Technology, Technical Communication, AR/VR

By Nicco Ryan

For early adopters, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies belong to the province of gaming platforms, museum tours, and real estate showings.

However, with a third of manufacturers using or planning to adopt AR/VR technology by this year, and with Goldman Sachs forecasting a $95 billion VR industry by 2025, companies and businesses are scaling up their efforts to meet the challenges of integrating AR/VR into their organizational models.

This growth speaks to the expanding influence of immersive technologies on the economy of the workplace. Though developers and users in the entertainment and retail spheres are more accustomed to AR/VR, communication leaders should focus on understanding how emergent technologies will impact their organizations and their workforce, particularly the field of technical communication. As technology continues to change, so will the means by which this technology is used and communicated.

As some organizations have found ways to integrate AR/VR technology into their business models, communication companies, Google and Facebook, integrated these technologies into their social platforms with Google VR and Facebook Spaces to help model and encourage this growth.

For professional communicators, this planned growth means the technical communicator’s position will become even more important in at least three ways.

  1. Workflow integration: As industries gentrify their platforms to include AR/VR technologies, companies will rely on specialists and technical communicators to plan, map, prototype, integrate, and usability test these efforts to measure how this technology can effectively and stably impact an organization’s workflow. This includes bringing together a distributed workforce in virtual work spaces.
  2. User-Experience: Once organizations offer AR/VR processes to their partners, clients, and customers, agile communicators will test the user experience of these platforms with their external partners and customers as a basis for understanding customer experience in relation to virtual boundaries.
  3. Organizational Responsibility: Keeping in mind the previous two efforts at content creation, communicators should: (1) internally, use this emergent technology to help work-peers better understand codes of conduct, cultural ethics, and their organization’s mission and values in more immersive, perhaps more interesting ways; (2) and, externally, to visualize a future that broadens user choices and enhances the ethics of an organization’s social responsibilities.

As this integration process evolves, organizations will have to factor at least two ways to make this technological adoption work. According to Professor David Ryan at the University of San Francisco, “communication designers may have to remediate an organization’s existing products and processes as well as mediate the creation of new ones. This undertaking can be quite extensive.”

Continues Ryan: “The economics of this growth will dictate the extent to which organizations will train their professional staff to integrate this technology, and as part of this process, technical communicators and designers who understand how to use AR/VR will figure out documenting and notating their work as integration begins and scales up.”

Ryan indicates that there will be a growth in this field for talent. “Proactive organizations that are accustomed to change will be ready. They will support their employees by sending them to training events, certifying them, and by partnering with specialty firms that work in AR/VR workflow integration. As headsets become more like smart glasses, the usability of AR/VR will grow even more.”

According to Ryan, in order to pilot and prototype-build these artifacts and processes, “organizations will have to prioritize this kind of initiative based not only on their needs but on their mission, values, and responsibilities.”

However, organizations that do not factor change or emphasize technological initiatives will struggle with talent acquisition. “For the moment, professionals are spending their own resources to expand their own knowledge,” says Ryan, citing a recent AR/VR innovation report. As existing organizations factor in next generation technologies into their workflow, they’ll be looking (and maybe overpaying) for skilled communicators who have this kind of experience and background to figure out the integration process.”

For the professional communicator, the integration process requires a few fundamental steps. Envisioning and mapping are important to research and development. Thereafter, building low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes regarding how services or products will be augmented and virtualized are necessary steps. The speed and scope by which this change happens also depends on the extent to which staff understand the integration of software and hardware within their choice of platforms.

In terms of AR/VR applications, Amazon Sumerian and Apple’s ARKit offer developer services, and Microsoft Hololens focuses on developing holographs; however, VR headsets are more commonplace, and the most popular are Oculus Rift, Sony Playstation VR, HTC Vive, and Google DayDream’s affordable Cardboard.

Recognizing this economic growth, Microsoft, for example, has moved beyond marketing its Hololens technology to Minecraft and other gaming platforms by focusing on developing industry partnerships and commercial customers. For instance, in 2015, Microsoft’s campaign featured users in custom-built gaming environments. However, Microsoft now emphasizes partnerships with Ford to design cars with architectural and engineering firms to design buildings, with schools and other educational institutions, and other industry and commercial applications. This effort reveals a market shift for the company and a surge toward proliferating this technology.

This growth toward partnerships also means more opportunities for developing the soft skills of communicators for social events. For instance, VR users can use Microsoft’s altspacevr to explore immersive spaces, including karaoke parties, talent competitions, concerts, and virtual church while also exploring Google VR and Facebook Spaces.

As organizations figure out their business models, offering more options means that technical communicators will have more access to this new technology. Additionally, there will be new ways to integrate this technology into ecosystems not only to enhance the experience of users but also to venture into creative spheres to improve how organizations carry out their missions.

“In this growing economy, there is a great opportunity for technical communicators, designers, and leaders to emphasize value-sensitive design (VSD) in their efforts,” says Ryan. “When this integration process is planned, prototyped, and developed, the purpose would be to improve the user environments that bring people together in more productive, creative ways but also to make this technology sync with the organization’s highest ethical values.”

Nicco Ryan is a Communications Studies student at the University of San Francisco.

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