Where is XR being used in the Energy Sector?

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In what reality?

As we step into the new year, we suffer the inevitable barrage of lists asking us to guess “What tech will change Industry X in 2019”? Having seen a fair few of these making their way across my various social feeds, I decided to have a look at one that would have been very close to the top of most lists at the beginning of 2018 but has seemingly dropped off the map altogether when it comes to the utility/energy industry begging the question…

Where in the name of all things pixelated is XR?

Now for anyone who’s wondering what I mean by XR, let me explain. In the world of Immersive Reality you have a few different options but XR is a blanket term for any one of them. In the same way as people say CxO, people can talk about XR being used in a certain sector.

These encompass:

Virtual Reality (VR) creates an interactive, completely digital environment which provides a fully enclosed experience by using auditory and visual feedback which is experienced most frequently through the use of a headset (HTC Vive, Oculus Go, Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR)

Augmented Reality (AR) is a digital layer superimposed on the physical world. It integrates the physical, real environment with virtual details to enhance or “augment” the real-world experience. These experiences are commonly deployed from smartphones, tablets and smart glasses.

Mixed Reality (MR) is similar to Augmented Reality however instead of putting virtual objects in the real world, mixed reality strives to make them a part of your surroundings. For example, a virtual TV showing the relevant information on your wall in a kitchen. The most commercially visible device for Mixed Reality is Microsoft’s Hololens.

It seems a lot more complicated than it actually, here’s a video from Synthetic Native that I think breaks it down well.

Where is the XR explosion?

Given the hype that surrounded it last year, I was very surprised to note the total absence of immersive technology from European Utility Week 2018 in Vienna. What was the reason? There was clearly a huge technological slant on the event, people were demoing virtual power plants, voice assistants and mobile apps but anything truly immersive was nowhere to be seen.

Is XR just a fad that went as quickly as it appeared? Or are we yet to see really tangible immersive products being used in the sector?

If we focus on the negative first, it’s tempting to build a case that labels XR as a gimmick. A flashy, nice to have for people who want to play video games at work. It’s value to an organisation is difficult to determine and requires a considerable outlay on both hardware and software. One could argue that as soon as the novelty has worn off, there is nothing left other than an expensive headset and a powerful computer with no purpose.

These are quite nice arguments but, in my view, they’re completely false. Granted you should never be looking to implement any innovation without a clear understanding of how it will fit your business, your users and your existing technical set-up. However, I see that there are companies actively employing XR solutions in their day-to-day and seeing the benefits.

From Paris to Berlin… And Sunderland

In France, EDF has harnessed the power of immersion to increase the rate at which information is retained. Energy Quest is a virtual reality experience which helps their customer service teams build empathy by placing themselves directly in the shoes of EDF customers. Members of the team put the headset on and immediately find themselves in the same everyday situations that the very people they speak to every day would experience.

From this, they are presented with a specific product or service which EDF offer as well as information about how that product/service can make their customer’s circumstance easier. The fact that the team member has virtually experienced the same thing as their customer makes them more likely to remember how it felt as well as the importance of the suggestable product.

Deployed on the HTC Vive, one of the available scenarios includes connecting a thermostat to a boiler and then programming it. This allows them to better understand and explain EDF’s Advantage Gas Tariff.

In Germany, supplier E.ON has built an augmented reality platform that allows their field-sales engineers to show their customers what various large-scale boilers will look like in the available space before they have them fitted. Often it’s hard to visualise what an item will look like in a given space and augmented reality is an ideal platform to address this challenge.

By coupling their experience with a screen recording feature, E.ON have allowed their field-sales teams to create a deliverable that can be shared with their customers so that even after the pitch has finished, there is something left over to show others who might not have been present.

An example from the UK is a prototype that Zero Carbon Futures developed for a training platform to be deployed on Microsoft’s Hololens. This experience would allow people to virtually place a real-sized Nissan Leaf in a lecture hall, exhibition space or garage and then through the use of voice and gesture-based commands, take the user through the process of removing and servicing the battery before placing it back.

The obvious benefit of this platform is that you can conduct training seminars without needing to bring a car along to the venue where the training is taking place.

Good things to come to those who wait

Personally, I think XR has been a victim of its own hype. It rose to prominence and was championed by people from the video games industry and therefore people still think of it as more of a gimmick or a fad.

In my view, the three previous examples are strong cases of the technology being used in a way that meets the goals of the individual businesses. EDF is building empathy and making sure that information is more memorable, E.ON are increasing revenue by allowing their customers to make better-informed decisions and Zero Carbon Futures are increasing their training capabilities by removing the need for a cumbersome asset to be present at each session.

I won’t say that I think XR is an ideal solution for everyone but I do feel it has more potential uses than are currently on display in the market. Whether people are still on their way to adoption remains to be seen but according to a report by Capgemini 50% of utility companies who aren’t yet using XR plan to do so in the next 2-3 years.

Are you amongst them?

What have been some of the best and worst uses of XR you've seen deployed? I'd love to hear from anyone else using XR for an upcoming episode of Talking Utilities

14 Jan