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Can extended reality offer agencies chance to delve into ‘the art of the possible?’

XR technologies are taking hold in the federal government for training and remote assistance. But imagine this “for instance”: air traffic controllers manag...

This is the ninth article in our series, The Power of Technology.

It might be easy to dismiss extended reality as technology for gamers, for immersive entertainment experiences or for complex problem-solving scenarios in scientific research facilities. But in the federal government, XR has begun helping agencies address basic but extensive needs — particularly training and remote assistance.

“We’re seeing that from a deployment perspective, but certainly from an interest perspective,” said Dylan Evers, senior director for mixed reality and devices at Microsoft Federal. “How do we revolutionize training? Because the return on investment on that is so high.”

The ROI potential makes sense given the breadth of the federal workforce — somewhere around 2 million civilian employees and 1.3 million active military members — and the wide range of work done across government and often across a single large agency.

Training and remote assistance among early federal XR use cases

“A picture tells a thousand words,” said Tony Celeste, executive director and general manager for Ingram Micro Public Sector. “Well, we all know that we learn more and retain more by doing. Extended realities, virtual reality, augmented reality — these technologies immerse students in those environments, and the retention from a training perspective and a learning perspective will be much greater.”

As Charlie Bolen, Microsoft Federal’s technical operations manager for mixed reality and devices, explained, government agencies have begun converting their paperbound and PDF knowledge and tech training manuals into holographic experiences. That training in turn often leads to XR mission execution by tech support staff, he said.

Extended reality 101

What do the different “reality” terms mean? We asked Microsoft’s Dylan Evers to give us a quick breakdown.

“These terminologies get thrown out a lot, and I don’t know that they carry a ton of meaning yet from a ubiquity standpoint,” Evers said.

He described extended reality (XR) as comprised of many mediums for digesting digital content in some form of either a completely virtual world or a hybrid of the physical and the digital worlds combined:

  • Augmented reality (AR): Leveraging small form factor smartphones and eyewear to augment physical reality with a digital content overlay
  • Mixed reality (MR): Taking AR farther toward virtual, typically by wearing a heads-up display that overlays a digital reality on the physical world
  • Virtual reality (VR): Creating a virtual world in which someone can interact with some level of 3D haptic feedback — sound, visual or other input — depending on the media and format

“This holographic guidance can carry forward,” Bolen said, adding, “They can leverage the technology to do things like phone a friend with remote assistance scenarios. A remote expert — maybe a Tier 2, Tier 3 or Tier 4 person — can see and understand the challenge in real time and then digitally annotate or verbally walk someone through the challenge that they’re facing and execution of a task.”

We talked with Bolen, Celeste and Evers about the growing interest in and use of XR technologies by agencies during a discussion for the Federal News Network The Power of Technology series.

Beyond what’s happening right now, what are the opportunities and benefits? What challenges does the government face in adopting and scaling XR capabilities? And how can an organization begin its journey?

XR opportunities and benefits in federal government

“From an opportunities perspective, extended reality is transforming today how agencies are delivering services, how warfighters are being trained, how we are operating and how we’re working remotely,” Celeste said. “And there are tons of additional opportunities in just those areas alone that have yet to be filled.”

Beyond that, he pointed to air traffic control as an exciting example of what’s possible on the horizon, noting that federal air traffic controls currently manage 3D airspace on 2D radar screens. “Imagine if our air traffic controllers could be managing the 3D airspace in three dimensions — in that reality,” Celeste said.

Because XR is a relatively new technology, the untapped potential is unknown and essentially limitless, Bolen noted. Often when talking with agency technology teams, he and Evers find themselves explaining what’s been done so far in maintenance, in repair operations, in manufacturing, he said.

“This technology really unlocks — I know it’s so cliché — but the art of the possible,” Evers said. “You think, ‘Oh, now I can try this.’ You can add on to it.”

