How to develop mixed reality apps for enterprise

Getting to grips with the commercial potential of mixed reality (MR) and cutting through the hype can seem tricky. Figuring out where the real value lies in MR and how it impacts your software offering involves significant planning and consideration. The great news is that the opportunities are endless, not just in terms of transforming software delivery and customer experience, but also in terms of impacting the bottom line, both from a revenue generation perspective and in terms of reducing costs and optimising process efficiency. The Digital Catapult recently published analysis indicating that in the UK alone, in 2020 the MR market will be worth an estimated £1.3 billion. The report suggests that MR has serious enterprise potential and has the capability to be as significant as the advent of mainframe computing, the proliferation of desktop PC’s and the evolution of mobile technology. As always, we’re keen to help you understand the essential facets of MR, where the commercial value in the technology really lies and how you can leverage this information to kick-start your next MR development project. From HTC Vive Pro and Oculus Quest to ARKit, ARCore, HoloLens and beyond, let’s dive in. Today we’re exploring how to develop mixed reality apps for enterprise.

Understand mixed reality platforms

The overall market for ‘mixed reality – MR’ or ‘extended reality – XR’ encapsulates both AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality). Virtual Reality differs from augmented reality in that VR experiences are fully immersive and the user has no view of the outside world or surrounding environment. AR experiences are different in that digital information and 3D objects are overlaid on top of the real world to provide a partially immersive experience.

Understanding the difference between each technology and where the value lies is of genuine importance. The first segment of the overall VR market is mobile VR. Mobile VR experiences enable the user to mount an existing smartphone device into an external headset and are perfect for new VR users as they offer a low barrier to entry in terms of cost and accessibility. They enable users to get up and running in VR quickly using an existing mobile device and the purchase of a low cost peripheral headset. To give you an idea, mobile VR headsets can cost as little as $50 whereas a high performance tethered experience could be in excess of £1k. Examples of mobile VR include:

The next major category within the Virtual Reality segment is tethered VR. Tethered VR headsets need to be hard wired to a high performance PC or games console. This provides a high level of performance for serious VR users as the peripheral PC or games console can offer a rich and highly performant experience. Examples of tethered VR include:

Increasingly, the VR market is shifting away from tethered experiences towards standalone VR, whereby the user does not require an expensive PC or games console to operate the experience. Standalone VR headsets are completely wireless and handle all of the required processing and muscle on the device itself, offering far greater accessibility than tethered experiences. The leaders in the standalone VR category include:

In terms of use cases for enterprise, VR offers a number of benefits and can be ideal in the following business scenarios:

  • Employee training
  • Big data visualisation
  • Situation based learning
  • Business meetings and collaboration
  • Sales and marketing training
  • Product visualisation

What’s crucial to understand here, is the proliferation of AR relative to VR, it’s revenue generating potential and the overall accessibility of each platform from both a consumer and enterprise perspective. The most compelling takeaway when comparing the two technologies, is the fact that AR trumps VR in terms of accessibility and AR has significantly greater scope to generate revenue sooner and has greater flexibility and application from a business perspective. In some cases, VR can be a great enterprise tool for training and situational awareness, but there is significantly more scope at present to apply the capabilities of AR to a wide variety of enterprise focused use cases, via the ARKit and ARCore development frameworks. You can see the breakdown of AR versus VR below in terms of revenue generating potential:

AR VR Revenue graph

AR VR Revenue graph

The other key consideration in terms of understanding the available AR platforms is the role of standalone HUD’s (also referred to as smartglasses) such as Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap. The HoloLens in particular is an interesting proposition for enterprise. The hardware has obvious limitations and constraints in that the HoloLens is expensive (roughly $3k for a consumer version) and at present is largely restricted to niche enterprise use cases (see Thyssenkrup). One major constraint is the fact that the device is brittle and not ruggedised, rendering it unsuitable for instance in an offshore environment for use in the oil and gas sector. HoloLens technology does have significant potential in certain areas of the enterprise, such as remote assistance whereby a skilled engineer can provide guidance in real-time from a remote location, but the cost associated with equipping a large team of engineers may be prohibitive (particularly when you consider the cost of developing the required software apps in addition to the hardware). In time, these barriers to entry in terms of cost will be lowered as HUD hardware becomes more accessible and more affordable.

Other limitations around HoloLens and other AR HUD’s relate to the required learning curve in terms of user navigation. The interface of a device such as the HoloLens is entirely different to mobile and arguably less intuitive for first-time users. HUD’s require use of specific gestures and using HoloLens as an example, these gestures include ‘bloom’ which can be used to open or close the start menu, ‘gaze’ which enables the user to move the cursor and highlight specific apps and ‘air tap’ which enables the user to select a specific object or icon within the scene. There is no doubt that HUD’s such as the HoloLens possess significant potential and moving forward, new iterations of AR HUD’s will be lighter, more robust and cheaper, enabling a smoother transition into the enterprise ecosystem. Compelling use cases for AR HUD’s will include remote assistance, mechanical assembly and product visualisation for design.

For now, AR belongs firmly in the domain of mobile. Mobile is the key driver for AR both in terms of consumer and enterprise accessibility and commercially focused use cases. The beauty of mobile AR for enterprise is the fact that apps can be developed quickly and in a highly cost efficient manner. There is currently a fantastic opportunity for forward thinking enterprise innovators to extend the functionality of existing desktop and mobile software apps into AR using the ARKit and ARCore mobile AR development frameworks.

