TECHNOLOGY

Virtual Worlds on the Horizon – An Enlightening Conversation about AR, VR, and the Future of the Metaverse

By André Grothus & Sevil Hoppmann

In a world where technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality, and the Metaverse have taken on transformative roles. From their humble beginnings as niche products to their current status as pioneers of digital transformation, these technologies have undergone an impressive evolution. VR immerses the user in a wholly artificial world, while AR enriches the real environment with digital information. Mixed reality merges the two into a seamless experience. The Metaverse is a collective term for a virtual, three-dimensional world where people can interact through avatars, promising to revolutionize how we communicate, work, learn, shop, and play.

In the following exclusive interview with our expert in virtual technologies, André Grothus, we delve deeper into the current trends and future developments of VR, AR, mixed reality, and the Metaverse. We explore how these technologies are blurring the boundaries between physical and digital worlds, opening up new possibilities for communication and collaboration in both B2B and B2C sectors. From innovative applications in retail and education to revolutionary changes in how companies operate and people communicate, this interview provides comprehensive insights into the promising future of virtual technologies.

Interview with André Grothus:

André, what's the actual difference between AR and VR, and what does Mixed Reality mean?
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are technologies that link digital content with our perception of the real world in different ways, playing a central role in the context of Mixed Reality (MR). AR enhances our real world by embedding digital information and objects into it, meaning the real environment remains visible but is augmented with digital content like graphics, videos, or interactive data. AR technology overlays digital information contextually and in real-time over the real environment, for example, displaying maintenance instructions directly on a machine via AR glasses or a smartphone. In contrast, VR creates a wholly virtual environment that isolates the user from the real world. In a VR environment, users are transported to a wholly digital world experienced through a VR headset, allowing for the creation of entirely new environments or the simulation of real places, with the user typically interacting with the virtual world through movements or controllers. Mixed Reality (MR) encompasses the entire spectrum between the fully real and the fully virtual world. MR thus integrates both AR and VR elements to create new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects coexist and interact in real-time. In practice, this means MR applications can extend the real world and offer fully immersive virtual experiences, depending on the use case and technological implementation.

Surveys say that 83% of VR headset owners are currently interested in entertainment offerings, and 73% are also interested in online shopping. Beyond entertainment software, where else can VR technology be applied?
VR technology extends far beyond entertainment, finding application in numerous professional scenarios. VR is frequently mentioned for use in training and instructional scenarios but is also suitable for market studies. The advantage of digital environments is that they can be quickly and affordably adjusted, and variants can be created. Combined with analysis technology such as tracking eye movements, deep analyses into customer behavior can be conducted. This valuable database of behavioral patterns allows for informed decisions, enabling a detailed review and adaptation of design concepts before costly physical realization. For end-users, VR has the potential to revolutionize online shopping in retail by enabling customers to test products in a virtual environment, leading to better-informed purchasing decisions. In mechanical engineering, the technology facilitates detailed planning, simulation, and optimization of production processes and machine designs, resulting in significant efficiency improvements and cost savings.

A survey by mixed.de indicates that nearly 4 million people in Germany now own a VR headset, a number that is on the rise. According to Statista, 90% of all households have access to at least one PC. How do you assess this development regarding the Metaverse and the use of VR headsets?
The increasing distribution of VR headsets in Germany and the widespread access to PCs in households are strong indicators of growing interest in and acceptance of immersive technologies. This forms an important foundation for the growth of the Metaverse. With the increasing availability of VR technologies, there are diverse opportunities for creating interactive and immersive experiences in the Metaverse, offering new perspectives for businesses, developers, and users. These developments create fertile ground for innovations in digital business models, as discussed in the book "Digital Business Model Innovation with Mixed Reality." Companies could leverage these technological advances to develop novel services and products that utilize immersion into virtual worlds, opening new dimensions of experience for customers. This could lead to significant changes in areas such as education, training, entertainment, and social interactions, paving new ways for business model innovations.

