From ‘Meta’ to Van Gogh: Live the experience with immersive technology

Virtual reality is coming along in leaps and bounds since it kicked off in the 5Os. Pallavi Biju delves deep into the world of Immersive Experiences and its evolution to see if it is just another nine-days wonder, or something more

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What if you could step into Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Or be able to grapple with man-eating dinosaurs alongside Chris Pratt in Jurassic World? All these and more are possible with the advent of Immersive Experiences, the latest multidimensional tech craze taking the world by storm. 

 Immersive Experiences take advantage of the increasing demand for never-seen-before experiences that can entertain, excite, and impress, all at the same time. 

The Not-so-new dream

Using a combination of sound, lights, visuals, and technology to draw their viewers into another world, Immersive Experiences help viewers manipulate and interact with their environment to create an engaging and unforgettable experience. Simply put, the goal is to make their audience feel like they are a part of the spectacle. Over the past few years, Immersive Experiences have been hailed for being able to potentially change the world of work and play. According to PwC, immersive technologies could deliver a $1.5 trillion boost to the global economy by 2030 (PwC “Seeing Is Believing” report, 2019) due to their capability to create new customer experiences, improve work conditions, and speed up product developments. 

While it may seem like the ‘in-trend’ at the moment, immersive technologies have played a starring role in technological research and innovation for a long time. It first burst on the scene in 1957, when Morton Heilig developed ‘Sensorama’, a cinematic experience where the viewer sat spellbound in a theatre equipped with speakers, fans, vibrating chairs, and even smell generators. Soon after, what is considered the blueprint of VR headsets today, ‘The Sword of Damocles’ was released in 1968, and in 1991, the Sega VR headset was launched for arcades and home use. 1992 saw the first fully immersive AR system called ‘Virtual Fixtures’ created by Louis Rosenberg for the U.S. Air Force to train units for battle without physically being on the battlefield. And as the popularity of AR rose, the ‘ARToolKit’, an open-source library for AR applications was created, helping developers tinker with AR technologies leading to a rise in the number of apps that used AR. 

With the amount of research invested into it over the years and the wide variety of technologies available to us makes it a cakewalk for designers to create experiences that can hold any audience under its sway.

Stunning scientific marvel

Immersive experiences present a narrative weaved in space and time, juxtaposing virtual and tangible environments. Several different technologies are used to ensure that the experience feels ‘real’.

AR or Augmented Reality uses technology to add a digital, simulated layer of graphics enhancing the real world instead of creating a whole new one. Since the launch of platforms ARKit and ARCore that help develop AR apps by Apple and Google respectively, over 1 billion people have been using AR apps regularly, and by 2022 it is estimated that there will be around 3.5 billion AR users in the world (Digi-capital). Fascinatingly, most AR users aren’t aware of the AR technology they use in their daily lives. If you use Snapchat filters or the Live-view feature in Google Maps, that’s Augmented Reality!

18.8 billion dollars were spent on growing AR/VR technology globally in 2020, a 78.5% rise from the number in 2019 (IDC, 2020). Switching gears, VR or Virtual Reality, unlike AR, creates an entirely new virtual world that immerses and interacts with the user. In 2020, the worldwide market share for VR was $6.1 billion and is predicted to be worth $20.9 billion in 2025 (Finances Online). Examples include the Giza Project, a partnership between Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, letting students ‘visit’ the ancient Pyramids at the Giza Plateau, France and Jerusalem with the help of 3-D headsets, and even tour hard-to-access tunnels with the use of a curved screen and glasses. “Sometimes, an actual visit to the site is much less telling than accessing the archaeological data and 3-D models,” says Professor Peter Der Manuelian. 

A combination of AR and VR is the Mixed Reality or MR. Also known as AR 2.0, MR aims to achieve better immersion by responding to changes in the environment and user interaction, real-time. MR wins over AR and VR as it is no longer limited to a screen or a device and hence is almost indistinguishable from real life. The Microsoft HoloLens is an MR marvel. Featuring three sensors and five cameras, this holographic computer when worn around your head and eyes uses hologram processors to blend seamlessly into your environment to display information, even create a new, virtual world. Essentially, the glasses are your JARVIS and you get to be Iron Man! 

360-degree content is a familiar immersive experience, shot in all directions simultaneously, almost like standing still and looking circularly around you. It is different from AR and VR as it is filmed live and not computer-generated. While once wildly prevalent in travel vlogs on YouTube, they are diminishing in popularity as they tend to be more passive and solitary. 

Companies are now actively using these different forms of Immersive Experiences to create engaging and exciting moments to retain existing customer loyalty and gain new customers. 

Getting down to Business

We know that Immersive Experiences and the technology behind them have been gaining popularity, attention, and burgeoning revenue. So, it comes as no surprise that top companies and corporations have entered the arena of this phenomenon. 

If you’ve been on social media during last year, you’ve probably seen the video of a girl slashing blocks to the pulse of the music in the background. This is the VR-only rhythm game, Beat Saber, developed by Beat Games. It was the highest-grossing video game of 2020, selling over 1 million copies in just nine months and making over $20 million in revenue. (TechCrunch.com)

This technology allows you to visualize what a space looks like even when you are not present. Marriott International, the multinational company, uses VR to its advantage, offering clients and event organizers 3D, 360-degree views of the spaces they wish to rent out along with the room set-up. In 2017, IKEA launched IKEAPlace, an app developed in collaboration with Apple that allows customers to virtually place IKEA furniture inside their homes, helping customers ‘see’ the products in their spaces before buying it.

The benefits of immersive technology extend beyond customers. For example, DHL integrated AR smart glasses that display items to be picked up and calculated optimal routes to delivery, reducing lookup and delivery times. Having reduced warehousing costs while maintaining error-free, timely delivery, DHL gained about 25% efficiency in pickups. 

Despite the many advantages, Immersive Experiences can simply be used for their primary purpose, to entertain and engage. There is no dearth of events and installations that will take you on a magical journey with the help of Immersive Technology.

Adventure is out there

UAE leads the way in creating experiences for its residents and tourists that they have never witnessed before, be it health, education, or entertainment.

American Hospital Dubai brought an immersive healthcare experience that offered glimpses into a transformed healthcare for visitors at Arab Health 2021, the largest healthcare exhibition in the MENA region. Named ‘Shape of the Future’, the platform enabled by touch gave visitors a unique 360-degree view of healthcare with a difference.

UAE’s Expo 2020 is fast shaping up to be the most exciting, jaw-dropping event the world has seen, and the way immersive experiences have been woven in is one of the showstoppers. You can stroll under a canopy of lush green trees at Singapore Pavilion, learn about pathbreaking technologies in the USA Pavilion, or enjoy the snowy Alps in the Switzerland Pavilion. Manuel Salchli, Commissioner of the General Swiss Pavilion, gives us a sneak peek into the reality behind the stunning illusions. 

“Swiss Pavilions at previous Expos have always successfully differentiated themselves from the competitors, through interactive content close to the visitor. This time, we bring Switzerland to Dubai with an experience that feels as close as possible to the real Switzerland – simulating hiking to the top of the Alps with real fog and a panoramic view accompanied with life-like sounds. 

Whether you are a science enthusiast or just a hobbyist, this is the place to be. This year we’re showing off innovative sustainability solutions in waste management, traffic easing, space debris clean up, and much more. What’s more, a young and dapper 3D animated ‘Digital Einstein’ will also be present to interact with the visitors, powered by a complex algorithm, dynamic visualization, speech processing, and visual recognition. With cameras that scan movements and mics that pick up voices and translate it to text, the AI can analyze and provide an appropriate answer for anything.”

With over 190 countries participating in the Expo, Manuel acknowledges the challenge of standing out from the crowd. He explains, “To provide visitors with a memorable experience, you need content that is emotional, different, and authentic.”

With every nation bringing their A-game to EXPO 2020, this event sure has an avant-garde immersive experience awaiting you.

Going Meta

With the announcement of Facebook going ‘Meta’, Immersive Experiences are soon going to be available at your fingertips. In his founder’s letter, Mark Zuckerberg said, “The next platform will be even more immersive — and embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” Albert Einstein said, “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” As our intelligence and imagination play out in full force as Immersive Experiences, we will step into our wildest dreams with our eyes wide open.

IMPORTANT STATS

  • The market size of the combined sector of AR, VR and MR is expected to hit $30 Billion by 2030 – IDTechExs

  • 54% of 18–24-year-olds say they appreciate it when brands “connect with them in new and innovative ways” – Verizon Media
  • In late 2020, 80% of customers and businesses agreed that “the experience a company provides is as important as its product or services.” – VentureBeat
  • Around 32% of customers say they use AR apps (often for gaming and social media), and the landscape for AR/VR spending will increase at a rate of around 52% over the next five years – XRToday
  • After introducing an AR app to help customers browse interior design products, Houzz CEO Adi Tatarko said that customers using AR spend up to 2.7 times more time using the service and are 11 times more likely to make a purchase through AR. – Houzz
  • The XR (Extended Reality) market is set to hit a value of $1,005.9 billion by 2030, and much of this value comes from the wider adoption of VR and AR technology in the consumer world. – PR Newswire
  • 71% of customers say they would shop more if they had access to AR, and 61% they would definitely choose to shop with a store that has VR over one that doesn’t – Eclipse Group
  • Almost 1 in 5 US consumers have used a VR product in 2020, highlighting the growing accessibility of VR technology. – Arinsider
  • By the end of 2021, experts predict that there will be more than 11 million units of AR/VR devices shipping around the world. – Statista
  • The biggest concerns that most companies usually have about immersive media are around consumer privacy and data security (61%), followed by product liability (49%), and health and safety issues (41%) – Perkins Cole
  • Up to 2023, the VR/AR market is set to see a CAGR of anywhere up to 77%. – IDC
  • 39% of tech leaders believe that augmented reality and MR will be as ubiquitous as mobile by the time we reach 2025.- Perkins Cole
  • The total global market for mixed and augmented reality should reach a value of around $103.9 billion by 2026. – Global Newswire
  • COVID-19 helped accelerate the CAGRs of AR and VR to 38.1 and 27.9%, respectively – Yahoo Finance
  • In 2019, 55 percent of consumers surveyed around the world highlighted music and concerts (entertainment) as an area where an immersive augmented reality (AR) experience would bring the most value to them. – Statista

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