3D design, virtual reality, gamification… Mike Briercliffe discusses these new technologies and more in his latest column.

New technologies, which, at first, were thought to not have much, if any, relevance to business, have come to fundamentally alter the way we work. Computers, the internet, smartphones…I could go on. There are, to my mind, three new technologies which are set to really start to come to fruition this year, and which could have real implications on small businesses in the near future.

These are:

  • 3D Design and Fabrication (a.k.a. “printing”)
  • Virtual reality/augmented reality
  • Gamification/big data

3D printing

Rapid developments in 3D-printing techniques and materials are set to revolutionise manufacturing. Some firms have already started reaping the benefits: Airbus produced over 1000 parts for its new A350 XWB aircraft using 3D printers, which enabled it to manufacture parts which were strong and safe, but also lighter, cheaper and took a fraction of the time to produce

This has important implications on small businesses. Although Britain is known for having some of the best industrial designers in the world – Apple’s design guru Jonny Ive and James Dyson to name but two – the state of British manufacturing has for years been the subject of hand-wringing. Embracing 3D printing could revitalise the British manufacturing industry, enabling our firms to compete with foreign rivals based in cheaper labour markets.

Virtual reality/augmented reality

There’s been a lot of media coverage about virtual reality headsets, which will take gaming into a new, totally immersive dimension. But the potential business uses for these gizmos go well beyond the ultimate Call of Duty experience.

It won’t be long before telephone and video conferencing as we currently recognize them will become things of the past. Instead, business users will sit around in a virtual meeting room, wearing headsets. Communication and learning are about to embark on a paradigm shift.

The potential is limitless. Soon, a designer will be able to show a client a new design in 3D space, which they could ‘see’ and ‘hold’ using their headset, and even make changes to it in real time. By hooking up a 3D printer, a client could have a real prototype – or even the finished article – within hours of the design being agreed.

Virtual or augmented-reality technology has applications across many sectors. Surgeons based in different parts of the world could work together, by wearing headsets, on pioneering new surgical procedures. Or imagine yourself sitting next to Louis van Gaal in the dugout at Old Trafford, or in a lecture room listening to Professor Stephen Hawking describing the Theory of Everything.
This might sound like science fiction, but the technology is being developed and tested right now. Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset creator which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called “one of the next most important computing platforms” – and which he bought for $2 billion last year – is set to start selling its first headsets early next year.

Meanwhile Microsoft has recently released its own headset, HoloLens, which a tech guru friend of mine told me when seeing the pre-launch of it is the “game changer” he’s been awaiting in computing, because it will soon bring virtual reality within reach of us all, he says.

Gamification

Using elements of gaming in business has been common for years. Loyalty schemes are the most widespread and simplest example, in which you earn rewards by accumulating points. But, video game designers were the first to see the potential for leveraging the masses of information they were able to collect on players through the decisions they made during the game.

They introduced levels, through which people progress to unlock extra privileges, awards for achievement, and pop-up tips on how to improve their play. The aim was simple: to enable players to get more out of the game by encouraging them to play more.

Now companies are adopting the same techniques, by gathering users’ internet activity data to motivate customers to share, engage, participate – and buy. Many firms have launched apps, which offer rewards to encourage clients to interact with them in the hope of making them more loyal.

Firms are also increasingly using gamification to make their own employees more engaged and productive. Why not turn your sales software into a game? Rather than just logging sales, what if it tracked your team’s progress in real-time towards meeting the monthly target, and enabled members of your team to compete with each other to win the honour of being the top salesperson?

Gamification has the potential to enable work to become much more fun, as well as boosting a firm’s productivity. After all, it’s a simple equation: happy employees = motivated employees = happy customers = higher sales and profits.

Many small business owners may read this blog and think: “what is the relevance of this for me?” Well, the answer is, a lot. These new technologies spell danger for dyed-in-the-wool businesses that are unwilling to adapt to change. But, they also offer hope for those willing to embrace change.

As these technologies evolve their price will tumble, and 3D printing and virtual reality/augmented reality technology could enable small, technologically savvy designers and manufacturers to compete toe-to-toe with much larger rivals. Meanwhile, Google Analytics and other savvy measurement techniques can already enable any cottage industry to amass plenty of data on visitors to its website.

For me the key issue is that small businesses have to keep pace with new trends in technology, otherwise they risk being left behind. Once your business has fallen several steps behind the pace it will need to make a giant leap to get back on terms. And what’s easier for any business to do: keep a consistent pace or to make giant leaps?

Optimistic about Oculus?  High on talk of Hololens? Already using any of these technologies for your business? Share below.