Understand the market

The entire AR market is now growing at an astonishing pace and mobile AR apps are having an enormous impact across a diverse range of industry sectors from energy and oil and gas, to fintech and digital health. Let’s take a look at some of the facts and figures applicable to the wider world of AR:

  • The current value of the entire AR market globally is estimated to be $3.5 billion
  • By 2022 the AR market will be worth a reported $14.2 billion
  • By 2022 there will be more than 3 billion AR enabled mobile devices
  • The UK holds an estimated 9% of the overall mixed reality market
  • AngelList estimates there are 1,684 AR companies globally
  • More than 70% of US consumers still don’t know what AR is
  • 50% of consumers have used AR tech without realising it
  • Facebook has acquired 11 AR and VR companies to date (Oculus being the biggest)

 

AR VR Installed base graph

AR VR Installed base graph

For businesses exploring the capabilities of mixed reality, understanding the market and growth trajectory of the different platforms available is critical. Over the next three to five years mobile will continue to be the key driver when it comes to mixed reality and AR will be the dominant form factor. Between 2017 and 2018, there was an enormous uplift in the number of AR enabled mobile devices, largely due to the launch of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore SDK’s. Growth across all other areas of the mixed reality ecosystem (VR and AR HUD’s) is consistent in the next few years, but the real growth is being driven by AR adoption via existing and new mobile devices that are equipped with AR functionality. For fans of the Apple keynote presentations, AR has been a consistent theme and something that business owners should be aware of. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between ARCore and ARKit.

Get to grips with mobile AR

ARcore and ARkit installed graph

ARcore and ARkit installed graph

Getting to grips with AR and leveraging the associated commercial opportunities in enterprise requires an in-depth focus on mobile AR. In order to fully comprehend mobile AR, we need to first focus on the importance of ARKit and ARCore. Prior to the launch of each platform in 2017, mobile AR was constrained to a limited number of platforms such as Zappar and Blippar. These platforms enabled brands and businesses to spin-up lightweight, marker-based AR apps with relatively primitive functionality. The platforms tended to be restrictive and failed to fully capitalise on the functionality of the mobile device hardware for which the apps would be designed. Looking forward to the next few years, the growth of mobile AR, driven entirely by uptake in ARKit and ARCore is set to be truly explosive, with more than 3 billion AR enabled mobile devices estimated to be in the hands of consumers across the world. For business owners thinking about AR, mobile should represent the first port of call and the potential opportunities are endless.

Apple have made no secret of the fact that they see AR as forming a significant part of their future roadmap. Recent patent applications suggest that Apple are developing a HUD and are already busy creating the building blocks required for a successful launch. An Apple HUD or smartglasses would leverage both AR and VR functionality that complements Apple’s existing mobile offering and ARKit capability. This would serve to further solidify Apple’s stance as a VR/AR market leader and help to further tip MR technologies into the consumer mainstream. This presents serious growth potential in terms of the wider MR ecosystem in the next three to five years. This promises to represent a significant step forward for MR technologies and could provide an enormous uplift for both AR and VR in terms of mass consumer adoption and accessibility.

Focus on the ROI and get started

Mixed reality technologies are inherently exciting. They look fantastic and are easy to demonstrate to key stakeholders within the business. This makes mixed reality a compelling proposition when it comes to developing new apps and programs of work. But as is the case with any new technology, doing MR because it’s cool or ‘the next big thing’ is entirely the wrong way to go about it. The key thing to remember here is that all great software development initiatives, be it IoT, AI or anything else, need to start with a specific problem. Are you a bank trying to consider ways to engage new and existing customers with currency conversion? Are you an oil and gas operator thinking about how to optimise workflow management and increase safety standards? If so, it could be that AR is a great fit for your project and this type of approach will dramatically increase your chances of a successful project and positive long-term ROI.

If you think AR might be the best fit for your project but aren’t sure, there are a bunch of different techniques you can use to sanity check your idea. In the same way that web apps started to replace paper-based processes and mobile apps started to replace web based functionality, ask yourself if AR really is the best fit for your project. Could you achieve the same or better results using a web app or mobile? What benefit do you derive from using an AR first approach to development? The best AR apps have successfully answered these questions and are able to function in a way that would not be possible using a mobile or desktop-first approach to development.

For example, if you’re a retailer looking to increase engagement and leverage more value from existing 3D assets, AR is always a great place to start and the IKEA Place app is a great example of this approach. The IKEA Place app enables users to position 3D furniture within the context of their own homes using the smartphone camera and this has helped IKEA to increase sales, customer engagement and to reduce the return rates of specific products by providing users with a contextual view of how furniture will look prior to purchase. If you need to apply structure to defining if AR is the right fit for your project, the best way to start is to define your project KPIs and key measures of success. All great AR projects start with the end in mind and establish how to determine the successful outcome of a project before a single line of code is created.

One of the best ways to get started is to develop a prototype or proof of concept that enables you to validate your AR app in a small user group. This can also be a great mechanism for leveraging buy-in from senior stakeholders within your organisation and choosing how and when to do this will be critical to the success of your AR app.

Conclusion

It’s no secret that AR is generating serious amounts of hype across the business landscape and we know that cutting through the hype can seem difficult. When it comes to developing MR apps for enterprise, there is so much opportunity to transform software delivery, business operations and to delight customers with highly immersive new experiences. Getting the most from your AR initiative involves careful planning, an ability to understand the available platforms and the market and the importance of focusing on ROI with relentless scrutiny. The best way to think about AR particularly is to consider how existing desktop and mobile apps can be neatly extended into a new dimension by leveraging new mobile AR development frameworks such as ARKit and ARCore. In order to get started, as with all successful software development initiatives, resourcing is a crucial consideration and something worth thinking about as the MR ecosystem starts to flourish. If you’re thinking about AR or VR and its commercial merit moving forward, we’d love to hear from you. Contact Waracle today to get the ball rolling.


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