Augmented reality will revolutionise business. What benefits and applications can we see from this technology in the future?
Interest in augmented reality is exploding as innovators build and test with AR's business potential. The technology has an enormous potential value in revolutionising the way we do business from; customer experience and interaction, to learning and development.
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality is any technology that allows its users to see digital information projected onto the real world. AR does not replace the real world, but overlays the picture with digital objects or information. This is where it differentiates itself from virtual reality, which VR is completely immersive and presented via 3D high definition video and audio.
Definition: Augmented reality is a system that enhances the real world by superimposing computer-generated information on top of it. Augmented Reality, 2006
The term AR is sometimes mistaken with the terms VR and MR. What are the differences?
- AR— Digital elements layered over real-world views. Often achieved via a smartphone interface using Apple's ARkit and Androids ARcore.
- VR— All digital views in the form of video or computer generated graphics. Often, achieved via headset devices such as Oculus, HTC Vive and Google Cardboard.
- MR— A combination of AR and VR digital elements that can interact with the real world. Elements anchored in the real world environment. Examples include headset devices such as Microsoft HoloLens and Magic leap.
The history of augmented reality:
Augmented reality was first achieved in 1957 by a cinematographer named Morton Heilig. Sensorama, delivered visual, sound, vibration and smell to the viewer of the device. Sensorama was the first example of adding more data to a viewing experience.
In 1968, Ivan Sutherland - an American computer scientist, invented the head-mounted display. The technology was of course a proof of concept and not suitable for mass use, but pivotal in the early days of development to what would become known as "augmented reality".
In 1975, Myron Krueger, an American computer artist developed the first example of VR in the form of "Videoplace" which allowed its users to interact with virtual objects in real time.
The first systems that begin to resemble modern AR systems are those developed by Louis Rosenberg at the USAF Armstrong Research Lab in 1992. Virtual Fixtures was a complex robotic system designed to compensate for the lack of 3D graphics processing power in the 90's. The device enabled the overlay of sensory information to improve human productivity in the workplace.
Other breakthroughs to achieve the augmented reality since then include:
- ARQuake (AR app/game) in 2000
- ARToolkit (design tool) in 2009
- Google Glass (AR glasses) in 2013
- Microsoft HoloLens (headset device) in 2015
- Pokemon Go (AR app/game) in 2016
AR made great strides in the 2010's as required sensors became more accessible to the masses. This particularly appealing to the entertainment and retail industries as more consumers begin to own AR capable devices such as their smartphones. More industrial AR applications have also become more appealing as AR becomes more seamless in its transition into existing workflows.
How does augmented reality work?
AR uses a range of data (images, vectors, videos and 3D models) to achieve the desired augmented result. AR works on various devices: screens, glasses, smartphones and head-mounted displays. It involves technologies such as:
- S.L.A.M (simultaneous localisation and mapping).
- Depth tracking (sensors which calculate distance).
- Cameras (scanning the surroundings, from which the device locates physical objects and generates 3D models).
- Processing (CPU, GPU, flash memory, RAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth - processing of the location based data received from the sensors, cameras, inputs, etc.).
- Gyroscopes and GPS (measure speed, angle, direction, orientation in space).
- Projection (projectors - often DLP, which take data from sensors and projects digital content onto a surface to view).
- Reflection (mirrors to assist human eyes to view virtual images. The goal of these reflections is to preform proper image alignment. Some have arrays of double-sided mirrors to reflect the light from the camera to the users eye).
Types of augmented reality:
A marker, in the form of a printed QR code or sign initiates digital animations for users to view. The result is images on physical print may turn into 3D models. When a camera scans the code, the AR device calculates the position and orientation of a marker to position the content and presents the user with the digital overlay on their device.
Markerless AR utilises GPS, a compass, a gyroscope and an accelerometer to determine the users location. This data determines what AR content will display in a certain area. This is the most common application with smartphones as they include information about businesses and navigational support in the form of pop-ups.
Syntethic light projects to physical surfaces to form an image, which in some cases, users can interact with. This method detects changes and alterations with the projection which adds the ability to interact with the projection.
The original view replaced with an augmented view - in full or partly in the form of a digital overlay. Sensors like LiDAR are essential in this concept as they allow objects to superimpose in the real world environment. An example of the successful use of this method is the IKEA Place app developed by IKEA, which allows users to place virtual furniture into their rooms.
Augmented reality devices:
Modern augmented reality comes in a variety of mediums. This ranges from smartphones and tablets to glasses and headsets which share technological relationships to make AR possible as mentioned previously (sensors, cameras, accelerometer, gyroscope, digital compass, GPS, CPU, displays,etc.)
Suitable devices for augmented reality include:
- Mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) – The most accessible platform for AR. AR mobile apps, ranging from gaming and entertainment to business analytics and advertisement, sports, and social networking like Snapchat.
