Getting Real With Augmented Reality

Once the stuff of sci-fi movies, AR technology has now reached the point of easy adoption, and can help companies in a variety of ways.

A fair amount of press attention has been devoted lately to an intriguing pair of visual communication technologies—augmented reality (AR) and its cousin virtual reality (VR)— each which have been described as keys to enabling everything from accelerated industrial workflows to clinical personality transformations.  Both outcomes are, in fact, currently available. But depending on how the systems are applied, these examples only scratch the surface of what’s possible.

At the same time, however, AR and VR are positioned as futuristic technologies, which has led to some serious misunderstandings. For example, there’s the notion that these systems are so novel and unfamiliar that they would require a major retraining of employees to be able to use them. That just isn’t so. The technology underlying AR has been around since before the turn of this century, and it hasn’t been hiding out in someone’s laboratory. In fact, it has been a guest in the homes of most Americans throughout that entire time.

Think of the last time you saw an NFL football game or an MLB baseball game on TV. Neither the bright orange line that signifies how far until the next first down, nor the vivid blue line showing the current line of scrimmage, actually exist on the field. They’re electronic, and they augment the viewer’s understanding of the game underway. In baseball, the electronic box superimposed over home plate shows the pitcher’s strike zone.  Particularly when coupled with slow-motion replays, the intimate details of a fast-moving game—frequently including actions too quick or too nuanced for viewers in the stands to see for themselves—become crystal clear. And that’s not even counting the game stats and player bios frequently thrown up on the screen. What the viewer at home is actually watching is sports coverage enhanced by augmented reality, and it requires essentially no new learning on their part to understand or use.

A related confusion about AR is that using it must cost a fortune. After all, few businesses, and even fewer consumers, can afford to have a fully-staffed TV network production truck park in their driveway, generating the sort of visual augmentations that come with game coverage. While that may have been necessary 25 or 30 years ago, the technology has made tremendous advances since then to the point where AR is now easily within the reach of private consumers as well as businesses of every size. AR apps are available for smart phones, often free of charge, and they provide many of the same enhancements that TV audiences now take for granted.

Take, for example, Snapchat, which uses electronic lenses and filters—most of them built by Snap users themselves—to create playful moving images augmented in imaginative ways. Even Zoom and most of the other teleconferencing software that became familiar to everyone working from home during the pandemic, include a modest selection of augmentations to enhance users’ images. Electronic games, going back as far as the 1990s, used primitive forms of AR. And the wildly popular 2016 smartphone game, Pokémon Go, successfully harnessed a combination of routine smartphone technologies to augment players’ view of reality and engage the attention of millions.

Retail vendors, interior decorators and online merchants have also found AR to come in handy. Want to see what your living room would look like in different colors? No problem.  What about a change in flooring? Or whether that pair of shoes might look good on you? Or how those reading glasses would fit your face? Or that particular shade of lipstick? Just a keystroke or two, and…voila!

This technology also has game-changing potential for industrial use as well. Remote assistance using AR is enabling manufacturing experts to connect with on-site workers on the factory floor in real-time to offer guidance involving inspection, repair or maintenance— all within the context of real applications. The opportunity to digitally augment real-world images from a remote location greatly enhances the clarity of communication and improves collaboration.

Consider the case of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO). MRO activities are not only among the most critical areas of engineering for economic growth and industrial operations, they are also ideal candidates for AR in both developed and developing economies. The global market for augmented reality in MRO was valued at $403.3 million in 2018 and is expected to reach $3.3 billion by 2024, growing at a CAGR of 42.1% during the forecast period 2018-2024.

What it all suggests is that AR, although built on a platform of advanced technology, has by now become familiar and customary—particularly to just about anyone under 40. And they are using it as more than just a gimmicky, fun experience. It’s also being seen as a way of becoming immersed in an augmented environment that enhances the job they’re focused on during the work day by reducing mistakes and increasing productivity.

If anything, for a growing number of workers, AR has become an expectation, and sometimes even a source of disappointment if it’s not being used to play a bigger role in their working lives. Consider maintenance, manufacturing and logistics, where wearable, hands-free, heads-up information displays on smart glasses are being used for inspection and quality assurance, and where more immersive mixed reality systems promise to enable even better, smarter outcomes.

The key is cultivating a labor force where work processes become digitally connected, end-to-end. Connecting workers in real time to the company’s business processes and desired outcomes is emerging as the foundation of class-leading companies. The technology to provide all of that is now at hand, and barriers to entry have essentially vanished. AR is an important part of what makes the connected worker experience possible. There is nothing today standing in the way of companies enabling their workforces and augmenting them with the capabilities they need. All the resources that workers might require can become immediately accessible. And the next few years will see even more capable platforms that drop the complexity of adoption still lower while, at the same time, improving workers’ responses to challenges.

Augmented reality has now become the new workplace reality. It’s time to get onboard.