The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this year catapulted virtual reality (VR) into mainstream consciousness. VR clearly has an interesting future ahead, primarily as a consumer-centric gaming and media play. But when I think about the future of work, augmented reality (AR) is where the greatest opportunities materialize.
Before diving in, it’s important to define the differences between these two new “realities”. VR is an entirely immersive experience. When you put on a VR headset, either a purpose-built device such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, or a phone-based product such as Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Cardboard, you leave behind your current, physical reality. The headset completely obscures your actual surroundings, placing you in a virtual setting. While some VR products give you the ability to move physically around in a confined area, engaging in VR is primarily an activity that you do in a fixed location. In other words, you don’t walk down the street with a VR headset on your head.
AR hardware is different from VR in that you can still see your surroundings when you’re wearing an AR headset because it augments your physical surroundings with digital information instead of replacing it. A rudimentary form of augmented reality is a heads-up display (HUD) such as the original Google Glass, which simply displays information on a small screen near your eyes. Microsoft’s HoloLens represents a more advanced form of AR, sometimes called mixed reality, in which the technology places digital objects into your field of view where you can then manipulate them. Microsoft calls these holograms. So for example, in one Microsoft HoloLens demonstration, the wearer can build digital Minecraft structures on to a real, physical table in front of them.
The ability to create this level of augmented reality requires a great deal of compute power, as the device is processing a large number of constantly-changing variables (I’ll dive into this topic, as well as the challenges around input/output, more fully in a future column). Because you can still see your surroundings, a person can wear an AR headset when walking down the street.
The Social Challenge
While you can wear AR outside, it’s not always wise to do so. You’ll remember that many people had a strong adverse reaction to seeing others wearing Google Glass in public. Some didn’t like the privacy implications of a person with a head-mounted camera looking back at them; others felt wearers were rude and distracted (akin to somebody constantly checking their smartphone). However, the use of augmented reality in workplace scenarios allows the technology to largely sidestep these social ramifications. Just as we expect co-workers to use their computers when in the workplace, it’s reasonable to expect colleagues with AR gear to use it there, too.
And that’s a key takeaway when we think about the future of AR in the workplace. It’s going to be a new tool. Just like the typewriter gave way to the personal computer, for some workers an AR device will replace the sometimes awkward use of a notebook, tablet, or smartphone. For others it will be additive, used for new processes and sometimes for client-facing scenarios. As I talk to companies working in this space, the theme that consistently emerges is they are creating products that will fundamentally change the way future generations will get work done. It’s not just about creating gee-whiz visuals; it is about driving new ways of thinking, creating, and demonstrating ideas. And, while it’s less sexy to talk about, it’s also going to contribute to creating more efficient and safe workplaces.
Important Early Verticals
The potential impact of AR in business is staggering. At IDC, we’re currently building out our first forecast, but it is clear that in the long-term view there are potentially very few businesses that won’t be impacted by AR technology. In the near term, however, there is a short list of key verticals where I expect AR to land first. They include:
Healthcare: AR will impact healthcare in many ways, from how medical students learn about the human body, to consults with doctors in far off places, to less-invasive surgeries driven by a physician’s ability to “see” into a patient without opening them up. Obviously, any device that makes its way into hospital settings must pass stringent requirements that vary from country to country.
Design/Architecture: One of the key challenges for any designer is to get into the physical space of the object or structure they are creating. Today, most create three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional screens. AR will change this and, just as importantly, it will give designers the opportunity to display their work to prospects and clients in a complete fashion, too.
Logistics: Running a massive warehouse or shipping center well is all about creating improved efficiencies and safety for workers. For example, AR can help lead a warehouse worker safely and quickly to the right location for picking up an item at which point the system can remove the item from inventory then send the person and the item to the right place for packing and shipment.
Manufacturing: Imagine a company with multiple factories in different locations, but just a few mechanical engineers tasked with keeping the lines running inside those plants. With AR, a company could employ technicians wearing the technology in each plant, allowing the higher-paid mechanical engineers to view and interact with the machinery from wherever they happen to be in the world. AR headsets can also serve up blueprints, instructions, and real-time data, freeing workers to use both hands for the task.
Military: From training to battlefield communication to medical to enhanced situational awareness, AR is likely to play a crucial role for the military. Of course, the barrier to entry here is quite high, as you can’t send troops into hostile situations with untested equipment.
Services: This is likely to be the area where most consumers gain their first access to high-end AR technology. Imagine a situation where you rent both the equipment necessary to do a home improvement project as well as the AR equipment to gain access to an expert who walks you through the more complicated steps.
Next-Generation AR Applications
Over the course of the next few years, much attention will be paid to the AR hardware that ships and, of course, this is an important element. Without good hardware, you can’t have great experiences. But, as with the rise of smartphones, applications are where the rubber meets the road. There isn’t a clearly dominant platform in AR, yet, but all the usual suspects are at work here. Microsoft’s HoloLens is a fully-featured Windows 10 device. Many devices shipping today run Android or have a custom interface on top of it. I haven’t seen anything from Apple yet, but recent acquisitions point to the company exploring both AR and VR.
Creating an ecosystem where developers can build and sustain useful apps will be key. What works on a phone, tablet, or notebook screen will not necessarily work in an AR scenario. So, just like AR itself, the apps that drive it will require new ways of thinking about problems to be solved. It’s the traditional chicken and egg issue: You need great hardware to entice developers to create apps for that hardware, but you need great apps to get people and companies to invest in the necessary hardware. Expect to see and hear more about groundbreaking AR software in the near future.
Meanwhile, over the next 12 months, I expect virtual reality to get the lion’s share of media attention. At some point, though, the opportunity around AR will become abundantly clear. It’s not a matter of whether AR will have a significant impact on business; it’s just a matter of exactly when.