We talked with Martin Vovk, Innovation Expert at BE-terna Center of Excelence. How he started and what are his predictions for the next 5 years.
What fascinated you most about mixed realities that made you start working with them?
I have been producing digital content since the 1990s. From simple 2D animations and simple interactive games through Macromedia Flash and to a major fascination with 3D animation. I enjoy thinking and working in 3D, but then again, I would not consider myself to be 3D artist, and more of an all-around generalist.
If I look back, it’s hard to find just one reason for getting into VR, but it definitely feels more like a natural progression.
One of my wishes from the past was to be able to make designs come alive and interactive in a completely new, spatial, way. I’m still fascinated by these things every time I put on a headset and test new materials or other people’s solutions.
What kind of skill and knowledge is necessary to work with mixed realities?
As with a lot of other tech fields, it depends on a lot of things. It depends on what you want to do with it. If you just want to build short interactive experiences, there are simple software packages to do that. You get one of these, learn the basics and then off you go developing. Not much experience is needed. I would put 360 photo and video experiences in this field. If you want to build your own, fully customised, interactive VR experiences with 3D content and possibly some 3D characters with voice-overs, it takes a lot of skill and most of the time a team of people as well. You should be proficient in one of the many 3D modelling tools, you should know how to use 2D photo editing software packages, and last but not least you should have at least intermediate-level programming skills. However, there is also a third way. There are enterprise PAAS solutions, provided by Microsoft for example, which enable power users with more technical knowledge to create very powerful interactive solutions created and hosted in the cloud. These are powerful tools that will be as common as PowerPoint in the future and should not be much harder to learn. So, it depends on the needs of your customer.
We know you're a VR/AR/MR expert in the Centre of Excellence. What is the COE and how does it contribute to the company?
COE is a newly established, growing group of experts whose main focus is to find, evaluate and promote new tech and products inside our company. We are a group of interdisciplinary specialists, everyone responsible for their own field of expertise, but collaborating on evaluating these ideas for future business applications.
In case we get positive feedback from our business development teams, sales and of course our customers, we finish off with a proof of concept project and then scale the results to production applications. If successful, these technologies later become a part of our production projects, which are further developed and supported by our core development groups. We understand that the enterprise environment is changing fast and we would like to serve our customers with the best possible new solutions for their business.
Can you tell us what kind of business related projects you have been working on lately?
Well, that’s an interesting one. The short answer would be “many”. We mainly focus on solutions for enterprise use with particular attention on three applications, but we don’t constrain ourselves to only these. The three main focus areas that we pursue are solutions for marketing and sales, interactive training, and remote assistance. Marketing and sales solutions enable industries to present their products to customers in a completely new way. Interactive training can virtually place workers in remote, even dangerous environments, in order to learn new processes and take care of safety. The application of remote assistance is an advanced version of video calling, which is content aware and this way enables much better two-way communication between, a remote field worker and a senior operator, for example.
Which project has had the most potential and why?
Currently we treat all three as equally important and potent. We put a lot of effort into retail solutions, because our customers are quicker to recognise value in these solutions.
We are designing a solution that enables stores to offer their products via multiple platforms. I’m referring to interactive VR, mobile AR and web browsers. There are some Microsoft products we are able to implement for our customers, but we are also developing some custom add-ons to enable us to fulfill some specific customer needs. Stores with limited shelf space, or car dealerships and travelling salesmen, for example, can access all of their products, in all materials and colour variations through a digital device and can even do it at a real life scale. Even end customers are able to see all these products on their mobile device or possibly some other AR / VR supported head-mounted device. This is definitely a revolution and something very special as a first-time experience.
What kind of impact do you think Augmented Reality technologies will have on work and general life in the future?
All mixed reality technologies will have a massive impact on our lives in the future, both at a personal level and in work-related situations. There is already a lot of augmented reality tech in our lives today and most of it is not even referred to in this way. Rear parking cameras on cars are a nice example. A good future example could be using it as a substitute for a printed product manual. Imagine assembling furniture at home with help from your mobile device, or smart glass. The application would recognise the individual parts and walk you through the steps to put them together. It would do this as a traditional printed manual does, with the same results, but in this case it would be interactive, and should be more fun and should definitely be faster with less mistakes. Now apply this idea to other items you use in your personal life. Washing machines, vehicles, etc. Now apply this to the business environment. It will enable workers to work on multiple variants of products, make the designers more flexible and allow companies to be more competitive.
To cut a long story short, these technologies should make all of us more effective, save us time, and possibly allow us to enjoy some routine tasks more.
And of course, if you are into interactive entertainment, this tech will bring these experiences to a completely new level.
Can you give us a few predictions for the next 5 years?
Devices will become even smaller and more convenient. There are startups promising contact lens devices in the near future. There will not be a clear distinction between AR / VR / MR in the future. There will still be devices for specialised use, but we also expect there to be consumer devices available to the public that will feature ideal combinations of all functionalities. Computer power still grows year by year and the quality of interactive content will be better and better. I would assume that all the major mobile manufacturers will have their own smart glass devices.
There will not be an industry that will not be able to benefit from this technology.
What are some of the new technologies that you are currently using?
We try to test as many of the new products as possible, but it’s not easy. There are new ideas, concepts and later new software packages coming up literally every day. Most of our projects are developed in one off industry standard game engines, either Unity or Unreal engine, depending on the requirements. As a 3D content editor, Autodesk Mays is the preferred choice. But there are other tools that can easily be integrated into our production. There is a long list of other tools in production which are often there for just a small specific part of the pipeline. These refer to customised solutions. Producing content for Microsoft Dynamics 365 mixed reality products, like Product Vizualizer and Guides, is all done via the Hololens device and Azure. This is also the part of mixed reality where we see most of our work in the future. These mixed reality services will be well integrated into existing Dynamics365 products. We will be able to visualize complex data from these systems very quickly and very efficiently.
What kind of equipment goes with the technology?
A powerful desktop machine to produce these applications and a few different headsets to test them on. We test VR solutions on the most common ones, HTC VIVE and Oculus Quest. Remote assistance and real-time IOT data visualisations are done on industry standard Realwear HMT1 and mobile devices. And we are waiting for Hololens 2, which, from what I’ve heard from our team, should be in our hands in next few weeks. I’m crossing my fingers for it!