Virtual Reality Business Intelligence
*This article was published in contribution to the new frontier of Intelligent Reality (IR). Click here to learn more about the 2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR).
Traditionally, the term Business Intelligence (BI) has meant a collection of strategies and technologies used by companies for the analysis and management of business information, exemplified by products such as Power BI from Microsoft. The overall purpose of Business Intelligence is to gain insights into the performance of a business. Typical functions of BI include reporting, analytics, the development of dashboards, and business performance management. In more advanced cases, analytics can include data mining, complex event processing, benchmarking and a variety of predictive and prescriptive analytics. However, as new technologies arrive, such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, the nature of Business Intelligence is changing.
Role of virtual reality in business
Business Intelligence is fundamentally about processing and learning from data. In today’s complex world, that increasingly means working with big data, often augmented by artificial intelligence and machine learning to extract meaning and context. Processing big data has become easier. Learning from that data is still very challenging.
The sheer volume of raw data involved in Business Intelligence is often staggering. Most BI implementations spend a great deal of time developing dashboards that summarize relevant data, because a spreadsheet containing millions of values is of no practical use. But when it comes to data visualization, pie charts and bar graphs can only take you so far. Some companies have suggested the addition of an AI presence to help interpret data, but it can be challenging to train an AI to be useful.
This is where extended reality, virtual reality and augmented reality can play an important role. Extended reality tools are fundamentally tools for data visualization. While they may more commonly be used to visualize a customer experience, or overlay training data on a real world environment, there is no reason in principle that they cannot be applied to more abstract data such as Business Intelligence.
Applying VR technology, or AR technology, to BI data delivers a number of advantages. Data can be displayed in more than two dimensions, and users can interact with complex datasets by simply walking around. A wide range of additional techniques can also be applied to the data that would be difficult or impossible to achieve on a 2D screen. For example, data can be dynamically animated in 3D space in a variety of ways to convey additional meaning. It can also be overlaid on a virtual representation of the business, or a real world scene. This can be particularly powerful in manufacturing plants where operational data can be overlaid on a representation of the plant itself.
It is also a simple fact that humans have evolved a complex set of tools for visual data processing. In reality, humans can identify some patterns far more easily than a computer. By bringing Business Intelligence data into the world of Virtual Reality, companies can gain deeper insights, improve market readiness and more effectively understand a wide range of operational issues. VR in Business Intelligence has the potential to impact and improve a business’s bottom line.
However, the use of virtual reality in Business Intelligence is not without its challenges. Development of virtual reality applications can be a complex process, requiring a specific set of skills that most software engineers working in Business Intelligence are unlikely to possess.
Applications of virtual reality in business intelligence
As discussed in the previous section, virtual reality and augmented reality can be used to enhance the visualization and understanding of data from Business Intelligence, especially big data. And of course, artificial intelligence can be coupled with virtual reality applications to further improve their effectiveness.
But immersive technology such as virtual reality and mixed reality can play a role in many parts of a business well beyond data visualization in support of traditional BI.
One area where virtual reality has been deployed with considerable success is in customer service training. In 2017, retail giant Walmart announced that it was using VR technology to prep workers for “Black Friday” (a once-a-year US tradition that drives enormous sales activity). A variety of vendors, such as PTC, offer tools that use AR technology to enhance training and remote assistance. In 2022, Magic Leap, an AR technology developer, announced a strategic partnership with Globant, an IT consulting company focused on digital transformation in the enterprise. Every month seems to bring the announcement of a new AR application, or VR product targeted at enterprise users.
However, the use of virtual reality in Business Intelligence is still in its infancy.
Recent developments in virtual reality in business intelligence
Several factors are driving the virtual reality market in business. Traditional drivers include the general need for greater efficiency and increased productivity that impacts all businesses. As discussed earlier, businesses are also faced with increasing quantities of big data that requires analysis, data visualization and interpretation. This has been coupled with the arrival of affordable, reliable and performant VR technology capable of delivering a true immersive experience. A modern, self contained VR headset can cost as little as $400 or less. The arrival of affordable VR has led to significant growth in the number of headsets sold, which in turn has driven growth in the number of developers capable of creating software for the virtual reality market.
In contrast, while there is considerable interest in augmented reality and mixed reality, the simple truth is that an AR headset is currently far more expensive than a VR headset, and far fewer AR devices have been sold. For example, a Microsoft Hololens costs $3500, and even the most optimistic reports place sales at half a million units. By comparison, approximately 20 million VR headsets have been sold. As a result, AR technology is far less mature.
According to a 2022 report by Fortune Business Insights, some of the key players in the virtual reality headset market include HTC Corporation, Lenovo Group, Meta (formerly Oculus VR) and Sony Corporation. Of these companies, only Meta is headquartered in North America. Other companies active in the VR market include Autodesk, Dassault Systems, Google, Microsoft Corporation, Samsung Electronics and Unity Technologies. Industry analysts have been predicting the launch of an extended reality or mixed reality device from Apple for several years, but no product has been formally announced. It is interesting to note that many of these companies are also heavily invested in the development of artificial intelligence.
Whether you are developing an application for VR training, or some form of extended reality Business Intelligence application, you will most likely use the same programming languages and tools as other VR developers.
Future of virtual reality for business intelligence
As we’ve seen in this article, VR technology can change business operations in many ways. As a general rule of thumb, making a mistake in a virtual environment is always less harmful and less expensive than making the same mistake in the real world. This makes VR very attractive for a variety of business purposes, especially training and scenario planning. Almost all of these purposes can be informed by business intelligence data.
In addition to what has been discussed so far, virtual reality can be used for:
- Advanced training
- Process monitoring and visualization
- Product design and simulation
- Product marketing
- Remote collaboration
- Retail and online shopping
and, of course, data visualization. And new applications are continually being discovered and developed.
The fields of augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality are all developing rapidly. On the hardware side, the primary focus of VR device manufacturers is improving the display quality of the VR headset. This includes improving resolution and field of view. Other key points of focus are overall system performance, battery life and headset weight. Similarly, AR device manufacturers are focused on improving display performance. Some new companies have entered the AR market and are focused on affordability, such as Snap (the company behind SnapChat) and Nreal. Meanwhile, Microsoft released its second generation Hololens, and Magic Leap has announced its second generation product also. Both AR and VR headsets are also actively exploring the use of eye-tracking as a way to improve the user experience.
One area that is just beginning to be explored is the application of artificial intelligence within a virtual environment. This will be an exciting area to watch over the next few years.
The challenges of big data and data analytics are unlikely to go away. However, as the processing capabilities and display quality of extended reality devices continues to increase, they will be able to support a wider range of Business Intelligence activities and data visualization. These improvements, coupled with increasing technological maturity and improved affordability, are likely to continue the rapid growth of virtual reality (and extended reality) within the business world.
2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR)
Want to learn more about Intelligent Reality? Why not register to attend IEEE's International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR). The IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Reality aims at identifying the challenges and opportunities inherent in deploying intelligent tools and interactive disruptive technologies into immersive environments. It provides a forum for leading researchers, industry professionals, and standards experts to share their research findings and ideas.