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7 OCTOBER | LONDON 2024

SEPTEMBER 12TH - 14TH
The O2, LONDON

The CogX blog

Thought leadership on the most pressing issues of our time

Guest contributor: Cinema & AI

Annie Eaton


Annie Eaton, a pioneer in the XR space and CEO of Futurus, delves into the transformative potential of XR technologies in our latest Q&A. Drawing on her extensive experience in immersive content production and technology consulting, Eaton offers practical insights and strategies for harnessing XR to drive innovation and success across various industries.


Immersive Futures: Annie Eaton on the Cutting Edge of XR Technology


“Where we are as an industry today is miles ahead of the first virtual reality headset I tried”


Extended reality (XR) is having a bit of a moment right now. We're witnessing a surge of innovation across consumer, commercial, and industrial markets, pushing the boundaries of technology and fueling groundbreaking applications. To peel back the curtain on what's coming next for the space, we spoke with Annie Eaton, the visionary founder and CEO of Futurus, an XR company that produces training and product visualisation applications.


Annie gave us some fascinating insights into the current state of the XR landscape, its trajectory, and it's inevitable collision with AI.



1. What drew you to XR? 


I was drawn to the field of XR after experiencing it first-hand over a decade ago. This was at a time when not many people had headsets – the most common one to encounter was the Oculus DK1, the most successful Kickstarter at the time. One of my coworkers owned this headset and let me try it out one day. That day my life changed. While it was slightly nauseating, and the graphics weren’t great, I felt immersed in this new world, and it was unlike any form of media I had ever experienced before. That word, experience, is the key in hooking people with XR technology. With extended reality, you really do have to see it to believe it. 



2. Which breakthroughs do you expect to happen in the next year in the space?


Where we are as an industry today is miles ahead of that first virtual reality headset I tried. On some recently released headsets you can’t even see the pixels. Tracking is smooth, devices aren’t as heavy, and tethering to a computer with a clunky cord isn’t required for most head mounted displays. I’m hopeful that over the next year we’ll get more power in a smaller form factor. Seeing competition in the hardware market is encouraging as with each new release the devices get lighter, with better visuals and processing capacity. Most newer headsets also have full colour passthrough allowing the user to see their surroundings through a camera feed from the outside. Devices like the Apple Vision Pro, Meta Quest 3, and PICO 4E have great passthrough. The idea of this passthrough functionality is to allow mixed reality content to blend the physical world and digital content into one seamless experience. Experiences that leverage this functionality are going to rise in popularity over the next year. Apps that previously only supported virtual reality will release updates to blend worlds. 



3. How do you envision the convergence of XR with AI in the future? What about in the creative industries?


The bottleneck of extended reality progress is in the content. XR content is time-consuming and expensive to produce. Every 3D model must be individually crafted (or licensed and modified) and placed; each interaction is set up on a per object basis. While there are AI tools already in the production pipeline that help, such as AI voice overs, video generated motion capture, and generated skyboxes, there haven’t been as many ready to use reliable tools for professionals to leverage in their work. Most AI generated 3D models are not optimised to work with mobile virtual reality. Many of the AI optimization tools don’t output quality that my team can use for client work. 


Once tools like these become more reliable, the industry will be able to output content at the speed necessary for wide scale adoption. XR production is still a specialised field, so if there are tools that can speed up the production process in a way that delivers good quality results, we’ll be off to the races! These tools will also lower the barrier of entry for talent from other adjacent creative industries such as gaming, film, and television to enter the industry.


There will still need to be the human element of oversight due to the impact of XR experiences on the mind. Especially with virtual reality, the user feels like they are in that world or in the story being presented in front of them. If content isn’t reviewed and approved by a person (especially for educational content), I worry that misinformation could be perceived as fact in the most immersive platform possible.



4. The gamer community is largely online, do you think XR will bring them together, or further apart? If the latter, how do we avoid it?


I’m hopeful that XR will bring the gaming community together with more immersive ways of communicating. While you’re still leveraging an avatar, when in a virtual space, in VR, your avatar has all the mannerisms, head and hand movements that you do. With devices like the Apple Vision Pro and PICO 4E, face tracking is possible from within the headset. It’ll be both harder to bully someone if you’re face to face, and also easier to create a genuine connection with the people you’re playing with from all across the world. 


