The undeniable rise of virtual reality

The prevalence of smartphones among the majority of global Internet users today underscores a mobile-centric reality. Consumers now enjoy a plethora of devices and diverse interactive mobile communication platforms. The significance of contextual and timely customer connection has never been more pronounced. Hence, it’s unsurprising that the world of virtual reality (VR) is booming and set to impact every industry.

What is the future of extended realities?

We are entering a new era of innovation in extended realities that resonate with smartphone users and capture the interest of both emerging and established brands. As a result, entrepreneurs and marketers are increasingly considering investments in the development of AR (augmented reality) and VR applications to engage customers in a new, fresh way.

Apple’s Vision Pro is an excellent example of this trend. The Vision Pro represents a groundbreaking departure from traditional viewing devices, prioritising how the technology overlays objects into the real world.

With augmented reality at its nucleus, the Vision Pro could signal a pivot towards immersive 3D digital realms, marking a trajectory where spatial computing becomes ingrained in everyday digital existence.

The capability to merge real and digital worlds offers new ways to interact with digital content, transcending industry boundaries. Subsequently, many practical use cases are emerging for how the new augmented and VR era will transform industries.

What does this mean? It means that brands have the opportunity to elevate the concept of omnichannel to new heights. The global pandemic forced brands to recognise the importance of embracing an omnichannel business approach to connect with customers and grow. The next step in developing communications is for businesses to establish a presence wherever consumers are, whether online, including e-commerce, or offline (such as in-store).

The integration of mixed reality technologies like Apple’s Vision Pro, which harnesses the power of artificial intelligence and extensive data, promises the emergence of the ‘ultimate’ multi-dimensional omnichannel model in the future. Although widespread accessibility of Vision Pro and other mixed reality technologies may take several years, the prospect is both imminent and highly stimulating.

How will this impact industries?

For instance, in e-commerce, the emergence of augmented and VR is poised to revolutionise the online shopping landscape. In the near future, the conventional practice of looking at static images on a screen will give way to far more immersive experiences. This means online shoppers can enter virtual stores, inspect products in detail, and simulate trial experiences before finalising purchase decisions.

This degree of engagement will outstrip conventional online shopping by a considerable margin, replicating the in-store browsing experience. Furthermore, the ability to interact with products virtually before purchase will diminish the uncertainty often associated with online transactions, potentially boosting the online conversion rates for ecommerce businesses.

Another captivating functionality of VR is the prospect of virtual assistants in e-commerce. These digital aides will navigate customers through the virtual store, respond to their enquiries, and quickly provide personalised recommendations. This is similar to the rise of chatbots and AI-powered assistants, which have transformed how we interact and raise queries with brands online.

As AI capabilities expand, mixed realities will be equally transformed, driven by the growth of tailored recommendations and experiences. By using detailed customer data, encompassing their browsing patterns, prior transactions, and even their immediate environment, these technologies will suggest appropriate products that authentically resonate with customers' evolving preferences and requirements.

Improve customer experiences

VR can vitally transform how staff work and collaborate in small businesses and startup environments. The growing trend toward enhanced online platforms facilitates remote teamwork and collaboration. Yet, while the prevalence of remote and distributed work has surged, replicating the nuanced dynamics of face-to-face communication remains a challenge.

To address this, collaborative tools that integrate mixed reality technologies are set to evolve significantly. They aim to encapsulate and convey the intricacies of human interaction that often elude traditional video conferencing methods.

Another example is the modern contact centre where VR has the capability to integrate immediate aid with face-to-face assistance for complex issues that require demonstrations, step-by-step guides, and more. Remember, customer convenience is critical to fostering customer confidence and loyalty.

VR harbours the potential to elevate convenience to the forefront of customer service, therefore continually enhancing the customer journey. There are further opportunities for internal operations and services such as safety training, customer support, and recruitment within contact centres.

Distant support agents can utilise the technology to encourage better connectivity with colleagues during training sessions or provide customers with immersive digital support.

Getting started with VR

So, how do SMEs and startups decide to experiment with VR? Deciding to integrate VR into their operations requires a comprehensive understanding of the technology and its potential implications. Businesses need to consider several crucial steps, each pivotal to ensuring a successful integration.

