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During the pandemic, many of us have gotten used to working from our laptop at the dining room table and dialing in to meetings on Zoom and Microsoft Teams. But for those in an industrial occupation, working in the field, and often executing critical tasks, table-bound remote working tools fail to fulfill the promise of a connected, collaborative future.

I work for telecoms network provider Ciena, and our employees often need to share visual information, coach each other, and diagnose issues while working with both hands on the subject in question. In other instances, we need to provide live point-of-view information while touring facilities or demoing our equipment. If you’ve ever tried to do this with technology that’s commonly available, you know that it simply won’t do to walk around holding up a laptop or tablet all the time.

So we’ve become early adopters of AR and VR technology and developed our own extended reality solution. I have seen the future, and I am here to tell you, the industrial AR and VR revolution is primed.

We are ready for extended reality

We’re at a tipping point where this technology that started as a consumer curiosity is quickly filling an essential enterprise need. Extended reality solves the problem of not being able to physically see or touch what our colleagues are working on, particularly when teaching or instructing on highly technical systems.

Until now, AR and VR have been rather niche and experimental. Pokémon GO and VR games have given us a taste of what the technology can do. But in these consumer use cases, slower networks with high latency never posed the hazards of a life-threatening situation or potential failure of a business-critical application.

Industrial applications, like allowing first responders to see their colleagues through the walls of a burning building or overlaying parts with assembly instructions, simply won’t work without a sufficiently robust underlying communication network with high speeds and low latency. When employee safety and business continuity are on the line, these applications don’t have room for a jittery network.

The sheer number and density of connected devices in these applications can make them a challenge to deploy, which is why 5G and optical networking will play such an important role in their adoption. Future networks will also require additional attention in terms of monitoring and managing the quality of connections to ensure that hiccups in service don’t have dramatic consequences.

Seeing is believing

As for our own deployment, there was no one specific solution that perfectly fit our needs. Many of the vendors developing industry-grade solutions are focused on defense/military. In order to suit our needs, we needed to buy hardware and software from a variety of sources and knit them together to create our ideal solution. While it did take some effort to customize the component mix, the benefits we realized were immense.

For one, extended reality offers more immersive and engaging learning experiences. When you’re in a virtual environment, you’re ensconced and there are few external distractions — it’s almost impossible to not be engaged.

Of course, we’re still discovering new ways to use extended reality in the work environment, but we’ve had great success at my company getting employees to buy into the technology because we let them experiment and create their own use cases (outlined below). We challenge them to try new approaches to engage with our customers and offer internal education/suggestions.

As an example, we recently used AR headsets to instruct our partners on product design and quality assurance at some of our manufacturing sites. By equipping our own employees with headsets, our customers have the option of viewing a stream of what our employees are seeing through their computers at home. The presentation is so compelling that we have even sent equipment to our customers to get the full experience. We have also used AR to give customers virtual/interactive demos from our labs and to equip our IT team to support our remote offices without needing to physically travel.

From a usage standpoint, this makes sense when you look at Zoom over the last year. A year ago, many people were skeptical about using Zoom to hold in-depth, inclusive and collaborative meetings in a remote setting. Fast forward to today, and we’ve realized that the technology has enabled us to work from home, reduce the need for travel, and enjoy more time with our families. I see the same epiphany happening with extended reality.

You won’t need to augment your budget (too much)

At this early stage, we have approximately two dozen employees involved in extended reality projects, with headsets distributed to users as needed. Each headset has cost us roughly the equivalent of a laptop. Considering that the hardware is a one-time cost, the price is eventually negated by not needing to have subject matter experts physically present.

What we have realized is that the important investment at this stage is in user experience. I think the best advice I can offer to organizations considering extended reality right now is that you need to be thinking about the layers that bring the whole experience together.

For example, you’ll need experts in UI design who will be mindful of where notifications and heads-up displays are placed within the field of view. Chances are your application of extended reality will be unique, and you’ll need a programmer who can build in features and functions to the solution that cater to your specific business need, like the ability to recognize objects or impose information on other users’ views. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to ensure smooth functionality, both for continuity and user comfort. Extended reality solutions use a lot of data, and nothing is more distracting than visuals that skip or lag. Even worse, visual information that isn’t synchronized with the user’s mental ability to process that image will cause a nauseating effect that will ruin the experience completely.

Although there are only a handful of headset providers today, our own experience with AR and VR makes me believe that the market is about to bust open. Much like with the adoption of Zoom, we’ll soon be wondering what took us all so long to embrace the technology, and the market for solutions will be as diverse as the market for cameras or laptops are today.

Craig Williams is CIO at Ciena.

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