By Gloria Lombardi

Touch displays, 360 degree media, virtual reality, and virtual tours. We are in the midst of a communication revolution that encourages companies to develop new immersive storytelling experiences to engage staff, stakeholders, and customers.

PT1Paolo Tosolini (pictured right), founder of Tosolini Productions, a Seattle-based digital agency, suggests that an internal communications department that uses immersive technology can be “an incredible value-add to the organisation”.

Tosolini will present the benefits and uses of immersive technology inside the workplace at the IntraTeam Event Copenhagen 2017. I wanted to speak with him to learn more about what attendees can expect from his workshop, as well as the potential of virtual reality, augmented reality, and ‘mixed reality’ at work. I wanted to think about the skills communicators need when using the latest immersive technologies.

Gloria Lombardi: What will the participants of the IntraTeam Event Copenhagen 2017 be able to learn from you?

PT2Paolo Tosolini: I will present some interesting case studies of using immersive technologies in the business environment. I’ll bring a variety of devices to the conference that will allow attendees to experience virtual worlds on their own phone, as well as showing them more sophisticated tools such as the Microsoft Hololens.

Before my presentation on the 2nd of March, I will run a workshop on the 28th of February to enable participants to go through the process of creating their first virtual experience right from their phone. This is pretty amazing, if you think that with a phone we can now author, publish, and view immersive content.

I also mean to address the ambiguity around definitions and terminology, because sometimes it can be confusing to refer to all the different types of realities out there – for example, there’s virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality.

GL: Can you tell me more about the different levels of complexity of immersive technology?

PT3PT: We start from the very basic use of 360 degrees photography or video, which are becoming more common since Facebook and YouTube have started supporting those formats. For example, you take a panoramic photo of a landscape, upload it on Facebook, and then people can look all around the panorama on mobile or desktop by scrolling up and down, left and right – in some respect you are immersed in that scenario, but again this is very basic.

Totally immersive virtual worlds can be generated, but require formidable 3D modelling skills. Such virtual worlds also require specific hardware to experience them, as mobile phones and small screens don’t provide enough processing power or the true feeling of being immersed in the environment.

GL: As you have just mentioned, we hear that there is virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality. Could you clarify the difference?

HoloLens interactionsPT: VR is when you replace your actual reality, with a new reality generated by a computer. You do that by wearing some sort of headset. You are immersed in a completely different environment that is wholly simulated.

AR is when you enhance the view of your current reality with additional layers of information – literally overlaying the real world with digital objects and information. You don’t lose your sense of place – the augmentation enhances what you see through the headset or via your phone’s screen and camera. Pokémon Go is an AR game.

Mixed Reality (MR) is an extension of augmented reality, where users see virtual objects co-existing and interacting with real ones. Imagine seeing holograms that behave with contextual sensitivity to the environment and your actions. Those holograms tell you a story or just enhance the experience of a particular environment. This is where Microsoft Hololens is playing a role. Microsoft has decided to jump right away into the world of mixed reality because it is more useful in a business to business scenario.

GL: Which industries are currently benefiting from the use of immersive technologies?

PT6PT: The real estate industry is benefiting a lot from VR – they can capture buildings and locations and present them to prospective buyers and clients, who can experience virtual tours remotely, and it is a very efficient process.

In healthcare, there are several case studies where virtual simulated worlds have helped to reduce anxiety or fear in people. Or they helped to treat patients with post traumatic stress disorders – in those instances the simulated worlds create a sense of relief in the patients’ minds. You can also use 360 degree videos to record a surgery for training purposes.

Manufacturing is already using VR. For example, to simulate the dashboard of a new car during the design stage. It’s very expensive to build real prototypes whereas it’s much more cost effective to simulate designs virtually – you see what the new machinery will look like, spot imperfections and correct them straightaway.

GL: You mentioned that you will bring some case studies to the IntraTeam Event Copenhagen 2017. Could you share an example of an organisation that is championing the use of immersive technology with their workforce?

M0PT: Microsoft is using virtual tours alongside touch displays. In the recruitment building in Seattle, there’s a lobby where new recruits learn about the company and the city. They provide an experience where staff can browse information on the touchscreen and, for example, send a text messages to themselves with the locations of the Microsoft campus that are not so easy to reach – they can look at these locations in 360 degree mode on their phones, giving them a more immersive sense of the campus.

Another example is during internal events. Microsoft provides the experience of a fictional virtual city, which represents the different industries the company operates in. As employees look around (using headsets), they can enter virtual rooms where particular services and products are explained through virtual digital media. All this replaces what a non-engaging PowerPoint file might do; they found that people were willing to experiment with the medium and that they were more curious to know about the content itself – so the combination of the new medium and attractive content was very powerful.

GL: Should more organisations think about using immersive technology in their internal communications?

PT: VR and AR can help enhance some workplace experiences, they don’t replace the existing tools. But, sometimes it is much more powerful to represent information in a more experiential manner than through simple, flat photography or plain text. They say ‘a picture is worth 1,000 words’, I say an immersive experience might be worth 100 pictures!

So, immersive technology will add to the current suite of workplace tools. And the fact that most people have a mobile phone capable of playing some of those experiences opens up new ways of communicating rather than just sticking with what we know from the past.

GL: What advice would you give to internal communicators who would like to start exploring storytelling through immersive technologies?

Is this the future of meetingsPT: Choose a low risk project to begin with, perhaps some sort of digital reporting of an internal event where visual impact is required. Internal communicators can be issued 360 degree cameras. Once published, the spherical photos can be explored by staff on their mobiles.

For more ROI, VR could be used to train staff in a particular process or in the use of a machine. It’s much more effective to train people in the right environment, and virtual reality can provide the situation and contextual cues. For example, there could be a virtual environment that shows items, and as you click or touch them, you’re offered an explanatory video about that item, or the item could be animated to show how it operates. This offers a richer learning experience than the 40 page manual!

GL: Which skills are required to create storytelling through immersive technology?

PT: The skills required are not too different from those needed to create media today. So, if you have a communications department they can quickly learn how to create the very basics of VR, which is 360 degree media. But, if you want to go to the next step by creating virtual worlds, that is a little more complicated and you need to hire developers and 3D modellers.

GL: In your view, how will immersive technology develop in five years time?

PT: AR will be even more popular. It will probably become more common than VR because it’s more business friendly.   When you can augment your existing reality with data that will help your business – this is where AR will make a difference to your bottom line.

VRFor AR today we have to wear big glasses that have computers in them and are heavy. In five years, those headsets will become much lighter, and smaller. Probably, it will be more common for people to wear slimline smart glasses and just make them part of their everyday work. I’m not saying this will be a common scenario for everybody, but I can see this happening more often.

There is also an aspect of socializing and collaborating while being in VR/AR that is in its infancy today. I expect things to evolve in this direction too.

GL: What’s needed for VR to become embedded?

PT: People need to experience VR and AR for themselves. I can talk for hours about those technologies, but unless you really try them, it’s hard to understand the extent to which they can add value to your work. You really have to wear those glasses, and experience some of the worlds that other people have already created. So, my call to action at the IntraTeam Event Copenhagen will be to experience those devices because only then you can understand the potential of virtual worlds.