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Augmented Reality Explained

Augmented reality (AR) has moved beyond headsets and gaming and into industries like manufacturing and healthcare. Here’s a brief explanation.

When you say augmented reality, people often think of movies like “Iron Man.” But augmented reality (AR) has moved beyond Hollywood, headsets, and gaming and into use cases such as inspection and repair. As interest in AR grows, IT leaders will need to discuss what AR can and can’t do in terms that colleagues, customers, and other audiences will understand.

Worldwide spending on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) is expected to reach $160 billion in 2023. “Augmented reality is gaining share in the commercial market due to its ability to facilitate tasks, provide access to resources, and solve complex problems.

Industries like manufacturing, utilities, telecommunications, retail, healthcare, and logistics are increasingly adopting AR for a variety of uses, including assembly, maintenance and repair, education and training, retail showcasing, and diagnostics.

Yet AR may not be that well understood by others in the enterprise. Many people mistakenly equate AR with virtual reality, although the two offer distinctly different ways of shifting a user’s experience. Some people assume it’s a futuristic tech. Others may have no idea that AR could have broad applicability in the enterprise and that it can be delivered in any number of ways.

What is augmented reality? 5 ways to explain

At its most basic level, AR capabilities layer digital information in some form or another atop the analog world in which we live. Here are five simple definitions that may prove useful when engaging in conversations around the potential business value of AR:

  1. “AR is a technology that enhances or augments your experience of the world around you”
  2. “Augmented reality (AR) is the real-time use of information in the form of text, graphics, audio, and other virtual enhancements integrated with real-world objects
  3. “Augmented reality is the rendering of digital images or data onto real-world objects.”
  4. “Augmented reality (AR) is superimposed digital information overlaid on a user’s view of a physical environment.”
  5. “Augmented reality refers to any technology that ‘augments’ the user’s visual (and in some case auditory) perception of their environment. Typically, digital information is superimposed over a natural existing environment. Information is tailored to the user’s physical position as well as the context of the task, thereby helping the user to solve the problem and complete the task.”

Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality

Unlike VR, Gartner says, AR is not a simulation of reality – rather, it integrates and adds value to the user’s interaction with the real world.

Virtual Reality is the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

AR examples, beyond headsets and Hololens

Microsoft’s HoloLens headset has been a very visible AR tool, but as experts point out, AR is a much more versatile technology. “Microsoft HoloLens is a poster child for AR, but one has to keep in mind that headsets are not the only way to render it.”  “If anything, phones and tablets are much more common, even if they are not hands-free like a headset.”

Indeed, that’s one of the most common misperceptions about AR ­­­– and one that can worry users who aren’t keen to wear a headset. “AR can be experienced today at scale on handheld devices like smartphones and tablets, on magic mirrors and smart displays, as part of projection mapping experiences, as well as wearable devices currently available (and soon to launch) to the market such as smart glasses and hearables.”

Another false assumption is that all AR experiences resemble or are intended to look like something out of “Minority Report” or “Iron Man.” “The fact of the matter is that AR comes in various forms,”  “Pokemon Go showed us location-based AR on smartphones. SnapChat gave us video-see-through facial filters (i.e., digital overlays on top of a digital video feed).” Transparent smart glasses enable optical-see-through AR experiences.

Bose, for one, prototyped AR glasses that layered in sound rather than images. In addition, AR experiences vary in terms of their user interfaces, Some involve physical controllers, while others may integrate voice or gesture controls.

AR use cases in the enterprise market

We can explain the value of AR as giving workers “superpowers” via the additional layer of knowledge and insight that AR tools can provide: “AR is already enhancing the workforce in pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, military, aerospace, automotive, manufacturing, and more.”

Industrial use cases are likely to continue to be the most widely adopted for a time, and were among the first to deliver real benefits.

“In the near term, enterprise AR use cases will be relatively simple and widely applicable”.

One example of that is AR for “remote assistance” or the “see-what-I-see” use case. Consider an inspector or repair person in the field: “Enterprise AR adoption within the remote assistance space can be beneficial across a wide range of industries that require inspection, maintenance, and repair out in the field. “ “AR remote assistance can be deployed across a wide range of industries, including HVAC and appliance repair, utilities, restaurant, retail, manufacturing, insurance, and many more.”

AR remote assistance can improve training in situations where new hires need help, and enable real-time collaboration between field personnel and remote experts – with the ultimate goal of increased customer satisfaction.

Five interesting AR/VR projects in action

What do immersive reality technologies look like in the real world? These early business use cases offer a glimpse of the possibilities in fields from retail to healthcare

Retail: Lowe’s AR/VR suite

Lowe’s is at the forefront of commercial AR/VR implementation, having been named number one on Fast Company’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in AR/VR this year. The home improvement retailer’s dedicated Lowe’s Innovation Labs has rolled out a series of mixed reality tools and capabilities to make the lives of their customers (and would-be customers) easier. The company’s early efforts focus on solving one of its enduring struggles: the nearly $70 billion dollars Lowe’s says is left on the table when consumers are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like, or don’t know where to begin.

The Holoroom How To VR tool allows customers to learn basic do-it-yourself skills in an immersive environment. Outfitted with a VR headset and controller, customers can learn how to paint a room or tile a shower. Company research has shown that customers have as much 40 percent greater memory retention of steps to complete a project after completing VR training, and nine out of 10 users reported feeling confident about their skills in the real world. Measured by Lowe’s is an AR app that uses augmented reality to turn any iPhone model 6S or newer into virtual tape measure for objects or distances within the camera’s view. Designed by former game developers and designers, Lowe’s 3D is a scanning solution that can generate high-fidelity 3D models of physical products to help customers visualize potential purchases in their homes. Currently in private beta testing with select Lowe’s vendors, the company says users of the 3D tool were twice as likely to purchase products from the store than those who didn’t.

