then remove or continue to finish your purchase in the VR mode!
The headset could become a tool which improves the customer journey experience, especially in terms of e-commerce – this is where there is truly mass-market adoption potential. Therefore, I don’t believe these VR headsets will be purchased by the mass market as a gaming or entertainment device (unlike the headsets which would be twinned with media boxes or gaming consoles, but also the Windows “Mixed Reality” VR which will be compatible with the Xbox gaming console), but instead as a tool being used sporadically to improve the internet browsing experience or through some VR apps experiences.
The browsing experience will also be seamless, with VR call to action buttons integrated within existing browsers – such as Internet Explorer – to create a seamless experience. We’ve already seen Google integrating VR functionalities in its’ Chrome browser and, therefore, it seems logical that Microsoft Explorer will also have these VR integrations. Given that there is a whole VR/Augmented Reality (AR) Windows Mixed Reality integrated development platform, we will be sure to see more and more AR, Mixed Reality (MR) and VR integrated features within the Windows Operating System and its’ core applications, such as Explorer, Apps, Office, Skype, LinkedIn and more.
At this stage, VR becomes part of the e-commerce customer journey which, amazingly, extends into an AR/MR/VR/Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Internet of Things (IoT)/Wearables circle:
A customer uses a mobile or wearable Augmented/Mixed Reality device to gain more information in a shop about a product or location, or just special offers. To do that, AI computer vision and IoT provide more information about the product whilst also learning about the customer’s behaviour. While doing this, an updated 3D pointcloud of the shop and the product has been scanned. All this information can be used in a Virtual Reality version of the shop by another customer who is shopping fully or partly in VR (i.e., browser mode).
Of course, more detailed scanning and updates will also be carried over by specific staff (and drones) in shops, with the VR versions will be customised and adapted using machine learning to deliver a personalised experience.
On the AR and MR side, which company is better positioned to provide cloud point data and then a VR rendering and version of a location such as a business? The answer is a company who has had AR products tested long before the current wave of AR and VR buzz.
It seems logical that Google will be (or already is?) a central provider of those AR cloudpoints through existing data; but also of AR wearables and mobile devices, such as the hybrid DayDream/Tango phones like the Asus Zenfone AR. It’s also logical that it will release a successor to the Glass product for the mass market, since it arguably has the most experience in that area (with companies like ODG, a very experienced AR glasses maker).
Also, bear in mind that there is already a VR version of Google Earth on Steam for the HTC Vive, which shows that having Google Maps VR is not far-fetched at all and that all AR scanning would update outdoor and indoor datasets. Google also has relationships with businesses that are mapped and on the internet through its’ SEO; this provides a great advantage for existing information and relationships to integrate those within the AR/MR information systems, as well as VR e-commerce experiences.
This illustrates how close and connected AR/MR and VR have become, as well as how intrinsic AI, IoT & wearables technologies are to the whole system.
From a hardware perspective, it also shows that Microsoft Mixed Reality VR OEM headsets are not the only potential mass market devices; it seems logical that future Google Daydream VR headsets and their wearable AR products will be fully integrated with Google Tango phones as a hybrid (beyond the current two modes in one phone).
Therefore, Google and Microsoft will have strong multi-platform AR/VR capabilities that harness their operating systems, technologies and ecosystems.
Most importantly, this means the Omni channel strategy for brands and marketers is more streamlined and effective if they ensure they harness those AR/MR/AI/IoT/Wearables interactions and prepare accordingly.
Consequently, instead of calling this a ‘circle’ or a ‘system’, it seems to be more a strategic AR/MR/VR vision relying on a product/service’s ‘omni-channel presence’ or ‘omnichannel realities’.
To prepare for their presence on those various technologies, brands and agencies must prepare for seamless integrations of AR and VR features within their marketing and e-commerce channels. It starts, for example, with adopting 3D scanning technologies to make the products available for visualisation, as well as to integrate those assets for narrated/interactive marketing experiences. However, these are not simple integrations as they require different skillsets and product management systems.
Also, by making products available in 3D, their design is out in the open, which is no different from stocking a product physically in a shop for a customer to observe. However, the most conservative brands may be slower to accept this, although they will eventually be required to adapt.
These are exciting times to prepare the grounds for augmented customer journeys, in which the focus really comes back to usefulness and personalisation.
I don’t believe in providing more information to visitors/customers in augmented shops or on e-commerce websites with VR functionalities, but instead a more seamless and customised information delivery system providing much higher satisfaction and conversion rates.