Interview: Lenovo on creating AR/VR devices for the enterprise, the hype around metaverse, and more

Vishal Shah, who leads XR and Metaverse domains at Lenovo, has a job that requires him and his team to look past the smartphone revolution and lay the groundwork for the next big thing in tech: a headset that blends the digital world with the real one.

Although Lenovo is still a big player in the smartphone market with its subsidiary Motorola, the PC giant has been speeding its efforts to jump onto augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) spaces to have a competitive advantage when the category develops in the future. As Lenovo’s GM of XR and Metaverse, Shah leads the ThinkReality Solutions team and helps create XR devices aimed at the enterprise market.

For the world’s biggest PC maker by volume and market share, Lenovo’s focus on the enterprise over mainstream consumers with its AR and VR products and solutions may seem out-of-the-place when its competitors, including Meta and Sony, are squarely focusing on mainstream users through its devices. For Shah, Lenovo going after enterprise consumers with its extended reality (XR) devices and software solutions is a smart move.

Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 is a pair of smart AR glasses. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

“If I have a piece of machinery that’s worth $200 million of output every day spending $3,000 on a platform that helps me fix it right away is peanuts… the ROI is just there,” Shah explains why ROI, the use cases, and the return of investment are the things that make XR reality work best in the case of the enterprise for now.

Shah cites that the reason why enterprise consumers are investing in these AR/VR devices is that they see value in them even if the cost of the headset hovers north of $1500. The headsets that companies like Lenovo sell to enterprise users not only offer more features but are also complicated to manufacture. “I believe that XR is one of the few technologies where the enterprise is going to lead first and actually drive the prices down for consumers, which has been the opposite in the case of smartphones,” he told indianexpress.com in an interview on the sidelines of the India edition of Lenovo Tech World in New Delhi last week.

Lenovo’s lack of interest in releasing virtual or augmented reality devices for consumers could be due to a lack of a compelling use case. Companies like Magic Leap, Sony, and Meta promised game-changing headsets but no one succeeded in offering the immersive experience they initially promised. Worldwide shipments of VR headsets, as well as augmented reality device sales, declined by 12 per cent last year, according to IDC data.

The reality is that consumer headsets are highly subsidised by the platform holders with a focus mainly on gaming with no single-use case that gives consumers a compelling reason to spend $500 on one. Shah calls the lack of a “ChatGPT moment” why the consumer adoption of AR/VR headsets has been low. According to Shah, until the prices of headsets won’t come up drastically and form factors improve, it will be a challenge to sell a product that blends the physical and virtual worlds in the hands of many users.

Based in California, Shah leads Lenovo’s XR and Metaverse domains. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

Shah agrees that the consumer AR/VR market has been “difficult”, but he hopes to see a shift driven by the use cases tailored for B2B first which will be later adapted for consumers. “We [Lenovo] don’t have the right ecosystem to work with the consumer market,” he said, adding that the company works with its partners who are strong in the enterprise market and that’s where the applicability of XR devices start making more sense in the health and education spaces.

A year ago, Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg dropped Facebook as his company’s name and shifted focus on building the Metaverse, a concept where the online, virtual, and real worlds blend to create a new universe. He and many in the industry believe that the metaverse could usher in the beginning of the next frontier in the tech landscape.

“We have been victims and beneficiaries to a certain extent,” Shah said when asked about the hype that has been building around the metaverse, which he describes as the evolution of the Internet from 2D to 3D.

“A lot of people have a very dystopian view of what the metaverse is. We’ll be spending eight to 10 hours a day in the metaverse. But to me, I feel that the metaverse, especially the enterprise one, in many ways is something that you use for a 30-minute training session or a one-hour meeting,” Shah said. He added: “I don’t think walking on the beach can ever be replaced and I also don’t think the physical can replace the digital or digital can replace the physical, but you can always make digital processes more efficient.”

The ThinkReality A3 glasses are optimised for applications like 3D visualisation and augmented reality-guided workflows. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

For Shah, the biggest impact the Metaverse will have is how they train people and the jump from 2D to 3D will be huge. “The Metaverse is going to be heavily influenced by the enterprise,” Shah predicted, adding that it’s going to be a more B2B-focused play.

Even though Shah strongly believes that AR/VR is the “interface” of the future, smartphones won’t fade away overnight. “I would never write the smartphone off completely but there’ll be more and more ambient devices.”