What can I expect from the Metaverse now and in the future?
Maybe I'll start with a brief description of what I believe the Metaverse to be. Currently, we have several smaller parts of a Metaverse. Using the metaphor of a universe, we could call these "galaxies." Each galaxy has its own users, characteristics, functions, and value propositions. Today, these galaxies are often popular applications, but they are separate from each other. The vision of the Metaverse is that users will be able to travel between these galaxies and carry their (digital) property with them. The Metaverse offers short- and long-term perspectives. In the short term, users can already experience virtual social interactions, educational offerings, and professional applications. Virtual events and conferences are on the rise, and immersive learning experiences are being enabled through VR and AR. The use of VR in professional applications is also becoming more common, as mentioned in some examples. In the long run, the Metaverse is expected to develop fully integrated virtual economies, blur the lines between physical and virtual reality, and enable seamless interaction with physical objects and virtual environments. These developments open new opportunities for interaction, innovation, and business models, with technologies like AR and VR playing a central role. Solutions are already being worked on that can hide real objects from our perception or allow virtual and AI-driven entities to "virtually" interact with objects from the real world. Advertising will also play a very large role. Just as in our physical world, the Metaverse offers the most creative possibilities for placing advertisements. Whether users will accept this advertising in their experiences remains to be seen. Here, a sensitive approach is required.

How can collaboration with other designers and team members look when developing new designs?
Virtual Reality (VR) transforms collaboration between designers by providing a shared virtual space where ideas and concepts can be visualized, developed, and discussed in real-time. This technology enables design teams, located at different sites, to work together on 3D prototypes as if they were in the same room. VR fosters communication and ideation since changes and suggestions can be made visible immediately and experienced by all participants. This not only accelerates the design process but also increases precision and understanding within the team. Furthermore, VR facilitates the conduct of design reviews and presentations, allowing all participants to be fully immersed in the design. This immersive experience helps ensure a clear understanding of the design and promotes uniform feedback, which in turn contributes to refining and optimizing the design. The ability to experience and analyze complex designs together, without the need to create physical prototypes, saves time and resources and revolutionizes the way designers collaborate and communicate.

What advantages does using VR in product development offer compared to traditional methods?
Using VR in product development offers numerous advantages over traditional methods, including improved visualization and interaction with 3D prototypes, which provides a deeper understanding of the design and its functionality. VR fosters efficient and effective collaboration within the development team and with stakeholders, by allowing designs to be experienced and assessed in an immersive environment, regardless of the physical location of the participants. This accelerates the iteration process, as changes can be made quickly and visualized immediately, rendering costly and time-consuming physical prototypes unnecessary. Additionally, VR enables early error detection and correction, as well as realistic user testing, leading to products that are better tailored to the needs and expectations of users, while simultaneously reducing costs and development times.

What are the advantages of a VR software solution tailored to my processes compared to standard software?
Standard software is a good starting point to evaluate the benefits of VR for one's own use case or to assess the benefit in processes. However, standard software cannot consider all special cases and specific requirements that come with established and particularly individual processes. Especially when the solution is integrated in the middle of the process and multiple interfaces must be considered, such a VR application cannot typically be implemented without fundamental changes in the process and would still cause immense friction losses at the interfaces. Particularly when many interfaces are present and high integration into existing processes and tools is necessary, a VR solution tailored precisely to the processes can enable the full potential of VR to be realized.

What challenges can be expected when integrating VR technologies into existing workflows?
When integrating VR into existing workflows, various challenges can arise. A significant challenge is the technical and financial effort associated with acquiring the necessary hardware and software and training employees to use them effectively. Furthermore, compatibility with existing systems and processes can be a hurdle, as existing data and processes may need to be adapted or completely reworked to ensure seamless integration. Another challenge is resistance to change among employees, which can arise from a lack of acceptance or fear of complexity and the displacement of traditional work methods. Additionally, health concerns, such as VR-induced motion sickness or eye strain, can affect user acceptance.

What advice would you give when customers ask: "Where do I start and what requirements should I fulfill?"
To successfully integrate Virtual Reality (VR) into workflows, start with a clear needs analysis and objective setting to determine the scope of VR application in your company. Ensure that your team has the necessary technical understanding and invest in training if necessary. Check your technical infrastructure for compatibility with VR hardware and software and plan the integration into existing processes considering data protection and security. Start with pilot projects to test the application, collect feedback, and evaluate the results before gradually extending VR to further areas.

 

André Grothus, Data Strategy Coordinator
André began his professional career with a research activity at Münster University of Applied Sciences, where he delved deeply into mixed reality and evaluating new technologies in the context of digitalization. There, he co-authored the book "Digital Business Model Innovation with Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality". As a Data Strategy Coordinator at Matthews International, André is partly responsible for developing and implementing data strategies. Additionally, he dedicates himself to the field of virtual reality, allowing him to continue pursuing his passion for immersive technologies and integrate them into his professional activities.

Sevil Hoppmann, Business Development Director
Sevil has been working for and with well-known brand owners and retailers in Europe in the field of consumer branding for 25 years. Her expertise lies in supporting her clients in the effective positioning of their brands and private labels as well as in the realisation of seamless communication across all digital and physical touchpoints.