What are immersive technologies good for?

Getting the right use cases for AR and VR

The other week, looking into the history of immersive content in the UK (related to the Immersive Arcade), I came across a video of Sainsbury’s virtual supermarket from 1995:

Here, the embodied aspect of VR experiences is seen as the missing piece in creating a remote shopping experience. The project assumed - before the emergence of online retail - that striving for a 1:1 recreation of a Sainsbury store, its aisles, selection of goods, etc, was the key. 

With hindsight, it’s easy to point out that it wasn’t the experiential aspect of shopping that consumers were seeking - at least at that point in time, during the emergence of the World Wide Web. It turned out to be the convenience of clicking tiny, two-dimensional product images on a website, as Amazon & co were already doing.

Yet, while online retail has skyrocketed even more during the pandemic, we are seeing pickup of AR for retail use cases. Again, the assumption is that 3D assets, such as shoes to try on, add value in the remote context:

Even VR shopping experiences are trying to make a comeback.

These immersive applications enable browsing, not the whole customer journey to checkout. They attempt to recreate or enhance the experiential aspect of retail shopping. What degree of engagement they have actually achieved, we do not know.

For me, these observations lead to the question of how to identify with more accuracy what immersive technologies are good for. In other words: where does AR and VR provide ROI vs where they make unfounded assumptions about their greatness? Could we develop a model with which to think through this question, case by case?

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Acid tests for AR and VR use cases

With the benefit of hindsight concerning cases like the Sainsbury one, I have come up with a set of questions you should ask when considering investing into XR applications:

  • Is the task/problem that the application is seeking to solve embodied in nature? I.e. is it fundamentally characterised by being there, in a space, interacting with objects or agents using your body, beyond looking at a screen?

  • If the answer is no, then you need to think extra hard what the value-add would be; what would the experiential novelty a piece of immersive technology would bring to address the problem, and would it be high enough to trump inconvenience and/or old habits?

  • If the answer is yes, you need to follow up with a question: Is replicating the embodied characteristics a greater need than finding another, more convenient way that leverages conventions from screen-based media? Clearly in the supermarket case the replication was not the answer: the convenience of shopping via an online store/app trumped it. There could be a part of the experience worth replicating with immersive means, but ask yourself what is it?

  • If you are still with me with your use case, ask yourself this: Do the embodied characteristics, when replicated with the help of immersive technology, in fact open new possibilities for productivity, safety, or engagement? If, for example, the task being addressed is not pleasurable in itself but actually something to be avoided, does conducting the task remotely benefit from the spatial and embodied qualities that XR brings to the table?

  • Finally, if you’re still on board, which technology on the virtuality continuum is the best fit? This leads to more specific questions:

  • Is the task independent from the physical surroundings in a specific location or environment? Does it benefit from transforming those surroundings in a way that e.g. distills the task into a more controlled and/or empowering user experience? If the answers are yes, then VR is likely the one providing the best value.

  • Alternatively, is the physical location integral to the problem? If the problem is dependent or specific to certain surroundings, in that it requires their physical manipulation or drawing information from them, then you should look into how AR can enhance those surroundings to solve the use case.

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A methodology in progress

This approach is by no means complete and remains to be tested with more real-life cases. However, that’s why I wanted to put it out here for anyone to test out and send feedback - looking forward to that!

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Stay safe,

Aki