Blending physical and virtual worlds for a competitive advantage

12 July 2021 Consultancy.com.au 4 min. read
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Virtual realities in years gone by were considered the stuff of science fiction, but these worlds have been a reality for a long time now. Though we’re still only at the precipice of what virtual reality technology is capable of, Covid-19 has forced more interactions online, from work to learning, socialising, shopping and medical purposes, highlighting a raft of practical uses for virtual and augmented realities.

While we’re not going to be living inside The Matrix anytime soon, organisations around the globe have already started blending the physical worlds with virtual ones to create new ways to work, socialise and spend time with communities. Accenture calls the mixture of virtual and physical “real virtualities”.

These real virtualities only stimulate the sense of vision and hearing, though companies are working on ways to engage other senses, such as using haptic feedback to stimulate the sense of touch. Accenture says that real virtualities at some point will become so ubiquitous, it will be near impossible to distinguish between the physical and virtual.

Louise May, Strategy & Consulting Lead ANZ, Accenture

Not every physical experience translates smoothly into a digital experience, but one effect of the pandemic is that businesses have been encouraged to experiment or at least rethink their customer experiences that were only considered to be physical in the past.

Innovation in virtual reality technology that enables real virtualities has largely stemmed from the video game industry, and as such, has been stigmatised in the past as a gimmick or luxury entertainment product. More companies however are realising the value in having a virtual reality play by creating better value for customers with premium experiences, as well as opening up new markets.

In addition to creating real virtualities, the video game industry is also ahead on creating virtual economies entirely contained within those virtualities. These environments themselves have evolved from just gaming into becoming cultural hubs for entertainment, community and even work. Epic Games’ smash hit Fortnite for example has become a destination for musicians and virtual concerts.

Companies are working to apply these same technologies to other industries where it makes sense. Oil and gas companies in Western Australia use “digital twins” to create live models of physical work environments to trial changes before investing. Deakin University has worked with HYDAC Australia to develop VR and AR solutions to train staff to maintain hydraulic systems and components. Even the art world has found use cases for real virtualities, with the National Gallery of Australia touring the Terminus exhibit, offering unique VR experiences.

With more interactions taking place online than ever before, real virtualities have also helped businesses solve challenges associated with working remotely. A VR-enabled workplace can help businesses onboard new staff or conduct brainstorming meetings without physically being an office, widening the talent pool to anyone with an internet connection and removing the hassle of that employee having to relocate.

Perhaps the industry most ripe for real virtuality make-overs is retail, which has already started blending physical and virtual worlds to create better customer experiences that are also more efficient. One of the most well-known examples is Amazon’s Go stores, which uses sensors to allow customers to walk into a brick-and-mortar store and leave with their purchases without using the register.

Accenture says retailers that have already adopted VR or AR lead to increased sales with customers better able to personalise and customise their purchases becoming a new competitive advantage.

Getting started

While not every business is suited for a real virtualities experience, organisations should at least rethink their existing business models to blend virtual and physical offerings. It will therefore be essential when designing these new virtual environments that they are designed with user-experience front of mind to enhance the customer experience even further. These businesses also need to make sure their people, processes and technology can adapt to new work environments.

Accenture found that enterprises within and outside the technology sector are looking to hire candidates with VR skills. For example, in the US, the number of job listings requiring VR skills rose 65% in the past five years. The majority of these roles are in software and design roles, but listed VR roles also rose by 41% for roles outside the technology sector.

While real virtualities remain a novelty for many sectors, we still haven’t seen the full extent of what is possible with these realities. The real virtualities we have in the present are already reshaping how everyday interactions are carried out, and we’ll see more of these virtualities arise as innovation continues. Whether businesses are able to ride the real virtualities wave to carve out new competitive advantages will depend on how receptive they are to change and innovation.

About the author: Louise May is Strategy & Consulting Leader for ANZ at Accenture.