Mixed reality will dominate in 2017. Are you ready?

Virtual reality (VR) is kind of a big deal these days, but it’s still not mainstream technology. This year, Deloitte estimated that virtual reality would become a $1 billion industry—an estimate largely based on purchases by video gamers and early adopting technophiles. (1)

For the rest of the population, however, VR is still on the cusp of becoming normalized, and it hasn’t yet made it over the hump. Fragmentation of the technology, hardware limitations, and a general lack of non-video-game content for VR put a cap on the traction of VR with the majority of consumers.

That said, the creative possibilities and experiences enabled by VR are immense. So until VR becomes mainstream, what can businesses do to capitalize on the technology during this transitional time? How can they incorporate virtual portions into the customer experience in a way that today’s consumers will embrace?

Virtual versus Mixed Reality

Right now, to have a VR experience, you have to wear something on your head that holds a screen in front of your eyes—typically some type of headset. That screen is powered by a computer and, by combining specialized software and sensors, is able to offer you an experience that fills your field of vision, becoming your reality. Many VR experiences also offer immersive audio, blocking out the real world and replacing it with a world of virtual sound.

But many of today’s consumers aren’t interested in strapping on a bulky headset. It still feels too foreign and somehow “wrong” to supplant our reality with another. However, that doesn’t mean that your business should wait to explore the possibilities opened up by interactive, virtual creations. Instead, forward-looking businesses are taking strategic advantage of the central idea behind VR of offering people immersive digital experiences by adopting mixed reality, an intermediate step between full-on virtual reality and where we are now.

Mixed reality combines virtual elements with the real world, creating an environment where physical and digital objects can coexist and interact. Instead of replacing the real world, mixed reality simply enhances it, offering access to digital information on top of the world in front of us. For consumers, it’s less creepy—and it doesn’t involve an expensive, bulky headset.

Mixed Reality and the Customer Experience

Only a small percentage of the population owns a VR headset; however, almost everyone owns a smartphone (and carries it everywhere). Unlike traditional VR, which is inaccessible without a headset, mixed reality experiences are much more available because they can operate through mobile phones. Earlier this year, Pokémon GO, a gamified version of a mixed reality app, gained more daily active users than Twitter during the first week it was available, exposing the incredible traction for this type of hybrid technology. (2) From virtual signage to offering additional product information or special deals for shoppers checking their phones in your stores, phone-based mixed reality apps are poised to shape the customer experience going forward with a much lower barrier to adoption than traditional VR.

Similarly, mixed reality has made a big splash in the realm of retail, both brick-and-mortar and online. Companies like Lowe’s are betting big on mixed reality retail experiences, like holographic home remodeling that instantly demonstrates a variety of customizable design options that get projected into physical space. (3) The holograms integrate with the existing in-store experiences at Lowe’s, offering customers more—and more personalized—options than possible in static physical showrooms. And the same possibilities for expanding and tailoring the customer experience with mixed reality exist across verticals, from automotive to clothing.

A final place that mixed reality is making its mark isn’t customer facing: it’s internal. Training with expensive equipment, from airplanes to professional quarterbacks, is less efficient (and often less safe) than training virtually. Similarly, constructing physical spaces or models is also slower and more expensive than doing so virtually—virtual prototypes can easily be reviewed, improved, and approved. (4) By using mixed reality tools, businesses are able to pay less for more creative experimentation—without fully leaving our reality.

Conclusion

The era of virtual reality is here, but we’re still at its beginning. Future-thinking businesses are capitalizing on the technology by investing in mixed reality to experiment with virtual possibilities. With so many options to enhance the customer experience, it’s an exciting frontier.

References:

1. Lee, Paul and Sallomi, Paul. “Deloitte Technology, Media, & Telecommunications Predictions 2016.” Deloitte. http://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/tmt-pred16-media-virtual-reality-billion-dollar-niche.html
2. Hern, Alex. “Pokemon Go: How the overnight sensation was 20 years in the making. The Guardian.” July 15, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/15/pokemon-go-instant-global-phenomenon-nintendo-augmented-reality-gaming
3. Erickson, Scott. “Microsoft HoloLens and Lowe’s, working to redefine your next home renovation.” Windows Blog. March 18, 2016. https://blogs.windows.com/devices/2016/03/18/microsoft-hololens-and-lowes-working-to-redefine-your-next-home-renovation/#r0T6debDSdsqvH84.97
4. Lelinwalla, Mark. “Virtual reality training ramps up for the 2016 NFL season.” TechCrunch. July 1, 2016. https://techcrunch.com/2016/07/01/virtual-reality-training-ramps-up-for-the-2016-nfl-season/

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