Supply Chain Digital Transformation – Virtual & Augmented Reality

Although Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies are more commonly associated with the gaming industry, we have begun to see a wider adoption of them in commercial situations for their ability to supplement the visual experience of users.

Although similar, the two technologies differ somewhat in their applications. VR involves providing a completely simulated environment that the user can engage with using a linked controller or a range of gestures.  AR however involves overlaying images, objects or text on to the user’s view of their own surroundings.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality technology is currently used most heavily at the customer end of the supply chain.  This may be due to how the user interacts with the technology, most often making use of a wearable headset with a self-contained screen that delivers an immersive experience.

More recently, the advances in the power of smartphones have also been leveraged in an effort to make the technology more accessible to consumers.  Users can simply ‘plug’ their smartphone into a compatible headset for the full VR experience at a considerably cheaper price than before.

Of course, this approach does severely limit the user’s ability to interact with their surrounding physical environment.  This may play a part in restricting the use of VR technology to certain situations, such as providing immersive shopping experiences to consumers wanting to browse from the comfort of their own home. 

By recreating an entire store in a virtual world, customers can navigate up and down the aisles, browsing the selection of products on display and even interacting with them on the shelves.  Replicating the live shopping experience in this way not only provides something special for the customer, but the data gathered from monitoring their behaviour can provide useful insights that can be applied across both the virtual and physical realms.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality technology has an arguably wider-ranging set of applications within commercial activity than virtual reality, quite possibly due to the way that we operate and interact with the technology.

Similar to VR, users most frequently interact with AR through wearable “smart-glasses”.  These smart-glasses however contain transparent lenses on which a digital display can be overlaid to supplement the user’s field-of-vision.  This means the user can interact with the world around them and the AR device simultaneously.  Most smart-glasses incorporate additional scanning or imaging hardware to further enhance the device’s ability to engage with the surrounding environment and deliver valuable information to the user.

Smart-glasses have seen particular efficacy in warehousing and distribution.  Equipping the workforce with these devices can drastically increase efficiency and productivity, while also reducing training cycles for new employees.

For example, picking lists can be displayed with stock locations identified and the fastest route through the warehouse shown.  Scanning, sensing and imagery can be utilised to ensure the correct item is picked and marked off, eliminating the chance of human error.  Delivery personnel can also make use of the technology in the same way, enabling packages to be identified and unloaded much faster.

Another application of AR is to provide a Heads-Up Display, or HUD, particularly as a driver’s aid. The vehicle’s windscreen provides the surface on which the digital display is overlaid, enabling the driver to see a wealth of information at all times without taking their eyes off the road.

This can be utilised as a more advanced navigation system, by integrating analytics to provide adaptive route guidance in real-time.  It can also be used to continuously monitor the load, for instance checking for any movement of goods or managing temperature control for sensitive produce.