Advertising: Blippar’s AR ad platform

London-based Blippar’s first-of-its kind AR advertising unit creates immersive solutions for some of the world’s biggest brands, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Spotify. It’s solutions combine AR with computer vision, artificial intelligence, and visual search to create immersive marketing experiences.

Jaguar Land Rover, for example, worked with Blippar to put prospective car buyers in the virtual drivers’ seat of its latest models without making the dreaded visit to the dealership. Consumers could launch the AR capability launched directly from a banner ad with no need to install an app to explore the vehicle, interact with hotspots, and see the view from the driving seat through transparent windows.

One of Blippar’s recent innovations is the Urban Visual Positioning System, rolled out last year, which uses computer vision to determine and where a user is geographically and his or her orientation to surroundings. Said to be twice as accurate than GPS and boasting a less than one second response time, Fast Company has said that the technology has “broad implications for location-based AR experiences, especially those related to industries such as tourism and mapping.” Some potential use case Blippar has floated include virtual departure boards at train stations, virtual menus in restaurants, and virtual maps and directions overlaid on roads. Blippar has also introduced a facial recognition tool on its mobile app called Halos, which enables users to create personalized social profiles in other AR apps. In addition, their Automotive Recognition API uses deep learning and computer vision to identify any U.S. car built since the year 2000, with 97.7 percent accuracy; car companies and service providers can integrate the API into their own app or website.

Real Estate: JLL’s 3D property portfolio

Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) provides commercial leasing, real estate brokerage, management, advisory, and financing through nearly 300 corporate offices in more than 80 countries around the world. JLL has partnered with a number of companies, such as Indian start-up Foyr, whose virtual reality technologies can provide visualization and customization services for interior commercial spaces. Working with a company called Studio216, the company developed a way for clients to immerse themselves in yet to be developed environments to explore and collaborate on ground-up developments, capital improvements and shell space virtually using Hololens, WMR, and all Windows 10 devices. In partnership with Dronebase and Tangram 3DS, JLL is combining drone footage with 3-D renderings to offer another perspective on prospective property sites. JLL’s goal is to create the world’s largest 3D-enabled property portfolio.

Healthcare: Imperial College London at St Mary’s Hospital’s AR surgery

AR and VR have a number of applications in medical services. Imperial College London at St Mary’s Hospital is one of the first to test mixed reality in the operating room, aiming to help surgeons improve the outcomes for patients. Researchers there recently demonstrated how surgeons could use Microsoft HoloLens headsets to interact with ‘holograms’ while operating on patients undergoing reconstructive lower limb surgery. The technology overlays CT scan imaging, which indicates the location of bones and blood vessels, onto the patient’s leg.

When patients suffer tissue damage and open wounds following a car accident or other trauma, surgeons must perform reconstruction using flaps of tissue (including skin and blood vessels) taken from elsewhere on the patient’s body to cover the wound and enable them to heal. It’s critically important to connect the blood vessels of the transplanted tissue to those at the wound site. The traditional approach has been to use a handheld ultrasound scanner to identify blood vessel locations based on the pulsation of the blood, but that approach offers only an approximate location. Augmented reality offers a more accurate and fast way to find the blood vessels by enabling surgeons to, in effect, see through the limb.

According to the researchers’ findings, the technology could lessen the time a patient spends under anesthesia and reduce the margin for error. The research notes some limiting factors including errors during the modeling stages, potential for the overlaid model to be misaligned, and time-consuming data preparation. However, the researchers say they hope to further automate the process further, using software to improve the alignment, for example.

Pharmaceuticals: C4X Discovery’s molecule visualizer

Spun out of the University of Manchester, C4X Discovery (C4XD) says it wants to become the world’s most productive drug discovery and development company: VR is at the heart of those ambitions. Earlier this year, it began using its own VR tool, 4Sight, to help scientists picture the structure of complex molecules. Traditionally, drug developers would work with static models. The VR tool allows developers to step inside the molecule to see how it moves and responds to different stimuli and situations. “Starting to use VR was quite transformative, because all of a sudden the molecules become part of my world and I can manipulate them in space just ahead of me, like you would do comparing two oranges and two apples,” C4XD medicinal chemist at Thorsten Nowak told Wired UK.

According to the company, the VR tool will decrease errors and shorten the years-long drug development cycle as the company develops treatments for diseases such as cancer, chronic addiction, Parkinson’s Disease, and dementia. The visualizer is also used to facilitate collaboration among people in different locations.

AR’s growth prospects: What’s next?

When will AR become more ubiquitous in the enterprise? Some factors to watch, according to Laroue: more of the physical world getting digitally mapped (using GPS, computer vision, and motion sensing); glasses becoming light, immersive, and cheap (less than $1,000); and 3D content creation and authoring going mainstream.

For now, business leaders need to consider what their actual needs are and what problems they’re looking to solve with AR. “It’s very easy to chase flashy AR or mixed-reality features and lose sight of the true goal of improving efficiency or reducing costs.”

As with many emerging technologies, you can’t lose sight of the business goal. Some problems may be better solved with a smartphone/tablet solution than a hands-free option like smart glasses. “This is all will factor into finding the right AR solution at the right price.”

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