A business person uses virtual reality to access the metaverse.
Image: DIgilife/Adobe Stock

Extended reality technologies have been touted for the ability to augment employees’ capabilities, but the promise has yielded more hype than actual results, according to a new report from Forrester.

The research firm surveyed 20 end-user and vendor companies to understand how XR and metaverse technologies could be usefully applied to building the future of work. The findings suggested that XR has not caught on for myriad reasons, including the cost, practically and perceived benefits of the technology.

“In theory, head-mounted displays offer employees the ability to work hands-free (AR/MR) or to gain access to deeply immersive experiences (VR),” the report said. “However, employee use of these devices remains anemic a decade after they appeared on the scene.”

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Costs, tech deficiencies, human behavior stall XR usage

When asked which devices they would prefer to use for work, 56% of survey respondents cited a laptop computer, while 45% said a desktop computer and 41% said a smartphone. Only four percent cited a VR head-mounted device, and just two percent said an AR or mixed-reality device.

  • Extended reality is technology that overlays computer imagery over a person’s field of vision to create a new perception or understanding of physical reality, according to Forrester.
  • Augmented reality refers to computer-generated simulations that integrate the real world and are overlaid onto a device and let you move around.
  • Virtual reality requires a headset or specialized room to create a computer-generated environment with scenes and objects that appear to be real; this allows the user to feel immersed in their surroundings, while remaining in the same location.
  • Mixed reality is a 3D form of AR. With a dedicated headset, users can interact between a combination of real-world and digital elements.

Issues with XR cited by interviewees included hardware deficiencies and high upfront costs, though said costs have dropped sharply. In 2016, XR projects typically ran in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees for paid pilots; today, similar projects might have freemium trials or might even be free of charge, according to the report.

But other upfront costs — like 3D asset acquisition, scanning or importing visual spatial data, tailoring content to workflows and workforce training — also cause friction, according to Forrester’s report.

“Employees must have the right skills, inclinations, beliefs and support to successfully adopt emerging technologies in the workplace,” it said.

“Employees aren’t familiar with these tools and often don’t know why they would use them, including whether the intended benefit is for them or the organization.”

Examples of waning interest in XR

Forrester suggested that low uptake of XR was partly due to the fact companies hadn’t made significant investments in the technology, while others had announced grand plans for XR that hadn’t materialized.

Several interviewees cited inertia, lack of familiarity and distrust among executives as an inhibitor to XR uptake, with one bank leader telling Forrester, “There’s a perception that VR and the metaverse are tied into shady Web3 and cryptocurrency stuff, plus a lot of them don’t want to put on a headset at all.”

One example of lackluster interest cited by Forrester was enterprise smartglasses vendor RealWear, which “has long been touted as an augmented reality leader.” One interviewee called RealWear “by far the leader for employees using wearables, and there’s not even a remotely close second.”

SEE: Forrester: 6 steps tech leaders should take even during the economic downturn (TechRepublic)

Despite this, Forrester noted that RealWear recently announced that an underwhelming 70,000 units had been deployed. Further, a respondent from a services company told the research firm, “I’ve seen closets full of unused RealWear devices that employees didn’t want to use.”

As another example, an IT leader at a North American retail bank described quick initial VR headset adoption in 2020 and early 2021 as “an exciting way to connect the IT teams when offices were closed due to the pandemic.”

But momentum for that tech at the bank dropped once pandemic restrictions eased. “We realized that VR isn’t a full replacement for travel, so people started traveling again,” the IT leader said, according to the report. The bank hasn’t given up its XR efforts but is focusing more energy on using it for training and onboarding, rather than on collaboration.

Over-promised, under-delivered

Overall, “the inflated promises of XR haven’t matched up to the practical realities,” the report concluded, adding that “you can’t just hand employees a device and expect success; you must invest upfront to design a workflow.”

Forrester predicts that 2023 will be a “metaverse winter” that cools overheated expectations, and it will be a decade-long effort before the promise of the metaverse is realized. The metaverse “doesn’t exist today,” the report noted, even though it was a hot topic in 2021 and 2022.

At a more practical level, XR deployments often require companies to reengineer the entire workflow, necessitating journey mapping, lots of piloting and investments in training, which leaders sometimes consider risky, said Forrester.

Other reasons for the lack of interest in XR include:

  • Major vendors such as Meta and Microsoft have backtracked or reoriented their strategies.
  • Pragmatic alternatives haven’t made significant inroads.
  • Interest catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic stalled.

Tips for making XR, metaverse investments successful

Despite the discouraging comments and lack of enthusiasm, the survey found that business leaders are planning to invest in XR and the metaverse, along with other emerging technologies, as part of their digital transformation efforts. Thirty-one percent of interviewees said they planned to invest in AR or VR; however, they cited other technologies as being of greater interest: Internet of Things (47%), AI/ML (45%) and 5G (40%).

Create a solid business case for XR

For those who want to make XR and the metaverse a successful part of their future of work strategy, there are several considerations. It starts with a solid business case that is “pragmatic, specific, and humanized” to solve a concrete problem, the report said.

“I’d say don’t lead with XR specifically; it’s not a great idea to say, ‘We want to use technology X, but we don’t know how to use it,'” said J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “Instead, focus on employee problems. If XR will solve those problems, you can slot it in.”

Focus on mature use cases

Today, the main mature use cases will either be VR-based training, onboarding and learning, or AR-based remote assistance for field workers, Gownder said.

Train employees

If you decide that XR offerings may be useful, it is critical that IT familiarize employees with their usage. One company official told Gownder they spend 20 minutes teaching employees about a VR device they use for training, allowing them to master use of the device before they even start their training.

“An ongoing training and change management program can help employees of different ages and digital maturity understand the value of their device, why they will benefit from using it, and how to master its features,” he said.

This might not always be a one-and-done, Gownder added. It might require some employees to master basic skills before they ever touch an XR device.

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