Integrate Extended Reality in the Workplace to Meet Mission Needs

By E.J.  Dougherty III

iStock photo-illustration

Fueled by advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, 5G, and edge computing, virtual and augmented reality — known collectively as extended reality or XR — will catapult to the forefront on the tech priority list in 2022.

Federal leaders recognize the need for bold action when it comes to XR. Recent Accenture research found that 78 percent of federal technology leaders say XR is “very” or “extremely” important for meeting agency mission needs.

For federal agencies, strategic investments today can help set the stage for tomorrow’s successes. How can agencies best bring the promise of XR to life?

First, define the mission. From leadership into to the field, agency stakeholders should be encouraged to identify areas where the technology can support mission success.

Situations that tend to benefit most from XR include: Training that is too expensive or dangerous to regularly recreate in real life; field operations where immersive data visualizations could improve job performance and; scenarios requiring hands-on collaboration across geographic distances.

A recent example in the private sector includes an automaker which saw the opportunity to use augmented reality-enabled smartglasses to deliver hands-free instruction to assembly line workers. The addition dramatically improved time-to-proficiency for new workers, while reducing the time experienced workers spent helping their junior colleagues during production.

Conceptualizing XR adoption on a three-year timeline can ground the discussion, providing a framework for the near future while still allowing for enough flexibility to shift direction as new capabilities emerge.

Next, remember to start small. Look for an area that is most readily fixable, then expand use cases once XR’s value is proven. It also helps to find areas where progress is readily measurable: actionable data on performance builds the business case for further investment in XR.

It's also important to train the workforce.

Agencies should invest in people, building up the teams they will need to support extended reality programs. They will need IT people whose skills can translate to the development and deployment of XR, such as the ability to incorporate internet-of-things data to inform augmented reality experiences. XR may also require developing capacity around systems engineering, applications development, and networking, in addition to skills around cloud-native capabilities.

Agencies should also engage storytellers and graphic artists, as well as user experience designers. They can look to the video game industry for possible new talent, where skills in storytelling and 3D engines such as Unity have long been prevalent.

Establishing a center of excellence is one way to initially formalize XR talent. This group can bring together the business and technology parts of the enterprise, evangelizing about how XR can be applied and helping to upskill staff.

The next step is to invest in infrastructure and hardware.

Agencies will need to invest in the technology infrastructure to support XR use cases. On the network side, they may want to pivot toward 5G connectivity. Its lower latency and higher bandwidth can better support high-definition XR operations.

Additionally, the emerging generation of XR-capable headsets are delivering impressive outcomes. For example, a large federal agency used a mixed-reality headset that projects 3D images into a physical space to support remote personnel conducting real-time building inspections across the globe in the face of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Iterative investments drive success. Hardware options — such as headsets and smartglasses — are rapidly evolving. But they should not be considered a permanent investment given how quickly technology is advancing.

Rather, the hardware currently available offer users the chance to get familiar with the XR experience, while also giving info-tech the opportunity to build fluency in the management of these devices. Now is the time to build the foundational elements, best practices, and program policies so that as new and better hardware emerges, IT will be able to seamlessly upgrade.

Next, make sure to integrate human-centered design.

Human-centered design is essential to ensuring XR experiences are engaging, effective, and successful. Through human-centered design, agencies can better understand end-users’ needs. With these needs in mind, we recommend putting in place a program to train workers on how to interact with and interpret XR technology and data to better ensure a successful deployment.

For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs is using XR to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome, leveraging virtual reality to help patients recall a traumatic memory while talking through the nuances of that experience with a therapist. The agency empowers clinicians to succeed; they’re trained on the technology’s use and provided with templates for standardized documentation in the patient’s health record, along with a guide to help answer questions related to the implementation.

As deployments scale, agencies must ensure they are equipping users with the appropriate knowledge and skills to make the most of their investment. Co-creating the XR experience with users across all levels of the agency is critical not only for a successful outcome, but also to increase confidence in the usability and value of the technology overall.

Agencies should be constantly monitoring and iterating on XR deployments to ensure they are meeting mission needs and optimizing use of available tools, especially since the technology is rapidly evolving.
Continuous feedback is valuable. With sensor-enabled devices, it may be possible to collect real-time user feedback, which in turn can be leveraged to continually fine-tune the user experience.

Program leaders should engage with users after each XR experience to gather impressions. For example, could users see the images? Did the flow of the experience make sense? Did the experience help them complete a task more effectively? This feedback loop should inform future iterations.

For example, Accenture supported the creation of virtual reality training to help social service case workers prepare to work in the field. Storytelling and interactive voice-based branching scenarios help front-liners identify their own biases and sharpen their decision-making abilities. Here, feedback from the participants helped reveal new use cases beyond the original intent – such as vetting candidates and educating non-case workers.

XR is creating exciting new opportunities across the public sector. To not get left behind, federal agencies should act now and begin leveraging this powerful enabling technology.

Seize the opportunity to enhance training, customer service, remote collaboration, and more by exploring all virtual experiences have to offer in optimizing user interactions and overall operations.

E.J. Dougherty III is the U.S. federal and defense XR lead at Accenture Federal Services.

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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