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BusinessDay: Pinocchio is a real boy: extended reality will transform our world

By Johan Steyn, 31 August 2021

Technology is poised fundamentally to change the way companies use smart media platforms.

I was glued to the television screen. We rented a VHS movie (remember those?) long before we could rent a DVD (remember those?) It was 1989 — gosh, in the previous millennium — and we were watching the second instalment of the movie Back to the Future. “Just imagine,” I thought, “one day we would have tablet computers, 3D movies, voice recognition and video conferencing.”

Ok, I did not know what to call it back then, I bet no one did. But the movie was surprisingly accurate in its future tech predictions. We are, however, still waiting for flying cars and time machines.

In one of the scenes, Marty McFly sits at a dinner table, wearing smart glasses. Wearable technology was mostly still beyond imagination and even more so was virtual reality. The latest in the smart technology era is called extended reality. It is a catch-all phrase for all virtual and actual settings created by computer technology. This covers virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality components.

Extended reality (XR) is poised to fundamentally transform the way companies use smart media platforms, with the ability to allow seamless interaction between the real and virtual worlds, providing users with a fully immersive experience. The application of this technology is immense, from healthcare to education, but especially in the business world.

Employees can be trained and educated in low-risk, virtual environments. When dealing with real-life circumstances, the experience they gain will be priceless. As a replacement for traditional training manuals, it will allow personnel to focus on the work at hand without having to flick through pages in a handbook. It can even remotely link an expert to a real-time situation to provide professional guidance.

Immersive experience

New hires can be made with the help of extended reality platforms, training them to operate in complex corporate environments. Simulating real-life situations will transform diversity and inclusion training. Difficult conversations with subordinates can be replicated in a controlled environment, providing valuable skills to corporate leaders.

XR is a combination of a number of reality-led innovations. Through a simulated digital experience, virtual reality transports its users to a new location. It employs a head-mounted display to provide an immersive experience by mimicking as many different sensations as possible.

Augmented reality takes the existing reality and overlays it with various types of information, enhancing the digital experience. It could be categorised as marker-based, marker-less, and location-based.

Mixed reality, the latest breakthrough in these types of technology, is experienced through mixed reality glasses or headsets that allow you to interact with physical and digital things in real-time.

Because XR is a fairly new invention, it will have significant development and implementation expenses in the beginning. There might also be health concerns and unanticipated side effects such as nausea, headaches and eye strain.

Regulators and policymakers are left playing catch-up, as is the case with any technology that evolves faster than legal frameworks can keep up. This is no exception in the case of XR platforms. There are thus no clear rules governing what is permissible and what is prohibited in virtual environments.

Novelist Carlo Collodi gave us the ageless story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who wanted to become a real boy. Technology is fast allowing all our creations to come to life. The question is whether smart technology will reveal its growing nose so we can determine if it is leading us to deception.

Johan Steyn is a smart automation & artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.


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