Now with this “closeness” and realism, there also does create the risk of invading others’ personal boundaries. Luckily, most platforms that support multiplayer include a “personal bubble” setting where people who get too spatially close to you in a virtual reality experience disappear. This reduces the uncomfortable feeling of someone invading your personal space (which can still happen in VR just as well as it can in the physical world). I implore anyone looking to get into the field of XR to consider these social aspects of design when building their products. Better social XR will help the industry grow!



5. XR’s impact goes further than just entertainment. What are the easiest or most impactful ways you see companies leveraging XR in their day-to-day operations?


Most of my current work is helping enterprise organisations train their employees leveraging virtual reality. This can range from best safety practices to learning and repeating processes to understanding soft skills. Some of the most successful deployments I’ve been a part of revolve around process training and assessment. These simulations are the easiest to justify because the return on investment (ROI) is typically clear. The company reduces training time, reduces materials wasted during training, increases their output, and even in some cases increases their employee retention. In industries like manufacturing, these numbers can add up to millions of dollars in ROI per site, which helps justify the expansion of the program within their organisation. Now that virtual reality is scalable thanks to mobile virtual reality headsets and XR-specific mobile device management platforms, companies are quickly catching on to the power XR can have for their businesses.



6. We recently saw a surgeon in the UK use Apple's Vision Pro headset during an operation for the first time: a glimpse into the potential of XR in the workplace.


Absolutely! These are the use cases that excite me the most - leveraging XR to do something that humans can’t accomplish without it. Replicating what you can do on your phone, tablet, or laptop doesn’t make sense. Using an extended reality platform to perform a task, learn something, design a new product, or tell a story, makes sense. In this surgery, for example, the doctor leveraged the Apple Vision Pro to capture 3D images of the shoulder, and view other information at the same time, hands-free. He was able to do less damage to the patient (smaller incision) because he had access to this information in front of his eyes. That’s a prime example of using XR for something you can’t do on a singular 2D screen.



7. Looking beyond medicine, how do you envision XR being adopted across other industries and work environments? Which industries will benefit the most?


Currently, the manufacturing industry has the biggest benefit because these companies typically have working environments that present safety risk, and they also have highly process-driven work. Equipping workers with the tools to help them perform their jobs more safely and confidently is a no brainer. In addition to manufacturing, transportation, aviation, and automotive will benefit. These industries present safety risk with some work activities, but also have the opportunity for XR-related maintenance assistance. Maintenance can lean more heavily on augmented reality and remote assistance tools. These tools allow technicians to have a video call with an experienced technician from anywhere in the world. Through either a phone, tablet, or wearable device, the experienced technician can annotate and drop markers spatially (on the equipment) in the original technician’s video feed. This reduces the time to perform maintenance, as well as eliminates the need for travel. This also gets newer technicians up to speed, which is huge for the gap in information with legacy employees retiring and taking decades worth of knowledge with them.



8. Concerning the employees themselves, how might XR-integrated environments benefit workers? Specifically, do you think XR could enhance training or learning experiences for employees?


Yes, XR is a proven way to educate employees and build confidence in their work tasks. Allowing employees to experience virtual environments of their soon-to-be workplace is also a great way to introduce new hires (or even recruits) to the job. We have one simulation that takes employees up in a bucket at a significant height to perform a job task. An employee who is afraid of heights may not realise what that feels like prior to starting work and virtual reality gives them a way to assess their own limits in a safe space. One of our manufacturing clients can’t easily train in the production facility because it’s so loud the trainees wouldn’t be able to hear the trainer. By recreating that environment in virtual reality, the trainees can fully understand what they’re working on and communicate with the trainer to ensure they are prepared for the job. The immersive element of XR for training is one of the most significant employee benefits when leveraging these platforms for learning experiences.



 

Author:


Annie Eaton is an immersive content producer, specialising in engaging and interactive virtual reality and augmented reality experiences. She is the founder and CEO of extended reality-focused company Futurus, which produces training and product visualisation applications and provides technology consulting for various organisations and nonprofits.


In addition to her current role as CEO of Futurus, she also serves as Executive Producer of Amebous Labs, a virtual reality-focused game studio, publishers of Loam. She stays involved in her local Atlanta technology community, managing XR Atlanta, an organisation that supports thousands of extended reality enthusiasts and professionals across the city and beyond. Annie is also involved with Women in XR Atlanta, Women in Technology (WIT), and The Academy of International Extended Reality (AIXR) and serves on multiple industry advisory boards.


 

Did you enjoy this post? Then you’ll love our weekly briefings on Cinema & AI. Check out some previous editions here, or just cut straight to the chase and subscribe to our newsletters exploring AI, net zero, investing, cinema, and deeptech.

 

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