Pokémon Go may have catapulted Augmented Reality (AR) into the headlines in 2016, but what does the future hold for AR and business? We’ve been chatting to Scott Porter, Director of Creative Technology, to find out how AR can create value for business.
Let’s take a step back before we look forward. What’s the history of AR?
AR has been in development in various forms since 1968, mostly for experimental user interfaces. One of the earliest experiments was Videoplace by Myron Krueger, which combined projectors with video cameras creating an immersive and interactive environment. At that time, only wireframe and simple bitmap graphics were possible with the hardware but, over several years, Kreuger developed his own computer systems for real-time image recognition, analysis, and response. Impressive developments, especially given the era Kreuger was living in.
Whilst AR as a concept began in the late 60’s, it was in 1990 that US Boeing researcher Tom Caudell coined the term ‘Augmented Reality’ in reference to a head-mounted digital display used to train employees on how to assemble electrical wires in aircrafts. The US Airforce were early adopters of the technology, which was mainly used in training to improve human performance. In 1992 the project Virtual Fixtures was developed, which was a full upper-body exoskeleton that allowed the military to control virtually guided machinery to perform tasks remotely. Virtual Fixtures is widely regarded as one of the first fully functioning AR systems.
Most early examples were proofs of concept as they were hampered by the limitations of computing power at the time. Today’s machines are capable of rendering much more realistic environments, containing real-time data, and expanding the potential use cases for AR.
Could you describe the technologies involved in augmented reality?
AR involves position sensing systems, mostly for head/hand tracking in 3D space, along with powerful 3D accelerated graphic systems connected to head mounted displays. Most AR systems currently offload the majority of processing to a host PC but, as in the case of Microsoft Hololens, practically all of the hardware can be built into the headset.
External cameras are sometimes used to gather additional information that can be processed in the cloud, or by a connected PC. More and more companies are developing AR apps for standard phones, augmenting the view through the camera. It’s an exciting time for AR and we’re only just beginning to see the potential.
What have been the main challenges so far for businesses wanting to adopt augmented reality?
Until recently there have been very few off-the-shelf AR solutions and the hardware has been very expensive making it prohibitive to many. Current use cases are predominantly limited to controlled environments and ‘special purpose’ roles where having information available in a head up display (HUD) is useful. Currently there are few people that actually need this in public day-to-day life, especially as the benefit of this information is more than countered by a relatively bulky headset often required.
Take for example Google Glass – the headset that launched predominantly as a developer tool but was later retracted due to several issues. Most notably these issues were around privacy with the headset glasses. Other barriers included wearing high-value tech in public, potentially making the user a target for criminals. Also, if you’ve ever tried speaking into a headset in public you’ll understand how socially awkward you feel, making it an unnatural user experience. However I predict that, in time, as the technology becomes more mainstream this will likely become acceptable.
The accessibility of the technology seems to have opened the floodgates to AR. How has it been applied by businesses so far?
The gaming industry has been using AR for some time. In fact the first AR game was in 2000 – a game called ARQuake that used a computer backpack and gyroscopes with a head mounted display. In 2008, AR applications were developed for smartphones and of course AR finally hit the headlines in 2016 with Pokémon Go when it was reported that on launch day the game immediately surpassed the daily time usage of Facebook, SnapChat and Twitter by the average iOS user on mobile phones.
Aside from gaming, there are huge opportunities for the wider use of AR in businesses, from retail to marketing, automotive, education, and healthcare – the list goes on. In retail there are opportunities to include AR to enrich the omni-channel experience. A recent report claimed that 80% of respondents would be more likely to visit a store offering VR and AR technology. Retailers are already adopting AR to facilitate sales and the technology is being widely used to show products overlaid on the users’ immediate environment. Notable examples include IKEA where it used AR to help customers visualise how certain pieces of furniture would fit and look in their own homes, and Converse trainers used it so customers could ‘try on’ shoes.
AR has been used in marketing for several years and there’ve been numerous campaigns connecting print, digital and AR to bring advertising to life. One of the best early examples was seen from Lynx as part of their ‘Angels will Fall’ experiential campaign in 2011. The campaign saw people interacting directly with AR angels via a digital video billboard. AR is being increasingly used on adverts, magazines and packaging to engage with target audiences.
The automotive industry is continuously investing in augmented reality. AR is being used by BMW mechanics as a training tool, allowing technicians to fix problems with no prior experience of a particular vehicle. Range Rover used a virtual overlay to allow drivers to see through a transparent bonnet to improve driver safety. Ford, Audi, Fiat and Skoda also launched AR projects which could potentially replace the showroom experience. These ‘digital showrooms’ enable potential buyers to view the features of a car ahead of purchase via their phone or on headsets making it more convenient for the customer, while keeping costs down for showroom space.
Various military and law enforcement aircraft have used AR to overlay targeting and terrain information onto the visors of the crew. AR is also used in drone racing, giving pilots a first-person view from the aircraft with overlaid information utilising Oculus Rift and bespoke helmets.
The medical profession has shown great interest in AR and Stanford University demonstrated one possible use for assisting surgeons in theatre. It can be useful in training students, providing medical help in remote locations and relaying information to emergency teams at the scene of accidents is another interesting possible application. Whilst AR is still in the early stages of implementation, progress is still needed to make these technologies more refined and ready for mainstream use in the healthcare industry.
AR has further potential uses in education, business and training. For example, allowing students to experience the surface of mars, or a prehistoric landscape on Earth in a group setting with a tutor controlling the session.
There’s a lot of buzz around AR and it’s not going to go away. Smart businesses will be thinking about how AR can benefit them now and in fact, according to a 2016 research report by Tech Pro Research, 67% of businesses are already considering using AR in the future.
So what’s next?
With AI and Machine Learning systems on the rise, my personal prediction is that the combination of these, with AR and VR, will create the most exciting opportunities for businesses. One example would be security in retail environments using AI systems to instantly flag known shoplifters with real-time face recognition overlaying data via the AR headset.
Emotional AI is another interesting area to explore and there’s scope for this to be used by therapists to augment their assessment of patients, blending different technologies together to benefit both health professionals and patients. Emotional AI is currently in its infancy so its accuracy is not particularly high, but it is improving all the time.
As the technology is still in early stages, and applications are still in development, it’s hard to know exactly what will happen, but its predicted that the market for AR hardware will grow roughly 190% each year from 2016 to 2020. It has also been reported that the combined revenue for both AR and VR markets is expected to hit $162 billion by the year 2020, with a big part of that revenue growth driven by services related to enterprise applications of the technologies. There’s no doubt that AR is going to really start to take off for businesses in 2017 and it is important businesses don’t get left behind by ignoring AR’s potential.
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