- Dedicated AR devices - Designed with the sole intent for AR applications. Head-up displays (HUD), Information sent to a transparent display into user’s view. This is often used in automotive and aviation applications such at the HUD's used to train military fighter pilots.
- AR glasses (smart glasses) – Glasses like the Google Glasses and Meta 2 Glasses that are capable of displaying notifications from computers and mobile phones , assisting workers via the access of hands free content.
- AR contact lenses (smart lenses) - lenses as separate AR devices with features of taking photos and storing data.
- Virtual retinal displays (VRD) - This method works by creating images by projecting laser light into the human eye to display an image.
AR technology applications:
A range of industries could benefit from augmented reality to improve systems, processes, product and sales. Some of these industries include:
- Education: interactive models for learning and training purposes, from mathematics to chemistry.
- Medicine/healthcare: to help diagnose, track, train.
- Military: for advanced navigation, marking objects in real time.
- Art / installations / visual arts / music: interactive museums and archaeology
- Tourism/translation, data on destinations, sightseeing objects, navigation, and directions.
- Broadcasting/sports/entertainment: enhancing live events and event streaming by overlaying content.
- Industrial design/architecture/construction: to visualise, calculate or model.
- Retail: advertisements, pre-purchase clothing fittings.
- Emergency management/disaster recovery/search and rescue: visual aids and navigation.
There are two main areas that businesses can benefit from AR's potential:
- Internal use to help with employee development, training and learning.
- Consumer potential with marketing, user experience and brand awareness.
Augmented reality can apply to various industries. Examples of businesses today applying AR:
In retail, many businesses have started prioritising digital customer experience. Augmented reality will allow businesses to create meaningful, impressive and lasting experiences for customers during their digital shopping experience. AR has the potential to bridge the gap between brick and mortar retail and its digital counterpart. For example, A clothing businesses could utilise AR to allow customers to try on clothing at home via AR in a 3D format.
Industrial applications with AR have the potential to change manufacturing performance. Employees can receive live and direct feedback as they are performing their jobs. For example, a technician could be viewing schematics, BOM's and CAD models as they are working on a manufacturing plant floor - removing the need for complex instructions and manuals, or remote workers could receive live support from remote staff.
Design and Creative:
Creative industries will gain the potential to view and superimpose 3D CAD models in real, physical spaces to deliver a stronger understanding of their designs. This can help deliver better marketing and sales materials to present to clients as designs become more tactile and inclusive in understanding. For example, product designers will be able to iterate their designs in a physical space, which could result in improved products, workflow and presentation.
Augmented reality will revolutionise training in businesses. Manuals and complex instructional videos eliminated by AR. AR allows businesses to develop training that enables each employee to develop competence and confidence in their tasks through guided practice.
For example, companies could develop AR training applications for new employees which would alleviate resources, whilst training them with minimal risk to employees. Medical procedures are difficult to practice, AR allows practitioners to do so in a safe, 3D environment.
Customer user experience continues to rank as a high priority in businesses today. Businesses that apply AR to their products will gain immediate, effective and direct visual engagement with their target customers. Novel and viral experiences using social media platforms will allow users to interact in 3D environments without a physical connection. For example, Snapchat and Instagram filters have already been pivotal in creating successful and unique brand experiences.
Augmented reality has countless applications for businesses.The next ten years will be an interesting and exciting time for augmented reality as businesses realise its potential.
What are the disadvantages of augmented reality?
Augmented reality has disadvantages, with the most prominent being reality modifications and privacy concerns.
AR creates the risk that the wearers of augmented reality glasses may become unaware of surrounding dangers. In a paper titled "Death by Pokemon GO", researchers at Purdue University identified "a disproportionate increase in vehicular crashes and associated vehicular damage, personal injuries, and fatalities in the vicinity of locations, called PokéStops, where users can play the game while driving." Though such occurrences are rare, it is something to be weary of as becoming more common with the trajectory of adoption that AR is heading towards.
Overload and over-reliance issues are possible dangers of AR. The user-interface should ensure not to overload the user with information while also preventing the user from over-relying on the AR system such that important cues from the environment missed. This is especially important in manufacturing applications where the risk of injury due to overload could pose as a dangerous threat to workers.
Augmented reality depends on the ability of the device to record and analyse the environment in real time. Because of this, there are potential legal concerns over privacy, especially with sensitive industry data. Conversations recorded, pictures taken and data exploited by providers, third parties or advisories.
The future AR technology:
AR applications predict to reach 3.5 billion installations and up till $85-90 billion in valuation within 5 years. The main players include: Google, Samsung, HTC, Facebook (Oculus) and Microsoft. As research continues along with AR's functionality and applications, we are sure to see organisations investing in AR as a valuable tool in their toolbox. Whether it is in the form of AR-enabled smartphones and tablets or contact lenses, it is certain we will see augmented reality creating convenient and effective systems in the future of work.