The process of adopting new technologies can create a tangle of questions and uncertainties for product managers. This is certainly the case with extended reality (XR) products. In this fast-growing and ever-evolving field, solutions must be inventive and forward-looking but also practical and achievable.
The XR industry, valued at almost $26 billion in 2020 and expected to surge to nearly $398 billion by 2026, offers numerous business technology solutions across a multitude of industries.
Given this growth, it’s important to consider how XR applications can elevate your existing product solutions and generate new ones, but it can be difficult to know where to begin. On the one hand, XR isn’t all that new and veteran technologists could point to decades-old antecedents; on the other hand, the technology has been so niche for so long that unless you’re a gearhead or a gamer, it simply hasn’t entered your field of vision for the day-to-day work you do as a product manager.
Virtual worlds offer a panoply of exciting solutions to common product problems. This article introduces the possibilities of XR, provides use case scenarios that demonstrate what’s achievable with the technology, and makes recommendations to preempt some of the issues that may arise when establishing the first XR products in your organization.
What Is XR?
XR encompasses multiple technologies, all with the same goal: to merge virtual imagery stored in cloud infrastructure with a real-world experience. Cloud infrastructure allows access to a data repository so vast, people have taken to referring to it as the metaverse, a galaxy of virtual worlds with increasingly enhanced capabilities via an XR gateway. While web browsers provide a window into those environments, the interactive hardware used in XR enables users to have a presence in them, creating new and imaginative possibilities for how people interact with information and how users interact with products. If you’re a product manager designing software for use on a factory floor, for example, an XR device could provide overlays that show machine temperatures, pressures, throughput, and other indicators in real time, enabling users to conduct a tour or inspection while they view relevant data.
XR hardware comprises three varieties of interactive device: virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), and augmented reality (AR). The differences among them relate to the level of immersion into virtual environments that they provide:
- VR: a wearable device with a fully immersive experience in a completely virtual world. Hand-held controls and a headset occupying your entire field of vision grant full POV immersion but limit your ability to physically interact with your real-world surroundings.
- MR: a wearable hands-free device that overlays virtual content onto real-world environments using a transparent or pass-through view. MR devices generally take the form of a portable headset, like smart glasses with semi-transparent lenses that function as screens.
- AR: a device that overlays virtual content onto the real world via a hand-held screen, most often a mobile phone. AR is less immersive than MR but does not require much upfront end-user investment because most users already have smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices.
XR Product Scenarios
Spanning applications as diverse as sales and promotion, safety and equipment training, and custom product design, the following use case scenarios demonstrate how XR tech can enhance the ways that customers, clients, and businesses interact with products, boosting sales and providing solutions that would otherwise be impossible to realize.
Use Case: Promoting a Medical Intubation Device
In 2018, I worked with a medical device company that wanted to build sales leads at conferences for its intubation products. By creating a VR app, we could give booth visitors a better understanding of the product’s features than through traditional methods. Instead of 3D renders of equipment and glossy marketing collateral, an XR-enabled solution could provide a fully interactive demonstration of the equipment using a first-person perspective and VR controllers, as if users were performing the medical procedure themselves. The app could also feature a variety of scenarios, such as normal intubation, unexpected difficulty, and pediatric cases. It could serve as both a promotional product for equipment buyers and a training device for practitioners and medical students.
To ensure that the app effectively demonstrated the core use cases of this device, I visited a state-of-the-art operating room to take photo references of the space and equipment. I also observed the work of anesthesiologists during surgery, and held extensive Q&A sessions with both the product manager of the intubation device and a professor of anesthesiology. My team used these findings to develop a high-level solution design.
Next, we worked with internal 3D and development teams to establish workflows for creating assets and for the intubation procedure itself, allowing the app to be highly configurable yet accurate in the measurements it creates during the simulated procedure. We wanted to make the VR and interactivity accessible for a broad set of users with different levels of experience.
The app was first launched at the SFAR 2018 congress and has been used at more than 50 congresses and workshops worldwide. Our VR demo app generated so much interest that product sales doubled in one year, and the number of sales inquiries at congresses increased nearly tenfold.
This is just one use of XR technology that increased product sales and buyer interest. What follows is a digest of other XR problem-solution scenarios from my experience working with the technology, intended to demonstrate the breadth of potential applications—and inspire ideas in your field.
Aircraft Maintenance Facility Safety Training
Problem: A head of safety needs realistic yet risk-free safety training.
Solution: A VR app that places the user in a hangar-size virtual environment with the core infrastructure elements incorporated into a multiperson, real-time collaborative safety training. Users train in putting out fires, detecting and stopping gas leaks, opening pressurized doors, and working with a fast-paced conveyer belt and high-speed machinery—all in a hands-on manner—with on-the-spot guidance and correction but without risk to personal safety.
Medical Staff Training
Problem: A sales manager needs a training program that will teach nurses to assemble complex medical equipment. The product should also educate doctors on device benefits.
Solution: A self-guided VR training application that includes the procedure for assembling the device and guidance for healthcare professionals transitioning to the new medical device, as well as evaluations and assessments.
Custom Laboratory Design
Problem: A product manager needs to design, deliver, and present rendered images of custom lab lines to clients at real-world scale.
