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At a time when many companies are still figuring out how to transition their pandemic-era, work-from-home teams into permanently remote or hybrid work force models, others are increasingly expanding the boundaries of their workplaces with technology-enhanced realities.Accenture Canada

During a recent visit to her hairdresser in Toronto, Iliana Oris Valiente had a chance meeting with a colleague located in Germany, at her company’s U.S. headquarters in San Francisco.

Confused yet? Here’s the backstory: In the hairdresser’s chair, Ms. Valiente, managing director and innovation lead at Accenture Canada, slipped on a virtual-reality (VR) headset she had in her purse. She then logged into Accenture’s metaverse and teleported her avatar to the digital replica of the company’s San Francisco offices. While ‘there,’ she bumped into the German employee, who also happened to be touring that part of the metaverse.

“My hairdresser asked me ‘were you actually networking just now?’” Ms. Valiente recalls. “That’s the thing about our metaverse: You can run into anyone from anywhere.”

At a time when many companies are still figuring out how to transition their pandemic-era, work-from-home teams into permanently remote or hybrid work force models, others are increasingly expanding the boundaries of their workplaces with technology-enhanced realities.

These digital pioneers are equipping their employees with smart glasses designed to transport users into a digital universe. Whether they’re in a VR, augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) or extended reality (XR) platform, they could, respectively, be fully immersed in a programmed world, have synthetic images and data layered onto a real-time environment, or experience a merger of real and digital objects and people.

“There’s a huge growth in interest in these technologies, and there’s a huge growth in the industry,” says Daria Fedko, CEO and co-founder of WE/AR Studio, a company in Kyiv, Ukraine that develops apps for the various iterations of programmed realities. “I remember the first virtual reality conference we attended in 2017, the conference organizer said in his speech that we had 1,000 companies in our space. Today we have more than 10,000 companies.”

Analysts predict even further growth. French research firm ReportLinker sees the extended-reality market, which was valued at US$25.84-billion in 2020, soaring to a value of close to US$400-billion by 2026. By that same year, one out of every four people are expected to spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse, according to research firm Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

San Francisco research and media company ARtillery Intelligence forecasted in 2019 that virtual-reality use in businesses, specifically, would grow to US$4.26-billion this year, from US$829-million in 2018.

Ms. Fedko says today’s corporate XR users are applying the technology in many ways. They could include visualizing industrial design in digitized 3D, or collaborating with remote team members as avatars gathered in a virtual space. They might also be conducting predictive maintenance – where analyses of historical and current, real-time data trigger service alerts – using “digital twins” or digital replicas of places or objects such as factories, airplanes and ships.

One WE/AR client, the Shipping and Transport College Group maritime academy in Rotterdam, uses XR for two groups: engineers who can do predictive maintenance based on data from digital twins of actual ships, and students who learn about various sea vessels from their land-based classrooms.

“And when they’re on the vessel physically, the (smart) glasses will allow them to see and recognize things like the different parts of the engine room, as well as give them additional information about whatever parts they’re looking at through augmented reality,” Ms. Fedko says.

Companies are increasingly using VR or AR to provide remote help in troubleshooting situations, she adds.

Noah Pinsky, president of chocolate manufacturer Galerie au Chocolat outside of Montreal, saw this first hand when he got a courtesy visit last year from a representative of a European raw ingredient and equipment supplier, Puratos Group NV, based in Dilbeek, Belgium.

“We were having an issue with our panning machine,” recalls Mr. Pinsky, whose company makes high-end chocolates and confections. “So (the representative) took out these goggles from his briefcase and reached out to a technical adviser in Belgium, who walked him through the settings of the machine. Within an hour the machine was performing as it was supposed to.

“I was completely amazed.”

During that hour-long remote assistance session, the Puratos representative was using an AR that overlaid digital tools – such as schematics and reference manuals – on top of the equipment he was troubleshooting. To enter data and communicate with the technical adviser in Belgium, he typed on a keyboard that didn’t exist in the real world.

“And if he wanted to change the menu on the screen, he just tapped on his wrist – right on his skin,” explains Julie Istead, the Milton, Ont.-based director of research and development for Puratos. “At the same time the technical adviser in Belgium could see through the eyes of the person wearing the glasses, so he could guide him through what needed to be done.”

At Accenture, VR and metaverse technology are used primarily to onboard and train new employees – including 150,000 new hires last year – and to host meetings and events. The company’s virtual corporate campus, whose metaverse address is One Accenture Park, is a vast digital space that includes a towering water fountain, a cliffside lookout point to a starry sky, a “leadership” mountain and a beach where visitors can sit on lounge chairs and listen to ocean waves.

While it all sounds very futuristic, the metaverse of tomorrow will be even more fantastical, says Ms. Valiente. One cutting-edge feature that’s already at Accenture is technology from Forma Vision in Seattle, which can beam holographic images into a metaverse.

Instead of avatars interacting with other avatars, Forma Vision’s tech will depict metaverse users as three-dimensional, albeit somewhat ghostly digital renderings of their actual selves.

“It will be a consistent spatial presence – full body in realistic details,” says Adam Kirk, founder and CEO of Forma Vision. “Other people in the room will know who or what you’re looking at, they’ll be able to pick up on your body language and on other nuances. Imagine being a CEO at a virtual town hall meeting with the ability to communicate and express yourself without being hamstrung by the limitations of Zoom – that’s very powerful.”

In a 2022 report called Meet Me in the Metaverse, Accenture predicted a “metaverse continuum” where people live and work seamlessly between virtual and actual worlds, and where major companies will shift part of their operation to the metaverse. Ms. Valiente says the report puts a “bold stake in the ground.”

“It’s us saying ‘this is the future, and we can’t wait to see everyone there.’”