It works through smartphones, tablets and smart glasses to add virtual layers of information to the real world. It's time, say the experts, for businesses to begin thinking seriously about what augmented reality can do for them
Imagine using a smartphone camera display to view the world around you… and then seeing information on the objects you're looking at popping up as you walk along. Or imagine having virtual objects appear before your eyes at your command.
This is the world of augmented reality (known as AR): technology that connects an internet-enabled device – a smartphone, for instance – to a source that can add layers of information to a real-world scene.
Although the technology has been around for several years now, Google's plans to launch its smart glasses this year has whipped up a wave of renewed interest that promises to push AR into many new business environments in the years ahead. Meanwhile, mobile tech analysis company Juniper Research predicts that the worldwide number of AR users, taking in smartphones, tablets and smart glasses, will rise from 60 million in 2013 to nearly 200 million in 2018.
According to Ori Inbar, co-founder and chief executive of augmentedreality.org, a global not-for-profit organisation promoting awareness of the technology, up until recently AR was seen by many as interesting but a little "gimmicky". Now, however, he says the interest is more serious: "A lot of enterprises are realising that augmented reality is providing solutions for things that cannot be solved in any other way," he says. "It's becoming a key part of strategy for companies, whether on the industrial floor, in sales, education, training or in marketing. People are better understanding it, and starting to use it."
Some applications, for example, use GPS to identify the device's location and provide data – often in real time – about the surrounding environment. For instance, many people will already be familiar with simple smartphone apps, such as Qype Radar, that tell users where the nearest restaurants or bars are; or the London Bus Checker, which predicts when the next bus will arrive at the nearest stop.
The technology becomes more complex with applications that use a device's camera to recognise an object and provide information about its different elements, or which can impose an image that helps a user visualise how a new object will look in an environment.
Inbar defines this idea as overlaying computer graphics on the real world. "[However] we're seeing it have an impact beyond that… it's making the world more interactive so that anything around you can become clickable, whether it's an object, a person or a location. You can get information about an object, learn about it, play with it or engage with it in different ways. With augmented reality you can take a lot of the information that already exists about things and make it available within your field of view."
While AR adds to what is in the user's sight, it should not distract from the real world, he says. "Unlike virtual reality, which immerses you in another world, in the case of AR you want to be aware of what's around you, where you are in the real world – and you only want information that provides hints and guides you in a non-intrusive way. It's not easy to do. There are some good designers out there working on this, but there are few examples of it working in the correct way."
The business uses
There are a host of sectors well-placed to benefit from AR, with some of the earliest examples coming from the worlds of marketing and retail. A smartphone can be pointed at an object that includes a tag or symbol (a Quick Response, or QR code for example, will be a symbol many people are now familiar with) or at the relevant picture in a brochure to provide a range of information – even a video presentation on a product. It's also possible to help potential customers by providing a visual of how a product will look within a specific space.
There are uses for AR in engineering and industrial design, where designers can create visualisations of machines and components, or provide the ability to recognise features and provide directions on operation and maintenance. For example, 3D measurement technology company Faro has incorporated Metaio's AR software in some of its devices used for 3D measurement in factory production and quality assurance.
Similarly, the technology can be used to provide large-scale visualisations in architecture, construction and civil engineering, enabling workers in the field to give feedback to design teams. Engineering software firm Aveva, for instance, is already working on this in the energy and chemical industries.
AR can be used for locating goods within a warehouse – guiding workers through complex tasks using visual prompts, as warehouse logistics firm Knapp AG is doing through its KiSoft Vision technology.
According to Tom Wood, director of AR agency Kudan Augmented Reality, the real value is in getting a product into the surrounding environment, citing luxury-flooring company Karndean as a great example of a business using AR to improve sales. Kudan worked with Karndean on an iPhone and iPad app that enables customers to point the device at a space and see how different floors would look.
It's also been integrated with Facebook and Twitter so that users can post options for friends to comment on. "As a sales enabler tool, it's very useful," says Wood. "It totally changes the way they sell the product." In fact, TV presenter Sarah Beeny has done something similar on her Channel 4 show Double Your House for Half the Money, providing visualisations on a tablet of how a living space can be changed.
However, Wood adds that it is often better not to create a specific AR app for a company, and instead to incorporate it within existing brand apps for mobile devices. Tesco, for example, has done this for a few of its Metro stores, making it possible for users to point a smartphone at an item in the window display to obtain information and place an order.
"We have a reputation in the marketplace for saying no to stuff, because sometimes it can just place barriers in the way of the consumer," says Wood. "AR is an enabling technology, a core function of a brand app, and often you shouldn't have
a dedicated AR app."
Wood also warns against adopting the technology for the sake of it. "It's not particularly well understood at the moment. Most of the AR that people see as quite attractive has no value or business benefit. People need educating about what can be done with the technology."
