Technology is ever so rapidly evolving that even before a trend becomes viral, it is overtaken by an even more revolutionary alternative. Virtual Reality (VR) did not really become mainstream as a popular application, mostly remaining confined to gaming enthusiasts and niche applications in industry. This was mainly thanks to costly hardware, cumbersome headsets and lack of adequate content of general interest. But the evolution of Augmented Realty (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) and later Extended Reality (XR) helped democratize immersive experiences, finally finding mass application with WebXR, which is now emerging as a marketing tool of choice. WebXR was introduced in 2018 as the new application programming interface (API), superseding the WebVR API for web content development in 3D. It simplified the field for developers to create immersive experiences for browser-based viewing.
Extended Reality or XR is an all embracing or universal term that covers all the immersive technologies in use today – VR, AR and MR. These are computer-generated environments or simulations that merge the physical and virtual worlds to create virtual experiences. To that extent, VR, AR and MR are all elements of XR technology, which lies at the intersection of the three. In Virtual Reality, which is a computer-generated virtual environment, the viewer wearing VR devices such as HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard, is immersed in the scene, isolated from reality. In Augmented Reality, digital elements are added to live views much like Pokemon Go, with the viewer able to interact with the scene through AR headsets that are much lighter than the VR counterparts, or merely by pointing out the smartphone or tablet camera on it. In Mixed Reality experience, elements of both AR and VR are combined and real-world and the viewer can interact with digital objects in real locations. By bringing together these three realities or experiences, XR opens up vast opportunities across real and virtual-based environments.
With the ability to add digital content to live scenes, AR has great potential that goes beyond games and entertainment, and can be effectively used in business promotion. According to a recent forecast by Facts & Factors, the AR market size in terms of revenue valued at USD 15.2 billion in 2021, is expected to surpass around the USD 90.8 billion mark, by 2028, at a steep CAGR of about 31.5%. This is a huge opportunity for all the stakeholders in this space.
Applications of AR, and by extension, WebXR, are in diverse sectors. These include education, healthcare, automotive, industrial manufacturing, aerospace & defense, and e-commerce & retail, besides gaming & entertainment and others. The foremost application currently is in the retail industry where furniture brands like Ikea use AR apps to facilitate customers to see how a piece of furniture would look in their home, without visiting the showroom. Similarly cosmetics companies enable women to try on lipstick shades; apparel brands do the same with clothes and other accessories. Car companies not only provide an immersive experience of driving their latest models while seated in any other car, but Hyundai was the first to launch an AR owner’s manual where customers can access ‘how-to’ information for repairs, maintenance and vehicle features through a smartphone or tablet. In the manufacturing industry too, AR has applications in remote diagnoses and troubleshooting, especially in process industries where a lot of equipment and infrastructure is spread over large geographical areas. Workers on the spot can be guided remotely in understanding the fault and instructed to carry rectification, guided by experts remotely. Similarly, training of maintenance personnel can be made more effective with practical demonstrations of hypothetical problems with AR. The possibilities are limitless, and all these exercises would cost much less, benefitting the industry immensely.
The short answer is no, VR and AR are not the same thing, they are different. Yet, there are some similarities as both make use of technology to create a virtual world, the AR experience in addition using the digital superimposition on the real. VR can be described as 75 percent virtual, while AR is only 25 percent virtual. But the differences are more distinct. Virtual reality is computer-generated – it is just a simulation of reality turned into an alternate world, used mainly in video games where the viewer is immersed in the simulated world that appears real, with the help of computers and wearable devices like headsets, sensors and gloves. An example of VR is how automobile manufacturers simulate road conditions and check the behaviour of the car under development, rather than taking an actual prototype on road for testing. Augmented reality, on the other hand, just augments the real world, by adding or superimposing digital content to enhance the reality, e.g., racing a virtual car on real road, and testing the users skill to navigate it on the screen. While AR thus enhances both the virtual and real world, VR only enhances the imaginary world. However the most significant difference is that to experience VR, the user needs the computer and headset plus other devices, whereas AR can be accessed on the smartphone or tablet, apart from the headset. On the flip side, AR requires higher bandwidth than VR.
Virtual experiences are influencing marketing strategies and consumer preferences, with AR dominating the field as it is much simpler to access. With WebXR, there is no need to download any apps as the content is accessed via the browser. WebXR facilitates viewing content on mobile devices without headsets, though use of AR or smart glasses enhance the experience. These attributes make WebXR a powerful tool for digital marketing, to present products or events in ways that appeal to consumers. It is especially suitable for e-commerce businesses and advertising, retailers and engineering companies as also the building and construction industries, with content that can create immersive experiences for their consumers. Canadian e-commerce platform Shopify cites internal data to show an increase of a whopping 250% in influencing consumer preferences when AR is used on their product pages. In industry, WebXR, which is a combination of VR, AR and MR, can be exploited to create innovative content for product demonstration of machines or even assembly lines; training sessions; servicing and maintenance procedures; and promotional activities at events and exhibitions. Honeywell Process Solution, for example, uses a combination of AR and VR to train plant personnel on critical industrial work activities. The application of WebXR in business promotion is thus limited only by imagination.
The ability of WebXR to allow the content to be viewed on any browser-based device is what has made it a popular choice of digital content creators as well as consumers. A smartphone today is undoubtedly the most popular device that can access WebXR, which means it also delivers the widest audience. Another thing to remember is WebXR is best suited for simple and specific tasks, where the idea is to reach the largest audience in the shortest time, which again fits in with the digital marketing requirement, with the smartphone as the critical link.
Now just because WebXR is accessible on smartphones does not mean it is exclusive to smartphones or tablets. The content can also be viewed on virtual reality or VR headsets, so users have a choice of how to view the content. Those who have VR headsets with AR compatibility can certainly view WebXR content and in fact have a better immersive experience than accessing on the smartphone. But better still it is viewed on AR headsets which are also lighter and cheaper. The real advantage of WebXR is that it gives a choice to viewers on how they can access the content, making it widely available to the largest user group.
To sum up, WebXR is creating amazing opportunities for small businesses to leverage them with their marketing strategy. However, technology is a double edged sword. It has many advantages to offer and one must use them in business to reap the benefits. On the other hand, lack of knowledge is what holds back many from even trying to deploy these modern day solutions. But worse is creating the wrong type of content and messing the message. Creating the appropriate content is the key to succeed in this digital era. Immersive content must be relevant, to the point, short and succinct. This is where professional expertise comes in handy. It makes no economic sense to try and recruit experts and build in-house capabilities in every domain. That is a recipe for disaster with costly overheads. Some things are best outsourced, left to professionals.
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