Here are some critical steps small businesses need to consider:

Understanding the landscape

The first step requires a thorough comprehension of the organisation's challenges and exploring the vast spectrum of applications that AR and VR technologies offer. Applications range from skill enhancement through immersive training programmes to addressing customer concerns through interactive experiences. By recognising the problem areas and envisioning how AR/VR can provide innovative solutions, businesses can lay the groundwork for a transformative journey.

SMEs and startups should explore avenues where AR/VR can revolutionise conventional practices. Whether streamlining customer service training or creating immersive product demonstrations, the technology presents myriad opportunities for enhancing operational efficiency and customer engagement.

Crafting an AR/VR strategy

Formulating a coherent AR/VR strategy is imperative for businesses to delineate their objectives and chart a clear path towards implementation. Questions like: what is the required scope for our deployment? Does it encompass the entire organisational framework or focus on specific functions such as customer service or product development? By aligning the strategy with overarching business goals, organisations can maximise the utility of AR/VR solutions while optimising resource allocation.

Businesses should assess the readiness of their infrastructure and workforce to embrace AR/VR technologies. This involves conducting feasibility studies and gauging the technological proficiency of employees to ensure a seamless integration process. Additionally, businesses need to define key performance indicators (KPIs) to evaluate the efficacy of AR/VR initiatives and measure their impact on business outcomes.

Constructing a compelling business rationale

Building a compelling business case serves as the cornerstone of AR/VR integration, providing stakeholders with tangible insights into the feasibility and financial viability of proposed projects. Leveraging visualisation tools, businesses can articulate the potential benefits of AR/VR solutions and garner support from key decision-makers. By quantifying the anticipated return on investment (ROI) and conducting cost-benefit analyses, organisations can mitigate risk and justify resource allocation for AR/VR initiatives.

SMEs and startups must consider the competitive landscape and industry trends shaping the adoption of AR/VR technologies. By staying abreast of market dynamics and consumer preferences, businesses can capitalise on emerging opportunities and gain a competitive edge in their respective domains. Moreover, fostering a culture of innovation and experimentation enables organisations to adapt to evolving market demands and drive sustainable growth.

Evaluating user experience

The user experience (UX) is paramount in the success of AR/VR implementations, as it directly influences user adoption and engagement. SMEs and startups must identify their target audience and tailor the AR/VR solutions to meet their specific needs and preferences.

By prioritising usability and intuitiveness, businesses can enhance the overall user experience and foster long-term user retention. Also, business leaders should conduct iterative testing and gather user feedback to refine AR/VR applications iteratively. By soliciting input from end-users and incorporating their suggestions, organisations can address pain points and enhance the functionality of AR/VR solutions.

Additionally, leveraging analytics tools allows businesses to track user interactions and derive actionable insights for future enhancements.

Collaborating with strategic partners

Collaborating with strategic partners is instrumental in navigating the complexities of AR/VR integration and leveraging specialised expertise to achieve desired outcomes. SMEs and startups should seek partnerships with technology vendors and solution providers who possess domain[1]specific knowledge and experience in deploying AR/VR solutions. By fostering collaborative relationships, businesses can access cutting-edge technologies and leverage best practices to accelerate innovation and drive business growth.

Again, businesses will need to foster an ecosystem of innovation by engaging with industry stakeholders and participating in knowledge-sharing forums. By exchanging insights and collaborating on joint initiatives, organisations can harness the collective expertise of diverse stakeholders and co-create value-added solutions. Moreover, forging strategic alliances enables businesses to expand their market reach and explore new growth opportunities in untapped segments.

Establishing continuous training programmes

Establishing continuous training programmes is essential for facilitating user adoption and the seamless integration of VR technologies into daily operations. SMEs and startups should invest in comprehensive training modules that equip employees with the skills and competencies to leverage AR/VR tools effectively. By providing ongoing support and guidance, businesses can empower users to maximise the utility of AR/VR solutions and drive tangible business outcomes.

Expanding on the training initiatives, organisations should adopt a blended learning approach that combines instructor-led training with self-paced online modules. This allows employees to acquire new skills at their own convenience while facilitating knowledge transfer and collaboration across teams. Moreover, leveraging gamification techniques can enhance engagement and motivation, making learning a rewarding and enjoyable experience for employees.

The decision to embrace extended realities technologies is a strategic imperative for SMEs and startups seeking to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive landscape. By following the recommended steps outlined above and embracing a culture of innovation and collaboration, businesses can unlock new opportunities for growth and position themselves as industry leaders in a competitive, and ever-changing digital landscape.

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe