Science fiction is becoming reality as more agencies test and deploy technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality. Many are just scratching the surface and could greatly benefit from a widespread deployment of such tools.
That is a key takeaway from a recent Deloitte report that explores the role of “digital reality” in government, a term that encompasses AR, VR, mixed reality, 360-video and immersive technologies.
Agency employees can use these tools to get access to digital information in the field at the right time, overcome staff shortages via remote and immersive technologies, and enhance training and recruitment.
While there are limits to how much information users can ingest, process and use, in data-driven organizations workers need to access, analyze, interpret and apply large amounts of information fast enough that it remains relevant to their needs.
“Digital reality could be the key to overcoming this challenge: it gives workers tools to interact with digital data in the real world,” the report says. “Workers can connect with each other, query information, and see, feel, and interact with data as they perform tasks. And it seems to work: Initial studies and use cases have shown that digital reality can help agencies build immersive experiences that increase productivity, improve the efficacy of training, and improve government services.”
However, the report notes that agencies face barriers to adopting these new technologies, including cybersecurity, a profusion of legacy systems and funding challenges.
How AR, VR Can Enhance Feds’ Missions
Digital reality tools give users easier access to information, the report notes. That can help in real-world situations. First responders can use AR glasses to see the blueprints of buildings and help develop faster recuse plans. Security officers could use similar technologies to assess travelers’ threat profiles at airport checkpoints, the report notes. “In the crowded space of a terminal, digital reality can highlight behaviors that even well-trained security personnel might miss,” the report says.
Digital reality can also help agencies that are short-staffed or do not have personnel where their customers are. “Telepresence, for example, uses voice and video links to enable an expert to provide ‘see what I see’ advice remotely,” the report says.
In a Veterans Affairs Department research program, a VR computer system helped veterans tackle post-traumatic stress disorder and enhanced their job interview skills. Deloitte’s report notes that a human resources representative named “Molly Porter,” a VR avatar, conducted a mock interview with veterans, and customized her conversation based on answers she received from the candidates.
More than 90 percent of program participants found the training useful, and more than 80 percent said it gave them confidence, Deloitte notes.
VR and AR can also enhance training and recruitment efforts. To improve the learning experience in its training program, the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service started using VR in a course on public health veterinary. “It devised engaging, immersive solutions for students, such as the opportunity to view an inspector’s work setting in a 360-degree VR interactive training environment,” the Deloitte report says.
Digital reality can also help weed out job applicants by giving them a visceral sense of what it is like on the job. FSIS was having trouble hiring and retaining staff since some inspectors and veterinarians could not handle some of the tasks related to work in a slaughter plant, the report notes.
FSIS created a 360-degree immersive VR experience to show candidates at job fairs exactly what the work would entail. “About 20 to 25 percent of candidates said they would not work in a slaughter plant,” Dean Norman, the former distance learning manager of FSIS, says in the report. “That’s exactly the reaction we want. If you don’t think you can do it, it is better to know now than after we have spent the money to train and relocate you.”
The Challenges Feds Face in Adopting AR and VR
There are some hurdles that agencies must confront as they adopt digital reality technologies, the Deloitte report says.
First and foremost is cybersecurity, and an assessment of the system’s security strengths and weaknesses. “This is important for government agencies that must protect sensitive data of both the public and their own workforce,” the report says.
Privacy is also a concern, since digital reality solutions can collect data on users. For example, in cases where such tools “actively assess how users are reacting to new experiences, users’ eye movements, pupil dilation, and other reactions are tracked to generate data points to improve future programs,” the report notes. That data, as well as citizen data that can be processed more quickly via digital reality, must be effectively secured and controlled to maintain users’ privacy.
“Balancing these cybersecurity and privacy concerns against costs is often the underlying driver in decisions on where and how to host digital reality solutions,” the report advises. “As technology continues to evolve, organizations should monitor the development of new security standards and solutions specific to digital reality that can help them strike the right security/cost balance.”
Another concern is that agencies have a multitude of legacy systems, and it is difficult to get them to integrate with new digital reality tools. “For example, agencies can gain enhanced insights by overlaying their treasure troves of data onto AR platforms, but many government organizations have struggled to integrate disparate inputs to make sense of their data,” the report says.
Notably, the Army operates many different simulators to prepare troops for a variety of different vehicles and tasks, some of them dating back to the 1980s, making it impossible for some simulators to work together in virtual environments.
Funding issues, ranging from startup costs to ongoing operations, are a barrier that can stop digital reality efforts in their tracks, the report says. “While digital reality technologies can often save money once implemented, difficulties in budgeting can cause even the best use cases to go unfunded,” the report says. “For example, while VR training can often save money or improve outcomes compared to traditional training, the costs of implementing such a solution may rest with a training department while the benefits may accrue to an operational department.”