An Augmented Reality Future?

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Photo by Ali Pazani from Pexels

Rumours that Apple is actively developing AR technology that would deliver a usable and wearable AR could herald a new age of information access and delivery. In this feature, Silicon UK assesses the current AR technologies and asks whether AR is the next communications channel your business should pay attention to.

AR has been in development for over a decade. Businesses in the engineering sector have continued to use this technology, offering them enhanced services for on-site and field engineers. Outside of this narrow sector, AR as an enhanced communications technology has continued to evolve, albeit at a slower pace. Today, however, with the burgeoning 5G network and edge computing, all businesses need to have an AR strategy on their digital transformation roadmaps, as they look towards a post-COVID trading landscape.

The use of AR in a business setting isn’t just a niche technology. Microsoft and its HoloLens have sold tens of thousands of units. The Seattle giant also has over 10,000 patents connected to their AR technology. AR start-ups are even flourishing with the AngelList showing over 2,000 investments in the AR space.

Sectors including healthcare, education and the military, are all expanding their investments. The most interesting area for businesses, though, is clearly how the wearable AR sector will expand to next and how these enterprises can tap into this new communications channel with their customers and commercial partners.

“The impact of AR or VR in retail can be transformative,” says Hanna Karki, principal research analyst at Gartner. “Retailers can use AR as an extension of the brand experience to engage customers in immersive environments and drive revenue. For example, IKEA’s Place app enables customers to virtually ‘place’ IKEA products in their space. Additionally, AR can be used outside the store after a sale to increase customer satisfaction and improve loyalty.”

“Gartner expects that the implementation of 5G and AR/VR in stores will transform not only customer engagement but also the entire product management cycle of brands,” said Sylvain Fabre, senior research director at Gartner. “5G can optimize warehouse resources, enhance store traffic analytics and enable beacons that communicate with shoppers’ smartphones.”

Moving the customer experience (CX) to another level with AR technologies is already in use. The transport sector – with airports in particular – showing how wayfinding can be massively enhanced with AR on the mobile devices travellers carry. Retail has always been a focus for AR. Ikea enables its customers to see how their furniture would look in their homes.

Indeed, AR is becoming more high profile amongst consumers. The 2020 IBM US Retail Index showed well over a third (41%) of the respondents to its survey stating they would like to see a virtual apparel fitting room. With 18% already having tried AR technologies. The awareness it seems is climbing if slowly amongst consumers.

In the UK, GetApp recently revealed that only 15% of consumers had used AR technology to buy something online. However, 51% are willing to try it. The majority of respondents who would like to try this technology both for online (55%) and in-store shopping (56%) are women. And 58% of customers stating they are more willing to use AR as their perception of it has changed due to the pandemic.

“Our study reveals that 1 in 2 British consumers are willing to try AR for shopping. This poses a great opportunity for retailers. Offering AR to consumers can help increase brand loyalty, as well as transform the way a business works,” says Sonia Navarrete, content analyst at GetApp.

AR on smartphones is the platform that most consumers will use to access AR-enhanced services. The propensity to try new apps shows little sign of reducing. Businesses that can use AR to enhance their existing service delivery will be in a strong position to benefit from what will eventually be, a continuously expanding technology that could become ubiquitous over the next five years if innovative ways to use AR technologies can be implemented.

Speaking to Silicon UK, Hendrik Witt, executive vice president, Augmented Reality at TeamViewer explains: “AR is no longer a pipe dream for the enterprise, but a practical solution that is getting embedded into digitization across businesses to boost performance and increase the quality of output. There is now a strong business case for AR in not just large enterprises but SMBs, as smaller organizations can use the technology for remote assistance, training and guidance.”

Hendrik Witt, executive vice president, Augmented Reality at TeamViewer.
Hendrik Witt, executive vice president, Augmented Reality at TeamViewer.

Witt continued: “This has led a lot of organizations to reduce or skip the pilot phase altogether and head straight into scaling AR solutions in the business. The next phase of AR in the enterprise will entail AR for wearables such as smart glasses. Some businesses such as the BMW Group are leading this trend and are using AR goggles for remote support in dealerships to fix cars faster and training people on the production processes. No doubt, more use cases for AR in the enterprise will emerge as companies follow suit.”

The state of AR

AR may not be high profile and certainly not a priority for digital business development, but the leading players in the marketplace have continued to enhance and expand their AR development toolkits: Apple already has ARKit 4. Google’s take is ARCore.

