AR technology is a rising star in business and consumer technology. This is what companies need to know to successfully use augmented reality.
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From the high-tech, informative view of The Terminator to Ironman’s comprehensive view of the world from his suit, digital information about the real world is an established value in the world of science fiction. We don’t have to wait for movies or video games to give us a better picture of reality – modern computer hardware is more than capable of replicating the high-tech worlds of fiction.
Augmented reality (AR) can be used with devices that are as simple as a smartphone with camera or with advanced hardware such as Microsoft HoloLens. AR is likely to change the way we deal with computers in the near future, and in many ways already. Discover how and why augmented reality is important for modern businesses.
What is augmented reality?
Like the heads-up displays that are seen everywhere in science fiction, augmented reality is any technology that allows users to see digital information in the real world. That is where AR distinguishes itself from virtual reality (VR): AR does not block the real world or replace it with a fully digital one – it lets the real world shine through, only with digital objects or information on top.
There are many well-known examples of AR in the real world. Games such as Pokemon Go project digital critters into the world around them; Google Maps has added AR functions that display directions in the real world; and other smartphone apps have made new use of AR via built-in cameras.
Advanced hardware, such as Microsoft HoloLens or Google Glass, makes AR much more practical than smartphone apps: they offer immersive, hands-free AR that can be used for various business, commercial and educational purposes.
Augmented reality is still new and much of its use has yet to be discovered. At present, heaven is the limit for AR: there are countless ways in which digital information about the real world can be practical and lucrative.
SEE: Microsoft HoloLens 2: a guide for insiders (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
How can companies use augmented reality?
The AR market is expected to be worth $ 60.55 billion USD by 2023 and is probably led by some of the biggest technical names: Google, Samsung, HTC and Microsoft.
Companies that want to stay at the forefront should at least consider where augmented reality could fit into their organizations. It will not disappear quickly and if the predictions are correct, it will only become more important as time passes.
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There are two main areas that companies should consider when deciding whether AR is for them: the potential for internal use to help employees and the commercial applicability for consumers.
For example, a warehousing company does not need a smartphone app much, but a heads-up display for forklift drivers or other warehouse workers can eliminate the time spent searching for inventory and reduce accident risks.
If the same warehouse is full of home furnishings and furnishing, the leaders of that company might want to think about a second application for AR: Smartphone apps that allow customers to see what their purchase would look like at home before they buy it. Furniture company IKEA has already lapped at those AR applications: the IKEA Place app is very popular.
Here are some other ways that companies can use augmented reality.
Remote help: AR apps that allow technicians and users to communicate with experts in real time are on the rise. In some cases, these apps allow technical support to mark objects in the user’s field of vision so that they can assist with repairs without ever leaving their seats. AR headsets connect to Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and other diagnostic information to help technicians assess repair needs faster and reduce downtime. The HoloLens even comes with a built-in app for remote control.
Training and education: The educational applications of AR are known and can be experienced by users with hardware that is as simple as a smartphone. There are also advanced AR education apps for augmented reality headsets such as the HoloLens that can go further and offer an even better educational experience. Seeing 3D representations of objects, zooming in and getting an exploded view, and seeing complex machines work from the inside are all ways in which AR can be used in the educational realm. AR can also be used for virtual collaboration, making it easier for students and teachers to solve problems together individually.
SEE: 5 top use cases for AR / VR in business, and how you can get started (TechRepublic)
3D modeling: Whether it is building a house or designing a new car, AR can be used as an aid to the modeling and design process. There are apps that can import and display CAD files in real space, view 3D models of houses and more.
Education: New employees often need time to learn how systems work, but they don’t necessarily have to do this in the real world. AR training apps are already being used by companies such as Walmart, Verizon, Honeywell and Chipotle. By giving employees access to virtual training, they can make mistakes in a virtual environment without real consequences.
