Immersive tech: Making VR/AR collaboration work

With continued technological progress, immersive technology is being increasingly used for collaboration. Niklas Friederici and Dr Thomas Bohné from IfM discuss how this trend has been accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting many professionals to collaborate remotely more than ever before.

Immersive technology includes anything that integrates digital content into the real world, from smartphone-based augmented reality games to virtual worlds that can be explored jointly through head-mounted displays.

Collaborative immersive technology has been used in business in a number of ways. These ways include: ‘remote experts’ (physically absent experts that support local employees with a problem through immersive technology) or shared workspaces (where multiple users can view and discuss the same virtual object while either being in the same physical place or collaborating remotely).


Updated graphic from IfM article - 4th August 2021


But while the technology is advancing quickly, important challenges remain, including sensor accuracy, network reliability, privacy issues and social acceptance.

In a recent study, we examined the field of collaborative immersive technology and identified nine major technological, organisational and social factors that should be considered when deploying immersive technology for collaborative purposes in an organisation.

Technological factors

These include the number of technology providers that can supply organisations with the required hardware and software, the mode of innovation (open vs closed) that is applied in the technology’s development, and the degree to which the technology is customised by organisations.

For instance, the number of technology providers on which an organisation relies for immersive technology can have significant implications on the system’s compatibility. In turn, this can influence user acceptance within an organisation – employees will find it difficult to use an immersive system that does not integrate well with their other tools.

Open innovation is another aspect that needs attention. Is the technology developed behind closed doors by one company, or is it embedded in an open, transparent ecosystem of hardware and software, facilitating system compatibility and diminishing privacy concerns?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Organisational and employee-level factors

These are vital topics that also need to be considered. Is your organisation modern or traditional? Are your employees and their activities flexible or rigid? A development engineer might find it easy to collaborate with their peers in a virtual environment and modify virtual product designs using a VR headset while a procurement specialist might still prefer face-to-face negotiations with their suppliers.

Additionally, organisations need to decide whether to introduce the new technology in the most relevant units (for example, in design teams) or whether to roll it out to the entire workforce.

It is certainly not possible for all types of organisations to exclusively rely on immersive technology for collaboration. A car manufacturer, for example, will always require certain physical assets for its production processes and cannot move all operations to virtual environments.

However, the combination of immersive technology with robotics or artificial intelligence promises advancements for practically all manufacturers. And service providers like consultancies could potentially move all their activities to a virtual space and avoid the need for any physical offices, accelerating processes and simultaneously making them more personal than email and phone-based remote collaboration.

Social factors

Social factors include the multiple potential misuses of immersive technology and the data it offers. This could range from an individual’s overuse of the technology (think of ‘Zoom fatigue’, exacerbated by immersive technology) to an entire organisation’s misuse and exploitation of its employees’ data.

Immersive technology is vulnerable to privacy concerns. Sensors constantly have to monitor the user and their surroundings – for example, people may understandably not want to share tracking of their eye movements and therefore their focus in collaborative situations. At some point, computer-brain interfaces might even allow devices to communicate with the user’s mind, with all the personal and privacy implications that entails.

  Therefore, addressing privacy concerns and assuring appropriate confidentiality is essential to optimising the data sharing advantages the technology brings. Immersive technology can also have intended and unintended psychological effects. Intended effects include the primary goal of augmented and virtual reality applications: creating a sense of immersion. Users have the impression that they are in the same space as their virtual peers – a major advantage over screen-based collaboration.

On the other hand, inadequate use of immersive technology can lead to headaches, self-isolation or a decline in personal interactions. Surprising psychological effects in virtual environments have already been discovered by some studies – for example, more confidential information tends to be disclosed to attractive avatars, and users are more confident in negotiations when their own avatar is taller than others.

It is therefore crucial to minimise the unintended effects and utilise the technology only for appropriate situations.

Recommendations for your business

  • Identify situations which would benefit the most from immersive technology. Immersive technology can improve knowledge worker collaboration when used effectively. Examples include immersive design sessions that stimulate creativity and remote expert settings that save travel time and cost.
  • Evaluate how much virtual communication and collaboration is needed. Organisations can deploy collaborative immersive technology for different purposes to different degrees. Starting points for evaluation include the organisation’s degrees of formalisation and centralisation, its culture, and its employees’ adaptivity.
  • Look beyond technological and financial feasibility. The employee-level and social factors we have outlined, including the potential technology misuse, unintended psychological effects, and privacy concerns, are just as important for the successful use of immersive technology.

Immersive technology has tremendous potential to improve productivity and creative collaboration, but its rollout requires careful consideration to capitalise on this potential.

For further information about this research project or other ongoing projects, please contact the head of the Cyber-Human Lab, Dr Thomas Bohné via email  [email protected] or visit the website.

 

Niklas Friederici (right) and Dr Thomas Bohné are researchers at the Cyber-Human Lab at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge. The lab focuses on how technologies can be used to augment human work and improve human performance in industry.