More and more companies are developing technologies in the field of virtual reality. Switzerland, however, still remains timid in this regard. Nathaly Tschanz, program director at the Immersive Realities Center of Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU), explains the opportunities that this parallel universe represents for SMEs.
Somewhat overshadowed by artificial intelligence since the launch of the ChatGPT conversational robot, virtual reality (or immersive technology), which forms the basis of metaverses, continues to attract interest in the technology sector. In Zurich, for example, American giants such as Google, Meta, and Magic Leap employ hundreds of people in research and development (R&D). Launched on March 6, 2023, the Swiss Metaverse Association (known as Metassociation) aims to promote the emergence of metaverses in Switzerland. According to a recent study by Deloitte, the percentage of companies active in this field in Switzerland is only half of the global average. To support SMEs in discovering the potential of immersive technologies and enable them to establish a suitable strategy in this regard, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU) established a research hub, the Immersive Realities Center, in 2018. Its program director, Nathaly Tschanz, details the challenges and opportunities of virtual reality for Swiss businesses.
How are Swiss SMEs involved in the creation of these virtual worlds?
Nathaly Tschanz: Many small and medium-sized enterprises, including start-ups, have emerged in Switzerland in recent years. These companies make significant contributions to the technology sector, particularly in the production of content as well as the creation of software applications or hardware. In terms of quality and innovation, Switzerland is well positioned to compete internationally. Immersive technologies require a range of skills, and SMEs in the country have proven to be perfectly capable of keeping up with new innovations.
How can SMEs integrate these technologies into their daily operations?
Tschanz: The fields of application are diverse and varied. Some activities can first be the subject of training in a secure virtual environment. For example, our research laboratory has recently developed a virtual reality training application for an NGO whose objective is to ensure the supply of vaccines in developing countries. Vaccines must be tested for fever-causing ingredients. These tests are often carried out on animals and could be replaced by new techniques. The virtual reality application allows employees to familiarize themselves with the new testing technique before it is integrated into daily activities. Such training allows for endless repetition of movements without generating waste or requiring sometimes very expensive equipment. Virtual reality can also be used to improve online meetings and avoid costly and energy-consuming travel. In the field of visualization, augmented and virtual reality can contribute to a better understanding of a project. When an architect presents a construction project to a client, for example, virtual reality allows for a virtual exploration of the building before the start of construction, which helps with decision-making.
Can all sectors benefit from the services offered by the Immersive Realities Center?
Tschanz: Yes, businesses from various sectors, including the medical field, NGOs, and public administration, come to our center to get familiar with hardware and software. We also support ideation workshops and offer on-the-job training on topics such as augmented and virtual reality, the metaverse, and digital twins.
Would you say that immersive technologies are gaining ground in Switzerland?
Tschanz: It depends on the companies. Like the emergence of the Internet and smartphones, every technological breakthrough generates a certain level of enthusiasm, but also some reservations and concerns. It is important to support companies so that they do not fall too far behind, to assist them in this transition, and to help them gain their initial experiences. This step is crucial so that Swiss SMEs do not miss the boat on immersive technologies. Acquiring the necessary expertise cannot happen overnight and involves a real learning process. Companies must be able to prepare for this new type of user experience and familiarize themselves with the new possibilities as well as with the challenges that come with it.
Some companies are starting to create digital twins. How do you assess the potential of this tool?
Tschanz: Digital twins can be useful in production as procedures can be tested to optimize processes before actual manufacturing takes place. As part of a research project, we worked with some SMEs to develop and test digital twins. We helped a made-to-order wooden component manufacturer to optimize their personnel and machine planning. Creating a digital twin made it possible to visualize the planning and material flow from receiving goods to shipping the finished product. It also simulated the integration of new machines into the system and predicted the impact on production operations as well as maintenance of the company's facilities.