Solution: A planner app for creating a full-scale custom laboratory, designing the lab automation pipeline, and validating the equipment footprint using a 3D interactive PC-based editor. The created lab is automatically compiled and sent to a VR headset for presentation to customers. The headset is also able to store multiple design projects.
Real-time Surgery Assistance
Problem: A surgeon needs additional information during a procedure.
Solution: An iOS-based AR application that visualizes the position of bone screws during insertion. The app provides 3D positioning of the locking mechanism and helps the surgeon to mark the exact incision point, significantly reducing the reliance on X-rays and minimizing exposure to radiation.
XR Lessons Learned
After five years developing XR products, I’ve identified several hurdles product managers entering the field will inevitably face and I have some advice for making the process go smoothly. This may seem obvious, but to start, first-timers should try the technology themselves. The spatial dimensionality of the experiences is similar to real life, and the guidelines for conventional 2D design don’t apply. XR hardware companies frequently provide demonstrations, which can be arranged at retailers around the world. Demos for products such as Oculus, Vive, and Varjo give you the chance to experience the technology before your first foray into development.
Find the Right Hardware
VR offers users a low barrier to entry and versatile capabilities, which can garner the internal support that gets budgets approved. After some experience with the product, you might branch out to different technologies, but for beginners, VR is by far the most reliable option.
Most XR devices are quite accessible, self-contained, and inexpensive; they are simple to install and have minimal to no maintenance costs. If your business has mobile device management software and organizationwide hardware provisioning for computers or mobile phones, XR devices are actually less troublesome to manage than the average laptop.
There are a few essential brand names to consider when starting development with enterprise-grade and consumer XR. The following chart is a hand-picked selection of production-proven XR hardware that’s both capable and stable enough to be a safe choice for your first project.
Several devices have an MSRP below $1,000 and, in some cases, prices are even lower. However, if you need industrial-grade or similar certification, prices increase and may include yearly maintenance and support costs as well.
The best device for your project and specific use case may not be included in the list above. Consult a trusted XR vendor or internal XR department (if you have one). The right vendor can answer your questions and tailor solutions to your needs.
Start Small and Fast
Short iterations are essential for XR product development. Technology changes quickly, and chances are that during development, a new device will appear that’s better suited to your project or more popular with users. It’s preferable to switch to newer devices during short development iterations than to commit to a long development cycle and build a product that depends on an obsolete device. Software changes quickly too, with new software development kits appearing weekly. Being able to incorporate new functionality, like motion tracking or drag-and-drop capabilities, will result in a better product.
As with all good product development, build iteratively and in a modular fashion. If you’re creating a hands-on training experience, launch your product with one procedure and environment, and then add more in future updates. If you’re developing an AR remote assistance app, allow users to draw simple lines and add short annotations while collaborating, then create more features as you go.
Bring in the Experts
Choosing the right pilot project users is extremely important: They need to have an early-adopter mindset and industry expertise. You’ll need these users to directly and indirectly provide feedback: anonymous statistics, personalized questionnaires, and data on combined interaction heatmaps and points of interest in the virtual space, as well as data on customer satisfaction.
In early stages of the pilot, consider bringing in subject matter experts to validate the solution design and contribute to your team’s pool of ideas. For our VR intubation project, we asked a professor of anesthesiology to provide expertise. We benefited from his medical knowledge and he, in turn, was able to produce a white paper based on the anonymous in-VR usage statistics.
Design for the Spatial Environment
There is always a temptation to bring your existing content into VR, in the hopes that your suite of apps and websites will work on virtual hardware. The fact is that while your existing design experience is valuable, “flat designs” simply do not work in VR—you need someone on the team with experience in spatial design. Everything from response time to the way the user interacts with objects changes in three dimensions; your design needs to factor in those variables.
Consider these questions when thinking about the virtual environment you want to design:
- Do you want the user to appear in the virtual space right away, or is there a better way to start their experience?
- Do you want to inform the user about the potential consequences of the action they are about to take or let them learn along the way?
- Is there a standard procedure to follow, or do you want the user to explore on their own?
An experienced XR designer will be able to identify what works best in each case, how to limit the user to frame their XR experience, and how to scale the development, so you can serve users around the world with a single app.
Currently, there is no standard process for a simple deployment that is scalable across XR. On-premise (internal) deployment often requires a separate IT team and infrastructure to handle the software distribution and data used in the app, whereas public (external) deployment may be accessible to a wider audience. Both approaches may require additional security measures to ensure that the app is accessible only to authorized users.
You’ll also need to address integration. Integrating with enterprise customer relationship management or single sign-on may be a vital part of the project; everyone from the XR development team to your company’s security department will need to be involved, adopting new policies along the way and allowing for rapid integrations at later stages. Sometimes this integration is impossible. If this fact would create major disruptions or warrant ending the project, it’s best to have that conversation sooner rather than later.
Get Started Now
More than 10 million Quest 2 devices have been sold to date. Meta’s XR division employs nearly 10,000 people and Quest 3 is in development. Other major XR players, including Apple, are planning to introduce devices in 2022.
This is the perfect time to explore this technology in your business domain. The data you collect now will be valuable in the future, from heatmaps based on eye tracking and product visualization to user behavioral patterns and hands-on product training. This information will provide real feedback and user engagement to inform new developments as you improve your approach and understanding of XR projects.
We’re entering the era of XR adoption beyond gaming and entertainment. Start building now.