One of the more complex examples of AR on the shop floor has been developed by Wirth Research which, unusually, created an application for its own purposes first, before making it available for wider use via the Emersio app. Founder Nick Wirth says the impetus came from manufacturing critical components for racing cars. As they're fitted by hand, it's a challenge to ensure this is done with the necessary precision every time, and the app was developed to recognise a car engine, provide a visualisation of parts and show how components should be fitted and wires routed. When the company first began developing it, all the AR systems it was tried on needed a marker they could understand (such as a printed pattern or symbol) before they'd impose an image.
A more sophisticated app was needed – one that could respond to the three- dimensional environment of a car engine, understand shapes, connections and depths, to give users a more precise view.
Wirth says that clients have found it particularly useful as a virtual service manual for cars – but that it has wider applications too. "It has allowed us to show the ability to display information that is impossible in any other way," he explains. "For example, in architecture it's possible to display the results of analysis of air flow in a building. You could hold up the device with the app loaded, and we can show how the streamlines of air flow through that environment. Architectural clients find it useful for communicating with customers."
Life through a lens
While AR is used most often with smartphones and tablets, the impending launch of Google Glass has meant the industry is paying more attention to its potential with smart glasses. And forecasts suggest the use of smart glasses is going to rise sharply: Juniper Research predicts that annual shipments will climb to 10 million by 2018 as more uses are developed.
Josh Flood, senior mobile research analyst at technology market intelligence company ABI Research, describes them as "a likely game changer" for AR. "What smart glasses bring that is different to other mobile devices is that they are always on and head mounted," he explains. "In contrast to the time it takes to pull out a regular mobile device, they're always ready to kick into action immediately." They also provide a more practical interface in terms of speaking to the device. "For example, it can be valuable in some types of hazardous work environment where people need computers but it's too dangerous to hold or carry a device."
Dan Cui, vice president for business development at video eyewear company Vuzix, says: "The industry owes Google a slap on the back for opening people's minds. A company like that can say, 'Hey, look what we've got' and everybody follows. Companies like ours have been on the bleeding edge of technology for years, but now Google has made its announcements we're on the leading edge and have much more experience in optics, micro-electronics and wearable technology. Companies are coming to us and looking for that expertise to help define what they need in terms of wearable technology."
Vuzix's M100 is similar to Google Glass in providing an internet-enabled, head-mounted computer with camera, sound facility, tiny display and a prism to direct it to the user's eye. (Some other models are all-in-one with the frame and lenses). Its computer runs on Android, which, says Cui, makes it suitable for almost any application developed for the operating system.
Given there are other smart glass manufacturers using Android – such as GlassUp, Meta and EmoPulse – it shows the foundations are already in place for wider app development, which should encourage wider use in business. Cui's advice is that the emphasis should be on everyday demands. "Many of the applications being developed are not based on a futuristic concept of a whole world appearing in front of your eyes," he says. "People have realised that the return on investment for the automation of everyday tasks is huge.
"For example, in a warehouse, being able to pick the right box at the right time is a checklist item. Getting it done without having to take three or four steps backwards and do something else can save a lot of time and money. Look at remote maintenance: all those service technicians trying to repair all kinds of equipment. Now, imagine that the manual or the part number of the device they're looking at appears in their eye and they can order that part. Think of businesspeople looking at spreadsheets, looking down at an account number and information pops up on the relevant person and their history with the company. The customers we're talking to tell us the return on investment is known, they know how much money they'll save, and they must move forward with it." He suggests the potential will be even greater in the future, when more refined technology will mean no more prisms; headsets will be more slimline; and images can be projected onto thinner lenses.
Cool for cool's sake?
Naturally, people are getting excited about AR because it's 'cool.' But the prevailing wisdom suggests that's not a good enough reason to go for it. As with any relatively new technology, there are pitfalls and
a danger that companies will rush into wasting an investment.
According to Nick Wirth, it's important to look at factors such as who'll be using the applications, the amount of data that needs to be transferred, how often it'll need updating, and how best to present the information. Further, whether the technology is to interact with a brochure or magazine, or in a real environment, and whether it's to be a static or dynamic model. "There are many questions and each AR system will have different suitability depending on the end game," he says.
Ori Inbar even goes so far as to suggest that virtual reality which doesn't interact with the real world – or another technology altogether – could be more appropriate. "The trick is to use augmented reality to provide solutions that are better than those you have already," he says.
Ultimately, he says: "Talk to the experts. It's not yet a huge industry but there are dozens of companies that have great experts developing applications and technologies. It's a new type of interaction, so you can't just jump in and expect to be successful." He also advises not to "take it for granted. It's a new type of interaction and you have to understand how it can solve your type of business problem and not try to force it."