Too often, the promise of extended reality (XR) is overly focussed on just one part of the puzzle. The full stack of hardware, software and solutions is complex, but it's all these elements together, rather than any single part, that will dictate success for the category. This is one of the reasons why the enterprise opportunity for XR resonates so clearly. Companies such as Microsoft, RealWear, Vuzix and a host of others have established clear uses and a tightly focussed set of supporting solutions.
The challenge here is scale. Taking that approach and pushing it into more vertical industries at higher volume, while simultaneously demonstrating value and a path to return on investment isn't easy. CCS Insight has said for some time that the industry needs a more collaborative approach to really get the market moving.
This is why we were excited to see Qualcomm announce a new industry-wide initiative focussed on XR at the Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2019. Known as the XR Enterprise Program, the initiative aims to build on Qualcomm's Snapdragon XR Platform to create new virtual, augmented and mixed reality solutions for a breadth of industries including manufacturing, energy, healthcare, aerospace, education, insurance, retail, transportation, architecture, engineering and construction.
To advance the program, Qualcomm has identified several companies to work with. These partners are already addressing the enterprise space and improving productivity through innovative developments in a wide range of applications. Uses range from assisting on-site workers with tasks such as inspections, maintenance and repair, to office-based scenarios such as remote collaboration, data visualization and training.
The announcement is an exciting move for XR generally, and for the enterprise space in particular. Virtual, augmented and mixed reality have been heralded as potential game-changers in the enterprise arena, with each having notable strengths. Virtual reality is particularly useful for design purposes, such as building and assessing 3D models, and training exercises that place users in a highly detailed virtual environment.
Augmented reality is well-suited to assist with manual tasks, such as maintenance and repair, because it allows a live video feed from a worker on site to be viewed by a remote assistant, and then delivers guidance and help as a digital overlay to the worker's heads-up display. Mixed reality spans an even wider range than augmented or virtual reality, allowing for blended interaction with the physical and virtual worlds.
The XR journey needs continued investment and input from both a software and a hardware perspective. Qualcomm's announcement aims to set the wheels in motion by building a community of partners that can work together to accelerate this journey. The company proposes that through collaboration, the community can benefit from greater technical support, promotional opportunities and co-marketing, among other advantages.
For members of this new program, many of which are start-ups, the backing of a major chipset player like Qualcomm is invaluable. It will ensure that manufacturers get early visibility on forthcoming features and should enable developers to start seeing greater scale advantages by optimizing for the Snapdragon platform rather than specific devices. This will make porting that much easier, benefiting the entire ecosystem. A more formal program should also help "matchmake" partners and help create the solutions needed to address particular segments and applications.
So far, XR headsets in the enterprise space have generally not moved to widespread deployment. Although there have been several large trials (up to thousands of units in some cases), they have yet to move to the next stage. There are many reasons for this, and introducing new technology is never a seamless process. But more consistency, partner cooperation and more easily repeatable development on increasingly capable devices should serve to make these headsets more useful, and in turn, accelerate the speed and scale of their deployment.
Qualcomm leads the market for mobile XR, with limited competition at a chipset level. What it needs is a wider set of solutions and stronger commitment to the enterprise market in order to grow the opportunity.
The future of XR relies on the tight integration of hardware and software, and the XR Enterprise Program is a positive step in building collaboration. Tangible benefits won't be immediately visible, but participants will hope that it fosters co-operation and focusses resources in a way that accelerates the opportunity for all involved. With the use of XR in enterprises starting to generate clear engagement and utility, this initiative could be an important staging post on the journey to mass-market adoption.
Leo Gebbie is a senior analyst at CCS Insight where he focuses on XR, including Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, as well as wearables. Prior to CCS Insight, he worked for BT’s Global Services division in analyst and consultant relations and previously for Huawei in Shenzhen, China.