Keep customers in a store: AR apps can help customers stay around. Businesses have found ways to make money from AR since Pokemon Go came out in 2016: people may not be in your store for shopping, but games can hang them out, which can lead to a sale. Cosmetics company Sephora is also at the forefront of customer-focused AR: it has a mobile app for practically fitting makeup and AR kiosks in the store that keep people shopping.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of business applications for AR, and over time, those applications are likely to evolve into areas we have not yet considered. Regardless of the type of business in which you operate, there is probably an AR-use case – it’s up to you and your development team to find out what that is.
What technology is needed to use augmented reality?
It might seem daunting to start using AR in your organization. The most business-like practical applications of augmented reality seem to require some extensive hardware, and apps for internal use require a lot of development before they can be used.
That does not mean that AR falls outside the reach of the average company, nor does it mean that expensive hardware such as the HoloLens is needed to turn it into a business tool.
Using augmented reality is as easy as having a smartphone with camera, and many AR apps for mobile devices have business applications or can be used in a business role.
Take for example the built-in iOS app Measure. It uses the camera of a device and spatial insight to determine the size of objects, measure rooms and act as a level. This can have a lot of business use for professionals who have to measure spaces (for example IT professionals who set up a new server rack).
Simple apps such as Measuring are just a taste of practical use for augmented reality. Other AR apps that can be used by companies and their employees include Google Translate, which automatically translates text captured by a device’s camera; Google Lens, which displays information about every object the camera sees; Google’s Just a Line, with which users can draw in 3D space and others can view the drawings in real time (ideal for supporting computer users); and more.
With the right team and goals, even small businesses could use AR apps – and we haven’t even touched the external use of AR for things like customer engagement, product testing, and other user-focused AR powered by smartphones.
Yes, if you want to optimally use augmented reality as an internal tool, you need advanced hardware that can be operated hands-free and is designed for business AR use. That doesn’t mean that small businesses or companies that don’t need a HoloLens-like AR are unaware: it’s all about finding the right tools that can work to meet your business needs within your budget.
What are the most popular augmented reality platforms?
When you think of AR platforms, it is important to distinguish between AR development kits and programming languages that are most commonly used for developing AR software.
AR development kits include software such as Apple’s ARKit, Reality Composer, and RealityKit; ARCore from Google and other development kits specially designed for AR on consumer quality hardware that most users probably have, such as a smartphone.
Other AR tools, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, rely less on independent development kits and more on general Windows development skills. Hardware such as the HoloLens has much more functionality and therefore the development of apps is more complicated for that. Microsoft calls its HoloLens AR “mixed reality” and the development for that uses the same SDK programmers that are used for other Windows software projects.
Regardless of the type of AR that you intend to develop, one thing is certain: you need experienced programmers. Even standalone kits such as ARKit and ARCore require programming with popular languages.
SEE: Use Google Lens and Wescover to discover the makers of art and design (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
How can my company start using augmented reality?
If you have found a way that AR can benefit your business, you have completed an important step.
The next hurdle to jump is to find out what the best approach is: should you opt for hardware such as the HoloLens or Google Glass, or is it better to opt for a more affordable option such as AR with smartphone?
Once you know what AR hardware you need, you have to choose a platform. If you go with mobile devices, there is a choice between Apple and Google, so choose which one is most likely to be attractive to customers or employees.
SEE: Top 5 reasons why AR and VR are business (TechRepublic)
For those who invest in AR hardware, there are several products to choose from: the Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass and Magic Leap. Before deciding which AR headset you want to invest in, you need to weigh the costs, features, development kits, and other features to determine which one is best for your needs.
You also need skilled developers who can build your AR apps, whether for smartphones or headsets. Choosing the platform and / or hardware to go with it can largely be determined by the skills of the people in your development team, so make sure you consult them when considering an AR project.
Remember: with AR, the sky is the limit. There are countless uses for this new and exciting technology, and what you want to do with it can be the major breakthrough that your company needs to take things to the next level.