Business Leader recently spoke to Pat O’Connor, co-founder and co-managing director of immersive technology startup VRAI to discuss how VR/AR has changed business forever.
Can you provide an overview of VRAI?
At VRAI we create data driven VR simulation training for high hazard environments. Our customers are leading organisations like Pfizer in Singapore and United Nations in Somalia and IAG in Heathrow Airport.
We have created HEAT, a Hazardous Environment Awareness Trainer which combines authentic virtual training environments with cutting edge data capture and analytics to improve performance, safety and training outcomes.
HEAT allows organisations whose activities are Risky, Remote or Rare to train in a more authentic, memorable and measurable way. Similar to how a pilot trains using a simulator, we can bring simulation training to a wide variety of workplaces to help prepare people better.
What was the inspiration behind setting up the company?
I spent 20 years serving in the military including overseas deployments in Africa & the Middle East. My last operational mission was in Syria during the Civil War there and I learned that gut instincts and reactions can save your life. The challenge is, how do you train people to have those instinctive reactions for environments that are inherently risky, remote or rare? My co-founder, Niall Campion, identified that VR was the perfect technology to recreate those environments authentically, that storytelling techniques can be used to make the experiences memorable and that AI & IOT technology can be used to make the experiences measurable.
How would you currently describe the VR/AR market in the UK?
The Global VR market was valued at $11.52 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $87.97 billion by 2025. Last year saw annual B2C VR software sales break the significant $1 billion mark for the first time. Better content with cheaper and easier to use hardware seem to be the drivers in the B2C market but there is another factor that is driving this increase in VR use – Enterprise VR. VR use for training, in particular, is expected to have a 61.8% CAGR over the next three years and is forecast to become the largest use case in terms of VR B2B spending by 2023.
What are the challenges facing companies within your industry?
When Facebook acquired VR headset maker Oculus in 2015, the VR hype curve was almost off the charts. Since then VR had fallen into what Gartner call the dreaded ‘Trough of Disillusionment’, but is now reemerging at speed. Many people are predicting that 2020 will be the year of Virtual Reality and the evidence is starting to become hard to ignore.
The “race to be second” is what we call the phenomenon where more conservative companies wait for others to prove the business case before committing resources to a technology. This race. in the context of VR for enterprise, is now almost over with great case studies starting to emerge. Some of the world’s leading companies such as Pfizer, IAG and Walmart have used VR with stellar results and now many other companies are keen to do the same.
One of the remaining barriers is in finding the right business model to help customers start their journey into adopting VR. There are grumblings about Oculus’s B2B business model, supply chain and customer support but I’ve no doubt this will be fixed as the market demands are heard. Businesses are not accustomed to “buying” VR so the challenge to companies such as VRAI is to drive business model innovation, equally as much as product innovation, to help solve our customers’ problems.
How can VR/AR change businesses across all sectors?
VR is already a go-to technology for hazardous work environments with many energy companies like Shell, Chevron & ExxonMobil seeing VR as an obvious way to train more their employees for risky, remote and rare operational environments. The same can be said for the leading militaries in the world who see VR simulation training as the obvious way to improve training while reducing risk and cost.
Last year companies were asking “Why would we use VR in our business?” This year the question is different, it is “How can we use VR in our business?” Businesses are increasingly aware of the potentially transformative impact of VR to improve performance, safety and training outcomes.
I believe that the impact of COVID-19 will accelerate the adoption of VR training, as we have already seen with the likes of video conferencing technology. Large companies & organisations are now looking for new ways to train their people. How do they ensure compliance and reduce skills fade remotely. Is it efficient to make people all travel to one location to train together? Are they making the most of the available technologies to empower people to train remotely, without as much need for instructors?
What are the future plans for the company?
At VRAI, RD&I is at the core of what we do so our future plans will of course involve product enhancements. In the near term, we are adding physiological sensors to add to the richness of the datasets we gather, and to help improve our ability to measure and predict.
I believe that the third decade of the 21st century will not be dominated by individual technologies, but rather by the confluence of the technologies that we have seen develop over the last five years. IOT sensors are now in many new ‘smart’ products, high speed broadband is increasingly available and soon available via mobile 5G. Companies like Google and Amazon are making AI and cloud computing more broadly available to businesses, and improved mobile processors are increasing the capability of hardware while reducing the cost. The most successful businesses will be the ones that leverage these technologies to solve problems for their customers and do that in a sustainable way.
At VRAI, we strive to be product leaders that provide our customers with the leading edge technologies, or innovative combinations of existing technologies, they need to improve their businesses. Although, as any entrepreneur worth their salt will tell you, it’s not about the technology, it’s about solving your customer’s problem and unlocking shared value.
One of your main principles is being sustainable and eco-friendly – do you think this is key for modern businesses?
At VRAI, sustainability is very important to us and we have adopted the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ accounting mechanism where we report annually on our company’s impact on People, on the Planet, as well as Profit.
We want to create a company that makes a positive impact on the world and that means we have to consider more than financial impact.
We believe that our ‘Triple Bottom Line’ focus makes us more attractive to customers, and as a workplace for the best talent. By creating shared value for our customers, our employees and our investors, we gain a competitive advantage. We hope that our success will encourage other companies to find similar ways of making a positive impact on the world around us.