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Augmented Reality in Business


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As some of you know, I've been tracking the changes in AR (Augmented Reality) pretty closely. I've even been experimenting with it some, looking for those business cases that would explain why, when, and how it should be used.

For obvious reasons, AR games are being used to demonstrate this technology. Games are visual, and being able to play in a digital fantasy world is really cool! Because you're seeing it first in games, and not in business applications, it can obscure the other value propositions offered by AR.

Before we get in too deep, we should address a bit of a misconception: AR is not VR (Virtual Reality). There is a distinct difference between the two technologies, even if they seem similar. AR offers users graphical enhancements to their real, physical environment, rather than creating an entirely new environment.

VR is designed to replace what you are seeing with a completely new world. This is what Samsung shows in the commercials for the preview of the very popular television series 24. This what Oculus Rift offers when you explore the galaxy using their headset.

If you have ever played Pokemon Go in AR mode, then you have an idea of what AR does. If not, consider this: how would you like to look at a barcode and have a window pop-up in front of you and tell you that you have a quantity of ten, and that you have five orders, so you need to order twenty-five more? AR is all about layering information, or animation, on top of real world triggers like sight or location.

Some of the AR business cases are pretty clear, but we've barely gotten started. I don't know where this will end up, and how far we will push the technology, but I can make a few guesses. Some people think AR will be a fad. Remember Google Glass?

To understand why I don't expect it to be a fad, let's look at a bit history. After the desktop seemed to emerge as a clear winner, the tools of portable digital access started to carve out a place; cell phones, Palm Pilots, and PDAs. Then someone (Apple) legitimized the smartphone. The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, but it was the one that breathed life into the category. Laptops and tablets helped erode the dominance of the desktop.

If you remember, when iPhone 1 was released, people wondered why it had a camera, and said it wouldn't replace the existing digital cameras. Many saw it as just another device to play games on. The smartphone went from toy to business device in a very short time.

As processing power increases, the device in our pockets will continue to take territory from the device on our desks. AR can be done with your smartphones (again, Pokemon Go and Snapshat's photo alterations software for example), and the only thing that is limiting it is how weird you look wearing the headsets. And that's changing, too.

Several companies already make fairly simple glasses that can project flat images for their wearers. They are increasingly popular in warehousing and manufacturing firms, who can use them to issue instructions to employees while leaving their hands free.

Meanwhile, companies such as Magic Leap, Meta, and Microsoft are building much more capable headsets that can sense their surroundings and react to them, projecting convincing, three-dimensional illusions onto the world. Microsoft is already running trials of its HoloLens headset in medical schools, giving students virtual cadavers to dissect, and architectural practices where several designers can work together on a digital representation of a building.

Designing a nifty piece of technology, though, is not the same as ushering in a revolution. Social factors often govern the path to mass adoption, and for AR, two problems stand out. One is aesthetic. The HoloLens is an impressive machine, but few would mistake it for a fashion item. Its appearance makes its wearers look creepy and disconnected from the real world. It needs to look "tech-geek cool" instead. One reason the iPhone was so successful was that it was the beautiful design.

The other big problem: Consent. Look at the major issues that Google had with Google Glass. While it was the closest AR design to tech-geek cool, it had a lot of social issues attached to it. You know that "camera and microphone always recording" thing.

Smart TVs that are always-on, and the over-sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are part of the process of creating a new social normal. One that will no longer hinder AR headsets.

These problems aren't something that would keep a business from using AR headsets internally. As current makers of AR headsets make their hardware lighter and easier to use, it will be more common for businesses to use them in-house. So the question isn't why would I look at this tech for business, but how should I use it.

Inventory Control and Warehousing

Right now, we use PDAs, smartphones, or other devices to look at and update our inventory. But this is all done one at a time. Users have to check each item on the shelf individually. Augmented Reality brings all this information together. It can overlay the information onto the shelf so that you take it in all at once. If you go a step further, you can then overlay alarms and highlighted sections of the shelf where the computer algorithm identifies problems.

Once you know where on that single shelf there might be a problem, you can step back and look down the aisle, seeing all the items and shelves that have problems on them. Your employees no longer need to hunt but instead will have clear visual clues.

Training and Education

Manufacturing, service and repair, or just about any job has a large amount of on-the-job training. Most of that training is done by people who are simply retelling the story of their experiences. You can make training and education more effective by implementing in-context instructions or layered graphics. This allows employees to show complex processes step-by-step, or give prompts and instruction on a certain task, even while not even physically present.

Showcasing Products

The rise of e-commerce has made showcasing products especially important. With AR, online shoppers are able to fully inspect the product they're considering purchasing as if it were really there. One popular use of AR for this purpose is software that allows potential buyers to place different three-dimensional models of furniture in their homes to see how the piece might fit in before buying.

Not only is the customer empowered during the decision-making process, but it also helps reduce future expenses to the business by minimizing returns.

Augmented Office Spaces

One potential offering of the augmented office is the ability to alter plain office spaces. Imagine a room where the only tangible things were people and load-bearing furniture, like tables and chairs. Beyond that, the walls are bare and windowless. Sounds kind of ugly, cold, and, well, unwelcome.

Augmented reality could actually transform that room for whatever purposes you require. Everyone has their own workspace requirements. Tim wants a huge window. Nora wants a dark room with plants. You like a two-monitor desk, but I need four monitors. You get the idea.

When digital information is overlaid on physical world objects, you can turn one of the office's plain walls into a window to the manufacturing floor of another city. And on the opposing wall you can have a shared whiteboard that can be used by a team of developers that work remotely.

Instead of opening windows on a monitor, you open windows into the physical world and generate a depth of windows. We aren't restricted by the number of monitors. We are only restricted by the physical and digital space needed to do the job.

Conclusion

Augmented reality won't exactly replace business software, but it will cause business software to present information in a totally different format. Just like charts and graphs create visualizations on columns and rows of numbers, AR will bring the boring business software into the new and fun.

If you thought mobile phones and e-commerce changed the business world, wait until augmented reality really takes hold, and the only thing that was holding it back was the hardware.

And the hardware is here now.

 

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