Tom Allen: SMEs and why alternate reality shouldn’t cost the earth

Written By Tom Allen, Founder, The AI Journal

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and, to an extent, Mixed Reality are becoming big business, but that doesn’t mean only big business can get onboard.

According to research published by Technavio in June 2020 in its Global Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Market 2020-2024 report, the global VR and AR market is expected to grow by $125.19bn between 2020 and 2024.

As we revealed in a recent report published by The AI Journal, as more people get comfortable with the notion of alternate reality devices, as more units are sold, as more brands invest in the technology, the more the cost of buying into VR, AR and MR will come down.

The reality is that SMEs are often well placed to take advantage of this tech, which is not as prohibitively expensive as one might initially imagine. And there’s a convincing argument that small to medium-sized business owners should not be thinking about not how much VR and AR tech is going to cost them – initial outlay is minimal – but how much it will save them and what it can do for their businesses.


Which reality? VR, AR or MR?

For the SME looking to join in, it’s crucial to distinguish between VR, which immerses the user entirely in a virtual world via a headset, AR and MR.

VR is a great means of training staff in an interactive and far more engaging environment than a classroom, whether that’s physical or online. It can be used to transport an exec into a virtual meeting space rather than them having to travel physically, thus saving significant time and money. It can be used in product development, visualising a prototype in 3D space, or testing a new store layout.

VR headsets are relatively inexpensive. An Oculus Quest 2 costs around £400, whereas a more powerful, but PC-tethered Oculus Rift S can cost around £300. At the premium, high-res end of the market, Valve’s Index and HTC’s Vive Pro will set you back around £1000. But on the cheaper end of the scale, prices plummet. Google Cardboard costs anything up to around £20 and Samsung Gear VR is priced around £40 for a headset, although with the last two you’ll need a phone to place into the housing.

Then you have MR, which as a term is often used interchangeably with AR. However, technically speaking at least, MR requires a more sophisticated device, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, currently in its second iteration.

From a strictly MR perspective, the HoloLens 2’s ability to overlay information and graphics that respond to the real world is what sets it apart from VR and AR.

In manufacturing it can be used to up-skill workforces, help service teams identify faults and communicate with one another, it can boost worker productivity with intricate and responsive checklists and instructions, while in education it can facilitate remote collaboration requiring less direct instruction. It has obvious virtues, but at around $3500, it’s not cheap.


Cheap and accessible to all

On the other hand, compelling AR experiences can be accessed on any old smartphone. And producing content is financially viable too, even for the smallest boutique business.

There are a raft of tools available for SMEs. Facebook is offering training for its Spark AR suite of tools for free, giving SMEs access to templates, asset libraries and creation tools built for novice Javascript devs, that will let you create AR content. Shopify has produced an AR Quick Look tool that lets online merchants create 3D models of their products.

From a marketing standpoint, there is a plethora of AR apps available for businesses of all sizes. Snapchat has a production tool called Lens Studio, which lets companies produce front camera Face Lenses that manipulate a user’s face with branded imagery, and World Lenses, that use the rear camera to superimpose branding on the world beyond them.

For small businesses selling online, AR applications enable prospective customers to ’try on’ items such as jewellery. Or they can be used in training to superimpose instructions as an employee works through a complex task.

The low cost of AR makes it the most compelling proposition for SMEs.

The time is right too. According to Gartner, 40% of SMEs said they are currently evaluating AR and VR, and 70% will be doing so by 2022.

For small to medium-sized businesses, making a foray into the alternate realms offered up by VR, AR and possibly MR is a surefire means of cutting costs, enhancing your marketing and sharpening your competitive edge.