The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the work environment for office workers, with the majority shifting to remote work on short notice in the Spring of 2020. In general, this has worked better than expected– a Bain and Company survey from Summer 2020 found that 25 percent of workers that had shifted to working remotely were more productive. There is still an opportunity for improvement with 42 percent of employees reporting being less productive working remotely. Not surprisingly, to help with productivity, the use of collaboration platforms and tools have increased by 30 percent
The response to the pandemic continues in 2021, with many business leaders working under the assumption that a portion of their employees will remain remote, even post-vaccine. A McKinsey survey in October 2020 reported that digital transformation had been accelerated by as much as seven years as businesses responded to meet the changing customer requirements during the pandemic. Business leaders are also focused on how to best support their remote employees with better collaboration processes, more immersive experiences for engaging with customers, and improving digital tools for front line workers.
One other unmistakable trend of the Covid era is a dramatic increase in digital gaming. Microsoft saw 30 percent growth in their Xbox gaming business in the quarter ending September 30th. This is a trend that will likely accelerate with the introduction of new Xbox consoles with even more immersive experiences.
Not all of the changes caused by the pandemic have become visible yet, but many are predictable. Let’s dig into how this might play out.
Zoom has become a verb for office workers, many of whom spend their day looking at tiles of their workmates on the screen. The company Zoom was in the right place at the right time, and has enabled many office workers and students to continue activity remotely. However, it was designed to facilitate on-line meetings, and is not necessarily an efficient tool for supporting collaborative work processes. In order to truly collaborate, teams need a platform that allows them to work “side-by-side” in real-time. Bouncing between platforms, depending on the task is inefficient. The ability to better replicate the in-person experience in a unified platform is key.
Facebook introduced a self-contained VR headset in Q4 2020 at a breakthrough price point. While much of the initial content focuses on games and 3D movies, Zuckerberg has articulated a goal of using VR to create greater “presence” among individuals who are physically separated. Initially this may be an extension of the social connections that exist on mobile devices today, but it could eventually bring a whole new experience to a virtual meeting. This “virtual presence” is also part of Microsoft’s recent announcement of Mesh.
More than three quarters of individuals in the US play video games. This is an increase of more than 30 million people in the past two years. These individuals are also your customers or employees. Increasingly, expectations for applications are being shaped by the gaming experience. The use of data visualization and animation is not only preferred, it will increasingly be expected in the business world as well. For business purposes, it is a much more efficient way to communicate large data sets in a more visual way that will hold interest much better than looking at a text-heavy app.
The pandemic has accelerated the shift in retail away from brick-and-mortar stores with several once prominent store chains such as Lord and Taylor liquidating in 2020. While it is relatively easy to order a book or electronics products on-line, it has always been more challenging to order things like clothes and furniture without seeing them in person. As more and more consumers are taking their shopping experiences online, the digital options lack in the ability to try something on or see it in person. In order to address this gap, augmented reality tools that allow consumers to visualize how they look in a dress, or how a couch would look in their living room are going to become more widely adopted.
Impact on training
Sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office with coughing patients can be an unnerving experience. This is probably something that few individuals will tolerate going forward, even after the pandemic subsides. In order to provide the “hands on” care that patients are looking for, while at the same time keeping patients away from unwanted germs, an increasing number of healthcare facilities are turning to digital avatars of nurses, doctors, receptionists, and front desk clerks. Using avatars provides a personalized experience from a safe distance. When a virtual appointment isn’t an option, voice actuation and gesture control applications can reduce the need to touch surfaces on kiosks or sign in screens.
Frontline workers have in many ways been the heroes of the pandemic. And for these workers, there unfortunately has been a lack of tools that can keep them safe while maintaining productivity. Augmented reality, digital avatars, and voice-controlled workflow applications all offer the opportunity to provide the front-line workers with better tools for touchless transactions and safety training, as well as more efficient work processes. Until recently, augmented reality has been held back by headset limitations, but this is likely to change as several companies including Apple are planning to introduce new offerings over the next couple of years.
The ability to train employees with more visually stimulating and memorable materials will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the training – especially in an environment where social distancing is still necessary. Research suggests that VR is a particularly effective tool for training that requires memorizing and understanding spatial and visual information. This is also true for situations that elicit effective responses to stressful or difficult situations. The ability to safely and efficiently train employees will encourage much broader adoption for a wider variety of applications.
Collaborative development platforms that support immersive experiences across platforms are becoming central to the acceleration of these trends. Partly due to user demand, game engine technology is increasingly finding its way into enterprise development platforms, adding visualization capabilities that historically have been scarce and expensive to develop.
Enterprise app development was headed in this direction long before anyone ever heard of Covid-19. The pandemic period may come to be seen as a period of tremendous innovation in digital technology. For software development, this acceleration will push immersive applications from providing entertainment to becoming an important tool for businesses to meet employee and customer expectations.
Bill Stevenson, Chairman, Umajin