Augmented reality – from playful gimmickry to serious business

Industries: General
  • The lowdown on how augmented reality actually works
  • From playful gimmickry to serious business
  • The promise of augmented reality for companies to work smarter
  • Virtual reality or augmented reality – which one is the future?

Augmented reality technology is defined as the expansion of our real world by adding layers of computer-generated information to everyday objects and even people. With more than $1.1 billion injected in virtual and augmented reality this year alone, it looks as if the ever increasing group of VR and AR evangelists is now set to include investors as well.

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The lowdown on how augmented reality actually works

The information that is ‘layered’ over day to day objects can consist of various types of virtual objects or content; text, images, sound, video, GPS data, haptic feedback and even smell. Besides being a ‘displaying technology’, augmented reality also provides real-time user interfaces that enable humans to interact with objects. The way augmented reality works is a combination of four specific tasks. First, the real object or scene that needs to be augmented is captured with a camera. Then the captured object, location or scene needs to be scanned in order to identify the exact position in which the virtual content should be embedded or overlaid. The position could be determined by visual tags or markers or by tracking technology such as laser, infrared, sensors or GPS. In the next phase, the object or scene is processed – becoming clearly identified and recognisable. The corresponding virtual content is then requested from a database or from the Internet. Finally, the augmented reality system produces a virtual overlay of content over the real-life object or scene.

A few examples will make the concept clearer:

Instantly identify an amazing building

While strolling down the streets of Barcelona, you see incredible architecture everywhere you go. You could use your smartphone to take some pictures – stick them in Google and hope you’ll find some interesting information. You could also put on your AR glasses, look at the building and within seconds, you’ll automatically get a digital overlay with information about the building; how old it is, who the architect was, what the inside looks like, whether or not there are tours of the building and at what times.

Wink your eye for food

It’s 2020 and you are driving down a highway – probably in your autonomous car – and you suddenly feel hungry. Using augmented reality, you just wink or snap your fingers and a computer display appears on your windscreen, showing you information about popular restaurants in the area where you’ll arrive in an hour. With another wink of your eye or finger snap you make a selection of the eating places that appeal to you most. You can automatically contact the restaurant to place your order by instant message or video call and your satellite navigation system will tell you how to get there.

No more worries when your car breaks down

Another in-car scenario. Imagine your car breaking down in the middle of that same highway – after having enjoyed a delicious meal. It’s after hours, so no garages are open and you don’t know the first thing about car mechanics. But with AR there’s nothing to worry about. You can put on your smart glasses – or use the windscreen overlay again -, launch the vehicle repair app and you will be assisted by a digital step-by-step guide, showing you how to fix your car problem. With augmented reality – who needs a mechanic?

On demand product reviews enhance your shopping experience

Picture yourself out shopping. You see a jacket you like but before you buy it you would like to find out how other customers rated it.  Wearing your AR glasses, you glance down at the jacket and instantly see a virtual overlay of additional information such as user ratings, supply information and product details. All of this added information will greatly empower your purchase decision.

Hands holding a smartphone and taking a picture of a blue sky with clouds
Augmented reality would offer you a digitally enhanced social and work experience.

From playful gimmickry to serious business

Up until recently, augmented reality was perceived as a gimmick  – technology searching for meaningful applications. Now, with large corporations like Google, Qualcomm and Canon injecting substantial funding into AR startups and projects, we can soon expect to see the launch of significant AR products that are consumer-ready. As clear benefits for business are emerging, experts are of the opinion that augmented reality is going to be the next big thing in the consumer, mobile, manufacturing, medical and automotive industries. In the next section, we will have a look at a few potential applications.

The promise of augmented reality for businesses to work smarter

Businesses looking for new ways to increase the productivity of their staff will hugely benefit from implementing augmented reality technology. AR has been instrumental in the development of applications in, for instance, the area of industrial maintenance. Parts analysis and simulation, construction planning, staff support and supervising are just some of the many possibilities. Apart from application in business, the technology could also make learning processes in education and training more interesting and engaging. It is clear to see that augmented reality systems are set to play a significant role in how we work in the future.

Improved customer service
Staff members who deal with customers – particularly those in retail – can benefit greatly from augmented reality. For instance, a saleslady at a beauty products counter could use AR glasses to help the customer choose cosmetic products that are best suited to her complexion. Through the smart glasses, the saleslady would be able to see how certain beauty and makeup products would look on the customer. She could also use a digital, superimposed makeup guide – directly in her field of vision – on how to apply the products.

The power of remote guidance
Many workers, such as field engineers or salesmen, spend many hours outside of the office. The challenge with working remotely is that they can get into unexpected situations where they urgently need to get in touch with someone from the office. Augmented reality – such as Google Glass – could be of great assistance in situations like these. The technology could be used to provide a mechanic with instructions or manuals the parts of a car engine that need to be fixed or replaced. The information could be provided by a colleague at the office who can examine the scene remotely, or by smart software with machine vision. With the use of AR headsets, the immediacy of a situation is almost tangible and another advantage is that the worker’s hands will be free. A remote colleague with a tablet could see the viewpoint of a field worker wearing a HoloLens and then assist him with step-by-step directions on how to install certain parts.

More effective training and education
Augmented reality holds a lot of promise when it comes to training and education as well. In order to grasp a concept or a procedure, a student or trainee could watch, experience and repeat augmented reality scenarios as many times as needed. This would be very complicated in a real-world training scenario. With AR, training could be done much more elaborately. A car engine could for instance be taken apart and put back together an unlimited number of times by as many people as required. AR devices are set to add lots of value when it comes to improving skill sets and expanding staff capabilities, which can be hugely beneficial for educational institutions and businesses.

New and improved ways of working in health and insurance
Augmented reality could revolutionise the way medical professionals diagnose and treat diseases. During the physical examination of a patient, an augmented reality headset could for instance capture medical symptoms and place relevant information in the physician’s view. Similarly, insurance assessors who examine vehicles that have been in an accident could stream video footage of the car to a remote computer system. This system could then assess the damage and produce cost estimations for repairs. The recognition abilities of the system would also be able to help the assessor determine what happened, leading to faster and more accurate insurance claims processing.

Virtual reality or artificial reality – which one is the future?

The question should actually be whether we want to experience our future in real life – but enhanced, or whether we prefer to be cut off from reality and submerge ourselves in an artificially created ‘world’. Considering the fact that we are social beings; standing around a hologram with a group of people – colleagues or friends – and interacting with it in real life seems like the obvious choice and virtual reality may have a bit of a disadvantage there. There are virtual hangouts such as AltSpaceVR however, that combine the virtual with the social by providing platforms where your avatar can meet and share experiences, play games and move around virtual worlds with other avatars. Virtual reality is more like something you experience at home, to relax and unwind, away from the world – much like watching TV on your couch with your feet up. Augmented reality would offer you a digitally enhanced social and/or work experience that still enables you to partake in real life and communicate with people face to face.

It is very likely that we will see more of a hybrid-type reality or mixed reality – the merging of real, augmented and virtual worlds – enabling us to experience new environments where the digital and the physical react to and interact with each other in real time.

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Industries: General
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