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Can AR & VR improve education and healthcare in emerging economies?

Amar Babu
Amar BabuVice President and Chief Operating Officer, Asia Pacific at Lenovo
My priority is to drive the next phase of growth for Lenovo. I currently holds the title of Chief Operating Officer for Lenovo Asia Pacific and I am also the Chairman of Lenovo India. My focus is on product diversification, especially in smart, connected devices, while still maintaining the company's leadership in PCs. I was previously Managing Director of Lenovo India, during which time the subsidiary saw phenomenal growth in the PC market. Market share grew from 8.3% to 19.8% in less than a decade, and the company became a strong contender in the smartphone and tablet categories.

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How will society benefit from augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies?

In emerging economies across Asia Pacific and the world there is tremendous opportunity for more enhanced and equitable learning experiences for students. The dream of beautifully rich and colourful virtual learning spaces for disadvantaged kids has moved a step closer.  The opportunity to save more lives as far-away doctors diagnose and treat patients in poorer regions has been made more tangibly real via recent advances in VR and AR.

I’m hoping we are on the cusp of technology-fuelled transformation in health and education. Although it is early days, I have detailed some positive examples later in this article. But first  – a look at the market we find ourselves in.


Tracking the market forces in VR and AR

There’s much attention being paid to gaming and entertainment applications in the AR and VR space. (Does anyone still play Pokémon Go? Of course they do). But I’m interested in the impact AR and VR will have on a range of industries and government, along with the customers and citizens served by these organisations.

Various players in the tech industry are positioning themselves in the AR and VR market from the hardware, application and ecosystem perspective. To that end, this piece from TechCrunch summarises the industry and market outlook.

To briefly disclose our market involvement: Lenovo has released a device called the Phab 2 Pro, which is the first smartphone to include Tango, an AR-enabling technology developed by Google; along with a VR content and entertainment hub in partnership with Beyond Media, which gives consumers access to movies, game codes and TV shows – this initiative was timed to highlight VR upscaling on our Legion gaming PCs. We have also announced a VR headset in the works in collaboration with Disney. Sounds exciting? Stay tuned for more updates on this. Lenovo aims to be a leader in this exciting new technology and are investing significantly on R&D to enable great experience at right costs.

Coming back to the topic, while the consumer space remains a popular focus, enterprise and business-to-business AR and VR applications are also being explored. This activity is driven by a variety of startups with use cases across everything from architecture and design to medical and education industries, maintenance operations, and the military.

AR and VR usage within large enterprises (as customer offerings or internal productivity projects) is a slightly different story. Analyst group Forrester predicts that companies will continue to work on AR and VR in 2017, laying the groundwork for larger scale projects in 2018 and 2019. Most interesting to me, the firm points out that while computing power improvements will make AR and VR more accessible this year, no single “killer” use case yet exists.

We will see companies taking a more measured and systematic approach based on a variety of factors: customer expectations, the current activity of competitors, and an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of a first-to-market AR and VR initiative.


The age of virtual classrooms and decentralised medical care

AR and VR technologies will certainly herald improvements in health and education services – it is just a matter of when. The nexus point for mainstream change in emerging markets includes several factors: maturing AR and VR technologies, the lowering cost of hardware and device delivery, and an increase in readily available education content and health-related applications.

I will go so far as to say AR and VR technologies will transform the education experience for students around the world – including emerging economies. If the Internet has brought greater information access to remote communities, VR and AR will help to spread greater experiences to all. Students from India or Indonesia will virtually visit museums in Europe with another group of students from outback Australia. Virtual learning spaces will enable greater educational experiences – spreading opportunity to areas where there was once very little. This is critical: a student will have equal capacity to learn whether they are in Tokyo, Denpasar or a remote corner of Kenya – continuing to shrink an increasingly connected world.

Steve Dannm, CEO for Amplified Robot, recently echoed these sentiments: “There could be one university around the world where the best professors teach everybody. If you haven’t got a university and live in a developing country, then this would be fantastic.”

Progress is happening now. A report from Goldman Sachs points out that Google is offering its Cardboard VR platform to schools for free and has already developed more than 100 ‘virtual field trips’, and also that medical schools are currently experimenting with AR. The firm also cites some promising AR and VR healthcare initiatives including increased remote patient access to doctors via ‘virtual visits’ with a more enhanced experience compared to teleconferencing. VR is already helping to rehabilitate patients, such as amputees, while treating anxiety like PTSD or phobia through the use of virtual worlds which serve to habituate a patient to the environments which cause anxiety. I am not claiming these early developments have already transformed lives in emerging nations, but progress and experimentation is a positive sign.

Developing nations in Asia will benefit. A Computerworld report describes surgeries which consulting doctors can view in real time via VR applications in 360 degrees from anywhere in the world. Decentralised patient care has vast implications for bringing better healthcare to poorer communities – we have even seen advancements in robotic surgery being performed remotely using AR technology!

We’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible in healthcare. The Medical Futurist (Dr. Bertalan Mesko) lays out a vision for the near future where AR will help save lives by illustrating the location of nearby defibrillators, assist new mothers struggling with breastfeeding, allow patients to better describe their symptoms, give nurses a greater ability to find veins for blood tests, and assist surgeons in the operating theatre. Imagine how powerful this tool could be for patients in remote India or Indonesia where AR could potentially assist doctors in diagnosis and treatments.

We live in interesting times. Although it is early days, I’m optimistic about the progress being made with the use of AR and VR technologies and how this will impact emerging economies. 

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