They’re beginning to see that happen already with the launch of what he called fairly complex XR initiatives. For instance, he shared an example of an agency using light detection and ranging (lidar) scanning to capture and render entire buildings in 3D to enable remote holographic inspection and maintenance of entire buildings.

“Rather than send someone up on the roof and be put in a dangerous environment and risk injury to the personnel to look for cracks or issues with the roof, do the lidar scan … get the holographic rendering, examine the rendering, deploy a technician out to whatever the issue is and  then leverage remote assistance where possible,” Evers said.

XR faces adoption, scaling challenges

Extended reality environments are new enough that people often haven’t used XR or experienced it in their daily lives. In that way, it’s not unlike the early days of mobile cell phones, Evers said.

What’s more, it’s hard for agency leaders to imagine how XR technologies might affect workflows or help federal employees do their jobs differently or better, Celeste added. That makes workforce change management one of the near-term challenges agencies will need to work through because it’s a completely different way of integrating technology on the go, he said. “How are people going to adapt to using these in their daily lives, in their careers?”

The other challenge is guidance — to address privacy issues, security issues, and deployment and management issues. Both Celeste and Evers acknowledged that no framework or approval process exists that IT teams can lean on. It doesn’t exist for heads-up displays in the mixed and extended reality space, Evers said.

He recommended that the government deploy and manage XR technologies as it does smartphone technology today, applying the same security and privacy safeguards and potentially using biometrics for authentication. “I think that gets them on networks and to production usage more quickly,” he said.

“We’d like them to get away from thinking this is something completely new,” Evers added, suggesting instead that agencies view them as an extended form factor of mobile devices. “They’re used to deploying mobile devices today. They deploy their iPhones. They deploy their Galaxy tablets. They deploy their Microsoft Surfaces, the Windows tablets. They manage those with mobile device management, and they can manage these products with MDM as well.”

How to start your XR journey

So where can an agency begin if it wants to test or pilot mixed reality or XR technologies?

For starters, anyone interested in seeing this technology in action can visit Ingram Micro’s Business Transformation Center or its IoT Center of Excellence, Celeste said. Microsoft also has technology centers where “you can see live tests and demonstrations of how this might be applicable in your environments,” he said.

If an agency is ready to try out XR, Bolen recommended starting off with a small use case. “Don’t jump in and say you want to do the most complex, hardest thing you need to solve right now,” he said.

Instead, perhaps there’s a remote maintenance need for  a piece of equipment deployed across the United States but for which the agency doesn’t have skilled technicians located nationwide.

“To Charlie’s point, whether a central command center leveraging a large form factor digital device, like a Surface Hub, or a decentralized support mechanism, leveraging Surface Pro or a Surface laptop, end users in the field with a HoloLens can remote assist back to their support … to get that help on the go,” Evers said.

There’s also application support available through Microsoft’s first-party application ecosystem and Dynamics 365. And through its partner community, including Ingram Micro, agencies can tap deployment capabilities and additional app help through Microsoft’s third-party development community. Between those two, agencies can find help “to really solve for whatever you would like them to solve for” because admittedly there are not a lot of XR dev teams in the government yet, Evers said.

“The future is bright relative to the impact that extended reality is going to have on agencies’ missions, whether it’s driving better health outcomes, protecting our first responders and our servicemen and women, improving citizen services or helping students learn in new ways,” Celeste said. “All of that is going to benefit from extended reality technology.”

To read more articles in The Power of Technology series, click here.

Learn more about Microsoft’s offerings through Ingram Micro Public Sector on Xvantage.

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Featured speakers

  • Tony Celeste

    Executive Director and General Manager for Public Sector, Ingram Micro

  • Dylan Evers

    Senior Director – Mixed Reality and Devices, Microsoft Federal

  • Charlie Bolen

    Technical Operations Manager – Mixed Reality and Devices, Microsoft Federal

  • Vanessa Roberts

    Editor, Custom Content, Federal News Network