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Putting the 'You See' in UC

Enterprise communications has changed in dramatic -- sometimes disruptive and challenging -- ways over the last 15 years, evolving from voice-only phone calls to a gamut of technologies including presence, text, video, Web collaboration, document sharing, co-editing, application and business process integration, and much more. Now I think we're on the verge of seeing augmented and virtual reality enter the UC ecosystem, as I got a glimpse of last week while at Augmented World Expo (AWE) in Santa Clara, Calif.

Before I share some of the augmented and virtual reality products, technologies, and frameworks I learned about, let's first look at the difference between AR and VR (hint, it has to do with the level of immersion in the virtual versus the real world). VR essentially immerses you in the virtual world -- think of an Oculus Rift headset with a goggle that provides all visual information and headphones for sound. AR, on the other hand, essentially adds digital content to the real-world environment without replacing it entirely. With AR, the view you see through a glass is overlaid with information that can add value in the moment.

VR and AR both can have significant potential in the enterprise communications market, though the applications and uses are probably different. That the market space is gaining traction is evident in AWE's 10x growth in six years, to 3,000 attendees and more than 100 companies, including industry leaders like Intel, Epson, and Qualcomm.

The applications for these technologies seem to fall into three major categories: gaming, training, and business process. While use in gaming is interesting, the latter are of the most interest to us in the enterprise market.

AWE demo: Superman Sky Flying

For training, the use cases are obvious; by using either VR or AR, a training experience can be much more closely aligned to the actual real-world experience. For example, a small company, zSpace, showed a VR environment with a specialized 3D display and glasses with device/hand sensing and positioning for education and process training. Another company, Osterhout Design Group (ODG), used its AR eyewear in a demo involving training for a surgical procedure. The "trainee" performed the procedure on a surgical dummy with help aids visible through ODG's AR glasses.

Augmented & Virtual Channels?
While these use cases may have some extension into enterprise communications and collaboration, others I saw at AWE are more closely aligned with it and, as such, will probably begin to impact some of us in the near future. A number of companies are positioning AR as a way to augment business processes. By equipping a service technician with AR glasses, for example, the instructions for the task can be overlaid on the physical activity. Frameworks for such AR augmentation sometimes include interaction as part of the process structure.

For example, APX Labs features the ability for remote collaboration as well a "see what I see" capability. Clearly, AR can fit nicely into a number of potential video and UC use cases. For example, a field service technician who needs help taps an available expert via UC, and then uses the camera on the glasses to show the expert the situation. The expert draws instructions on a screen appearing as an overlay on the AR glasses as a way of helping the technician complete the task. The key point is that these systems will probably need to integrate into the UC/business collaboration environment for maximum effectiveness in the overall business process.

Another AR/VR use case is in customer interaction and support, and a number of companies showed visual recognition or object-based recognition that would lead to an augmented visual image. For example, in one demo I saw an app that could discern a specific car model from a picture on a page and then present a 3D view of that car for the user.

The impact of these technologies in the contact center market could be very interesting. Could AR or even VR become new channel over the next few years? While that is probably dependent on the adoption of the AR/VR eyewear, the rapidity of change in this market tends to suggest it may be happening fast.

Virtually Around the Corner
A number of AWE demos used Google Cardboard, a VR viewer that works in combination with a mobile phone to provide the image. Google showed its Project Tango, an Android device similar to a large mobile device or phablet inserted into headgear. With a 2K display yielding 1K for each eye, depth perception, and lenses to make the image have a wider field of view, the experience is quite realistic. With the next generation of Samsung devices having 4K screens with full HD for each eye and a number of start-ups showing similar headgear for mobile devices, the realm of cost-effective VR may be much closer than we think.

While the collaboration applications of VR are probably farther out, a number of potential products could be used there. For example, a remote user participating in a meeting with a VR headset connected to an 360-degree table camera like the Polycom CX5100 could get the sense of sitting at the table in the conference room. By rotating the head left or right, the VR headset could change the viewing angle of the video stream, while at the same time moving the head position of the an avatar feed for the other participants (but I'm not sure how to take a meaningful video picture of someone wearing a VR headset).

After spending some time immersing myself in this new augmented and virtual world, I've concluded that these experiences are going to become part of business communications and colocation, and potentially sooner than we may think. With focus on this space from companies like Epson, it seems this will be a volume market and the price of AR devices will come down rapidly. The use of mobile devices as the compute and display engine in simple, low-cost cases for VR will make it cost effective as well. And, when that happens, the use cases for integration into the general enterprise world will follow.

I even expect to see some level of both AR and VR at Enterprise Connect 2016, at least in some of the private suite demos (although I would not be surprised to see it in some of the floor demos, as well). Perhaps someone will coin a new term like "bring your own reality" (BYOR) as the next generation of BYOD... Oh! I guess I just did. Pass the VR goggles and my cape, I am ready for some Superman Sky Flying!