Enterprise Communications

Augmented and Virtual Realities: How Real are They?

by Elka Popova 13 Sep 2012
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Last night I came back from our 2012 Growth, Innovation, and Leadership (GIL) Congress, which was held in San Jose, CA. GIL is different from most other industry events for several reasons. It does not focus so much on the issues and challenges of a single industry, but rather on the points of convergence of multiple different industries. It also looks to identify common trends across these industries that may be defined by socio-demographic, economic, or other factors. Finally, it is highly interactive. Participants get to work on various small projects (MBA school-type team activities) and, in the process, identify interesting trends, issues or even market opportunities.

I particularly enjoyed one of these team activities where we were tasked to identify a major trend in the enterprise communications and collaboration market and to develop both an evolutionary and a revolutionary scenario of this trend based on our vision for what life will be like in 2022.  It’s a lot of fun trying to predict the future that far ahead; it’s even more fun doing it with people from diverse backgrounds who bring different perspectives to the discussion.

My team included two other analysts, a VP of Product Management from an ISP, a VP of Digital Innovation from a real estate firm, and a Product Manager from another client organization.

We briefly brainstormed on the multiple trends impacting the communications market and agreed to focus on the user interface and, more specifically, on the “designed experience”. There is a growing focus on the user experience as we become equipped with multiple smart devices and increasingly require highly personalized, visual interfaces. Application developers are responding by developing flexible solutions that can be customized based on specific user requirements. In fact, some vendors are now talking about the “personal cloud”—the idea of creating applications, interfaces, and delivery models that tightly fit user preferences.

What will be the user experience ten years from now? I usually take a conservative stance, so I would bet on a gradual evolution. Vendors will develop a number of interface templates for various user types—the mom, the teenager, the executive, the knowledge worker, etc. Additionally, applications will be flexible enough to let users further personalize the interfaces with ringtones, images, and a layout that best fit their needs and their personalities. By 2012, everything we access on a computing device will allow some degree of personalization and customization. There will be an increasing number of virtual environments and virtual realities—for gaming, dating, business meetings, and other purposes. Those may or may not include real-life images, sounds, or other real-life attributes. There will be augmented realities, too. Actual images from real life will be augmented with virtual elements, such as tracked movements or virtual boundaries, real-estate prices, and broker contact information, or with real-life, but computed information such as GPS coordinates.

But my team thought we could envision a future where all communications and collaboration devices and applications, as well as many other business and consumer tools, especially those on the Web, will feature virtual and augmented reality interfaces.  A mobile device (e.g., a smartphone or a tablet) would capture a live image and then overlay GPS, weather, and other relevant information (such as restaurant reviews, theater schedules, etc.) on top of the image. An incoming call or message will immediately pull up social networking and other context on the calling or messaging party and may even symbolically present that person’s avatar as trying to enter a virtual reality (or the called party’s “personal space”).

Some of this is happening today. But we can push the boundaries of our imagination further. Maybe glasses that place us in virtual environments or present augmented reality would become commonplace by 2012 and one would be able to purchase them in the store around the corner? Maybe, by then, most collaboration and social networking interfaces will be 3D with avatars, sounds, and movements, and other real and imaginary contextual information creating an ambiance specifically designed (yet, most likely ad-hoc) for the particular type of call and/or audience? Just imagine a world, where reality is commonly enhanced with virtual context and where we frequently transition from this augmented reality into various virtual realities, thus living double and triple lives.

There is an eerie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sensation about this vision. But then, that’s just me. I don’t play video games and I find virtual environments distracting. I have not even experienced an augmented reality to be able to say how I feel about it. But Generation Y that is gradually gaining purchasing power and infiltrating the workforce is very tech-savvy and heavily equipped with computing devices. They are heavy Internet users and are plugged in 24/7. They are used to webinars and online presentations and seek visual experiences. They also crave attention and seek feedback through social media and other collaborative tools. They have no problem with split personalities and like to hide in virtual realities. This generation and the ones after it will probably create and experience augmented and virtual realities on a much broader scale than we can imagine.

Is there money in this for vendors and application developers? I am sure there is and I would bet my money on the consumer rather than the business buyer.

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