How to help immersive tech be a reality for public services

By Liz O’Driscoll
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a growth in demand for technology, we explore the potential of enhancing public services with different technologies...

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen both citizen appetite for technology grow and new ways to engage communities and provide essential services remotely. With the pace of change continuing to accelerate, we explored the potential for Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and Mixed Reality (XR) to enhance public services in Perspectives*.

Far from being science fiction, we found multiple examples where immersive tech is already making a positive impact. From virtual training for medical professionals and enriched learning experiences for children, through to remote assistance for housing tenants and improved data visualisation for city planners, we highlighted the many cases that already exist across our public services.

We believe these technologies have the potential to enhance how we access and deliver the public services of today and tomorrow. But as with all technologies, the key question is how we can turn it from an idea into action. To help, we spoke to leaders and innovators, and following on from our Perspectives* Live event, we’ve outlined three key steps to help make it a reality.

1. Focus on the problem to solve

It’s often too easy to focus on the coolest, newest technology, rather than really thinking about what it can do and who can it help. As a starting point, it’s important to look at the problem we want to solve, and then find the best technologies to help. 

We need to build a compelling use case.  After all, “Technology without a use case is just a toy,” as Miranda Sharp from the Digital Built Britain perfectly summed up during one of our roundtables. It’s hard to justify investment in toys in the long-term, so a clear citizen need and problem that we want to solve is the key starting point for bringing any new tech, including immersive technologies, to use.

For example, one challenge might be to improve citizen engagement with city planning, or how a housing tenant can perform essential repairs remotely. The good news is that for these questions and more, we’ve seen immersive technologies as a solution. 

During the pandemic, the London Legacy Development Corporation used immersive tech to enable all citizens to play an active role in planning consultation. They found the technologies made the process more accessible and facilitated a better democratic voice from all citizens.  While in Scotland, Kingdom Housing Association didn’t let the lockdown prevent essential repairs for tenants. Rather, they used AR to help tenants carry out routine repairs with remote assistance from the housing provider.

2. Strengthen the foundations

Many new technologies, including AR and VR, rely on strong foundational infrastructures such as cloud being in place. During COVID-19, we have seen a further spike in public service cloud consumption, with Gartner predicting it will grow by a further 18% this year alone.

But it’s not just about stronger tech foundations. We need to build stronger trust too.. For public services and citizens to use immersive technologies with more confidence, improved data governance and ethics will be important. And when managed correctly, better data visualisation using immersive tech can provide better insight to make a genuine difference in outcomes as one leader highlighted during our discussions.

Stronger foundations can also enhance experiences and deliver better outcomes. In Zurich, jurors are being immersed in crime scenes to better visualise all the available evidence in the reconstructed virtual environment. But it doesn’t stop there. Sydney University also highlighted how the tech could help reduce public concerns over bias hindering the fair administration of justice.

3. Take everyone on the journey

When we think about the uptake of any new technologies, accessibility and inclusion will always be important.  Starting with accessibility, the connection of AR/VR with the gaming world has created a perception that it’s only accessible through large, and often expensive, hardware. 

But immersive services are easily accessible using everyday devices. We’ve seen this with great success in schools with students being teleported to new and exciting places via their smartphones. To help with uptake, Hugh Sullivan at Immersity highlighted that the big focus area should be on, “Democratising VR, AR and XR in a way that everyone can access these kinds of experiences.” The more we can do to lower the barriers to entry by using everyday devices, and ensuring immersive services don’t need the latest hardware to run, will help make them more accessible to all.

But it’s also just as important that these services are designed as inclusive by default. New services should be developed with the needs of everyone in mind to prevent technology become exclusive.

Immersive tech also brings another great levelling opportunity. Tony Colson from Sense described it as being able to, “Flip the experience. Rather than us trying to give people the experience of our world, we should experience theirs.” Immersive tech opens new avenues for designers to simulate how groups with disabilities access services or even physical spaces. By experiencing their world, we can better understand and create public services that include everyone.

Immersive technologies are here and they are going to revolutionise how we build and deliver services. Some sectors have made a fantastic start and we’ve seen very positive outcomes for citizens. But now is the time for more public service organisations to truly make it a reality.

 By Liz O’Driscoll, Head of Innovation, Civica  

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