From video game to business case

Publish Date

10 JAN 2021


Kai Beckmann


Virtual and augmented reality are nothing new when it comes to video games. But in the meantime, both of these technologies – which enhance or even replace our real environment with virtual realities – are being deployed in an increasing number of companies as well.

At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we are currently assessing the use of these technologies in our production activities. Plus, the OLED materials from our Electronics business sector enable us to supply important components for AR and VR.

New virtual worlds

Do you remember the enthusiastic “Pokémon GO” players who met in large numbers in public places to hunt rare fantasy figures? The hype around the smartphone game, which has been downloaded a total of a billion times to date, can be explained not least by the fact that on the display it appears to the players as though little virtual monsters were running around in our real world. That’s because the game is based on so-called augmented reality technology, or AR for short.

With AR, the user scans the real environment with a smartphone, tablet or smart glasses. On the screen, he then sees a display of additional virtual information, objects and media which are seamlessly integrated into the real world. We increasingly encounter AR in online shopping as well: Many retailers now offer apps that allow us to try on an item of clothing or a pair of glasses online, or to see the effect of a piece of furniture projected into our own living room as a virtual image. In this way, customers and retailers can often avoid returns.

Virtual reality technology (VR) goes a step further. It allows users to fully immerse themselves in virtual worlds using VR glasses that cover the entire field of vision. The video game industry was an important innovation driver for VR as well, but many different applications are possible. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, people found that apartment viewings via VR are a genuine alternative to physical tours. In the meantime, almost all major manufacturers, including Samsung, Microsoft and even Google, have their own VR glasses on the market.

Along the entire value-added chain

Companies have also long since discovered the usefulness of VR and AR. According to a study by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the number of employees in Germany who encounter the technology in their day-to-day working lives will rise from 15,000 in 2019 to just under 400,000 in 2030. As I already mentioned, VR and AR offer an enhanced customer experience in the form of a more realistic product presentation. The two technologies offer significant advantages for product development as well. For example, designer teams in various locations can come together online in a virtual room to evaluate their concepts and develop them further, without having to build physical prototypes. The first pilot projects with data glasses have been successfully carried out in the logistics branch as well. DHL, for example, plans extensive use of AR glasses to enable more efficient handling of packages in its warehouses.

In the future, employees should be able to call up current production information quickly and easily by simply holding a tablet to a so-called anchor point at the plant. These points are linked to sensors and can transmit the desired information directly to the technician’s end device.

VR and AR also offer companies completely new possibilities for staff training. For example, in realistic simulations, doctors, power engineers or pilots can run through scenarios which would be difficult or dangerous to reproduce in the real world. The German Federation of Chemical Employers’ Associations (BAVC), of which I am president, is actively promoting the deployment of digital technologies in the chemical industry early on, in the training phase. In the framework of the elective qualification known as “Digitalization and networked production”, chemical technicians learn how to use AR and VR.

OLED makes it possible

The fact that VR and AR are in use at an increasing number of companies also has to do with the fact that the technologies themselves have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. A key factor in these advances is the display technology used. Firstly, AR and VR glasses require curved displays in special forms that are adapted to the shape of the human head. Secondly, the devices require displays that are very small, but have a very high degree of resolution. Due to their specific qualities, organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, are particularly well suited to meet these requirements.

OLED displays have an especially lightweight and thin construction. They can be mounted on both firm and flexible base layers. And since, in OLED displays, every pixel is its own source of light, they are also especially sharp and high-contrast. For these reasons, OLEDs are ideal for use in VR and AR. An important basis for the development of these all-rounder displays is the high-quality display chemicals from Electronics. Thanks to steady innovation in the OLED area, we can look forward to increasingly realistic virtual worlds in the future.

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