Calling smartphones a “sticky” device, he said they will evolve in the future and will continue to be a central communication tool. He added that even if ambient devices, be it smartwatches and smart glasses, would become smaller in size, the computing will still happen on the smartphone. “In the end, if you want to get rid of the smartphone, it’s up to the user,” he said.

Shah foresees that the form factor of smartphones will either change or else take the shape of ambient devices in the near future.

Extended reality (XR) technology, the term that covers augmented, virtual, and mixed reality, is predicted to transform many industries. As Shah puts it, each technology has a different use case but he said eventually both AR and VR will merge at some point in the future. AR is described as a technology that superimposes computer-generated images over views of the real world, whereas virtual reality, or VR, which completely immerses the viewer in a computer-generated world. Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3, for example, is a pair of smart AR glasses which when connected to a computer or smartphone, show as many as five different virtual desktops, thanks to its high-definition displays built into the lenses. The glasses retail for $1500 and are aimed at the enterprise market.

Shah agrees the current-generation AR/VR devices need to get lighter and a lot more user-friendly to become mass-market products. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

But the transition from smartphones to AR/VR headsets may not be easy, given the set of challenges these devices come up with, including the high-retail price. Shah said AR/VR headsets will have a similar journey as smartphones had been available at different price points and sub-divided into multiple product tiers evenly distributed between consumer and enterprise categories.

As AR/VR headset hardware continues to improve and reduce in price, the cost of producing the device will eventually come down.  “We’ve matured a lot in the last five years in terms of technology. AR devices have come down to 130 grams becoming very lightweight, while VR devices are getting extremely compact, which is possible due to pancake lenses that themselves are getting much thinner.”

But Shah agrees that the industry is still far away from achieving the smartphone scale which is needed to bring AR/VR headsets to as many consumers as possible. “We’re getting there but not there yet,” he said. “In order to do that the optics, the battery life and the chipsets that require low power but deliver long battery will have to really start coming,” Shah responded when asked about the challenges that hinder the development of AR/VR headsets and eventually slowing the rollout of these devices.

“Managing the supply chain for devices, and getting the right kind of optics provider and vendors to be able to create these devices is a big challenge,” he added.

But developing a smartphone and an XR headset requires a different mindset and together different skill sets and expertise. Not just the hardware but software and services on top of it are also equally important to get the device to work the way it is intended to. Shah said like what has happened in the case of smartphones, the hardware will get commoditised with everyone using the same chipset that goes inside the headset. For him, though, the biggest difference will be the user interface which will be the big differentiator when buying a headset.  “A lot of people try to use VR devices in order to watch Netflix movies. I think that’s a horrible use case, no one wants to be stuck for three hours in that scenario,” he said.

Shah believes the interface alongside the ecosystem is where the battle will be fought.

Lenovo is betting on enterprise metaverse, as it will bring more users to AR/VR devices and help build use cases. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

Lenovo is backing OpenXR, the standard meant to make cross-platform AR and VR apps more common. The idea is to provide developers with a way to build a single app that can run on various devices across multiple devices instead of having to create specific versions for each one. But where Shah thinks the AR/VR space might be different from how the smartphone generation panned out is the control the brand like Lenovo has on its product. “The reason why AR/VR has not scaled is that if a company would like to buy a piece of hardware, it either buys software from somebody else or does it itself. They try to bundle everything together and fail,” he reasoned.

To create more control over its XR products, Lenovo has created ThinkReality, the company’s AR/VR platform, which Shah calls an end-to-end solution. It’s enterprise-grade, scalable, and secure. On top of that, Lenovo also offers professional services to companies like Tata Elxsi, Wipro, Accenture, and Deloitte helping them with the cloud infrastructure and converting 2D data to 3D data in the workflow.

Nearly 16 years since the first iPhone was released, the smartphone revolution that followed changed the tech industry. But the war between Google and Apple has also choked innovation, leaving the power in the hands of a few companies.

“If you look at web 2.0, I think one of the limiting factors is that it just falls into two or three camps and all the innovation either gets sucked out or you are pretty much relying on them for innovation,” he explained.

No matter how hyped the metaverse has been made, Shah said the time is right to take Web 2.0 to 3.0. “For the metaverse to succeed, it should be decentralised, it should be open and it should be interoperable.”