How PwC is using VR to help 'see' the sustainable future

2 people using virtual reality glasses
ShutterstockYuganov Konstantin
Virtual reality can be a powerful storytelling medium.

"Hello, I am Amy," a perky, mildly unsettling robotic female voice announces. "No one knows the future. But I am here to guide you through a vision of where we could be headed."

Amy  — or A.M.i., as it's spelled — assures BusinessGreen she is our "benevolent" guide through a city of the future characterized by self-driving cars, robots, overhead drones, personalized advertising, 3D printed buildings and frequent cyber-attacks.

The scene is a busy, yet surprisingly quiet street with some sort of glass greenhouse roof overhead. Four million people live inside Core City's inner wall and around 25 million to 30 million in the wider economic region, A.M.i. explains, all of whom are kept in line by a 24/7 autonomous police force which has ensured a "dramatic fall in crime."

"Around you, autonomous vehicles, including trucks and buses, drive past," A.M.i. continues, now really getting into her stride. "Trucks, cars, buses ... They're all driverless. No accidents, no parking tickets, no emissions. It's bliss ... And all electric, powered by quantum batteries."

OK, so far so good. But suddenly, before fully taking in these strange surroundings, something loud and mechanical swoops overhead. "Remember life before mega-drones?" A.M.i. asks. "Traffic jams? Airport queues?" Er, yes — very much so. This world is now starting to feel a little overwhelming.

But then, perhaps that's the whole point. This is not a real city, of course — not yet, anyway. Rather, it is a virtual reality (VR) simulation developed by professional services giant PwC alongside specialist studio REWIND. Its aim is to stimulate conversation among PwC's business clients, helping them to more effectively plot their journey through the many technological and market disruptions along the way to a high-tech, low carbon future. After all, with time against the world to decarbonize and avoid catastrophic climate change and the pace of technological change continues to increase, modern businesses face major, sometimes daunting challenges to ensure they remain sustainable in the long term.

So while donning the headset, engaging the headphones and stepping into this strange computer-simulated VR world can feel a little bewildering at times, it is an experience which reflects the rapidly shifting, unknown world ahead of us. Even if to those on the street outside the studio window it just looks like a guy playing blind man's bluff in a bicycle helmet.

For those of a certain vintage who haven't experienced VR before, and whose most recent experience with gaming was a Sony PlayStation in the late 1990s, the experience sits somewhere between "Blade Runner" and 1990s kids TV show "Gamemaster," in addition to being armed with what resembles a Jedi Lightsaber to interact with everything around you.

Back in Core City, A.M.i. carries on. "You're on your way to a job interview as a futurologist," she explains. "On your journey, you will be immersed in a range of potential disruptions to test your skills for the job. Which of these disruptions are credible, and which are just hype? What are the real game changers, and how soon might they hit?"

But after being accosted by a "policeman" who looks eerily like those other "benevolent" humanoids in "I, Robot" — the 2004 Hollywood sci-fi starring Will Smith — some refreshment feels in order. At a nearby stall, another automaton offers a "coffee" made from some fairly odd-sounding ingredients, but the impact of climate change on coffee plantations, combined with advances in food technology, apparently has helped to shift drinking habits. After the beverage is handed over, it's time to pay, but how? Apparently around here cryptocurrency, personal data and rupees count as legal tender.

Cryptocurrency you probably already know about, and in today's world, personal data is obviously to some extent already a highly valuable, if controversial, commodity. And as for rupees, A.M.i. explains that the currency of rapidly developing nations such as India could come to rival the U.S. dollar as the world's go-to economic benchmark. Unsure of quite how well paid futurologists are, it seems safest to hand over some personal info.

After further interactions with a self-driving car, a 3D printed building being constructed further down the road and an explanation of what constitutes synthetic biology, it's time to answer some questions about the 20-odd disruptions that have been presented throughout the experience, rating them on how likely they are to present a major business risk. Answers are then recorded, potentially aggregated with any colleagues who also have taken part in the VR experience, and then can be used by businesses to discuss in more depth at a later date.

All in all, the experience is the first known example of virtual reality being used as a storytelling tool for businesses to engage with the future, according to PwC's VR lead Jeremy Dalton, who argues there is far more to the technology than an excuse for business executives to play games during work hours.

"Despite what people may think about the technology — it's obviously very popular in the video games industry and sometimes there is a perception that that is all it's for — we know that companies across all different industries are using it right now," he told BusinessGreen. "And I can only see that increasing in the future because it offers more business value in terms of training, designing physical products and meeting people."

Indeed, said Dalton, VR represents a unique medium to tell the story of disruption and megatrends such as climate change.

"My hope is that clients see it as a valuable business tool that drives richer conversations around the potential disruptions to their business and industry in future," he explained. "In other words, I hope to be able to bring to life what the future holds for them through this experience."

So far, more than 100 people have been guided through the VR experience during its pilot phase, including bankers, those working in transport, and local government and public sector officials. The equipment already has been tested around the world in places such as Gothenburg, New York City, Cyprus and St. Petersburg, while there are plans to potentially take it to Belgium, Munich and Dubai. And in future, the experience could be tailored towards one particular industry to offer a more bespoke experience, with Dalton highlighting the energy and mining sectors as possibilities.

But doesn't Dalton himself find the VR world he has helped create a little, well, scary?

"No, my attitude in general towards technology is always one of positivity," he replied, smiling. "I know a lot of people are worried about the potential aspects of all of these different technologies — such as drones and AI, for instance — but ultimately the technology is agnostic; it's about how we use it that determines whether it is good or bad. We have a responsible technology policy at PwC, which is all about using technology for good, basically, all the way from the supply chain aspects of it through to deploying it at organizations."

The point PwC wants companies to understand, Dalton explained, is that disruptions can hit at any moment, and the future is unknown. The disruptions in the experience — developed in part by PwC's cybersecurity, AI, drones and economic teams among others — only ever can be educated guesses. But just as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal shows, a firestorm of controversy may only be just around the corner, so what seems like an innocent exchange of data for a coffee in this future VR world actually requires some deep thought from the businesses as to what impact that might have on them — and it could be sooner than they think.

"It's OK to be aware of the disruptions, but you've also got to do something about them," said Dalton. "So we always encourage businesses to take the learnings from the experience and actually try and push them forward into some tangible results — whether that's a desire to build a proof of concept that could help their organization and potentially deploy that worldwide to their teams if it proves to be valuable."

To some, prancing about with colleagues in a VR helmet in may seem like a slightly odd way to develop crucial, long-term business decisions. Yet it's an undoubtedly an eye-opening — if not eye-popping — experience, and one which presents a city that does actually feel eerily tangible. And with many industries and governments still often accused by green advocates of not acting quickly enough to address the risks posed by the low carbon transition, VR may well offer a powerful means of delivering that urgent climate change message.

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