According to ABI Research by 2025, there will be close to 60 million active AR users for expertise and training applications across various verticals, such as healthcare, logistics, Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC), and manufacturing.

“Both AR and VR solutions can allow HR departments to reach potential talent more creatively, assess workers in novel ways, and support workers with improved and remote-enabled training and employee collaboration,” explains Eleftheria Kouri, research analyst at ABI Research. “This can save time and costs (AR/VR training can save between US$2,000-US$2,500 per employee in comparison with traditional training) and enhance the candidate or employee experience and build a competitive employer branding.

“The extended period of remote working and the uncertainty around traveling has pushed organizations to look for solutions that ensure efficient employee collaboration, development and satisfaction and at the same time assist organizations to remotely recruit and train new talent.”

AR in an industrial setting continues to be where the vast majority of AR deployments are taking place. PTC state in their whitepaper: “For industrial enterprises offering AR experiences to enhance their workforce, a staggering 69% of use cases are focused on benefitting their internal workers in engineering, manufacturing, service, and training. This trend is in line with broader market observations, and step-by-step instructions have quickly become the default starting point for anyone experimenting with AR. The way in which information has been documented, maintained, and shared has historically been slow and costly.”

Explaining the challenges businesses face when implementing an AR strategy, Dr Alex Young, Founder and CEO of Virti said: “If a company has little or no prior experience in implementing AR software, they often make the mistake of choosing software which is tied to a specific operating platform. This significantly limits the utility of the tech and the scope of its use by employees or customers.

Young concluded: “When rolling out any new AR software, businesses ought to ensure that it is ‘platform agnostic’. Ultimately, this is about compatibility: the software should be functional on all mobile devices, laptops, desktops and virtual reality headsets. Generally, platform-agnostic software incorporates recognized and common compliance standards or added coding that allows it to function in lots of different environments. This breaks down barriers to access, enables widespread collaboration, reduces future expenditure and helps with future-proofing.”

Your AR strategy

What your company’s AR strategy looks like will be determined by how AR technologies can be used to enhance existing products and services. The coming explosion of 5G high-speed networks and the networks themselves becoming increasingly decentralized are the foundations for your business to create its AR strategy.

TeamViewer’s Hendrik Witt concludes: “IoT and AR go hand in hand for a mobile augmented future. Using data and AI, IoT identifies the issue or task through data and data analytics. AR can then support humans to action the required task. Through using both of these technologies, humans can depend less on other technicians and become more independent no matter their location.

“This is because AR is becoming the mobile user interface for any smart device without a physical display and can also extend physical displays beyond 2D screens and buttons. In turn, fixing technical issues, either in a personal or professional sphere, is becoming more accessible. For example, consumers can install, maintain and fix their smart IoT home devices using AR. Likewise, front line workers in retail can fix machines more easily on a shop floor without relying on technical support.”

Prameela Kalive, COO for Zensar Technologies also commenting: “As AR is mature enough to handle many non-critical use-cases, we should start utilizing it for them. Apps can be built for use-cases like try-and-buy, show-and-shop, augmented-training, showing information on the product, product manual, and virtual launches. As these start getting used, users and technology will start maturing. 

“However, AR as technology has several barriers to adoption to overcome before significant business benefit to be realized. There is a personal stigma associated with AR technology adoption among consumers and employees. The hardware development of AR devices needs to be sustainable for businesses to reap significant benefits. Cross-device compatibility with uniform context and personalized experience is the future of AR. Once these issues are addressed, the AR tech can also start entering critical space like healthcare (remote surgery), defence, child education, fire safety (another safety application).”

There is little doubt that all businesses and organizations will need an AR strategy today. All eyes are on Apple or perhaps a start-up to make a breakthrough in wearable AR that has shown it can be practical in an industrial setting but, has yet to ignite general consumers’ imaginations. Vibrant Media found that 67% of media buyers want to use AR/VR in their campaigns. This area of your business’s AR strategy could be how AR becomes a mainstay across your enterprise’s customer activity.

Silicon in Focus

Jack Gullen, Creative Technologist at Seymourpowell.

Jack Gullen, Creative Technologist at Seymourpowell.
Jack Gullen, Creative Technologist at Seymourpowell.

What is the current state of AR in a business context?

 We are starting to embrace this technology. It has been around for a while and is something that has been well discussed and is widely acknowledged within the business and broader society. People are now utilizing this technology to improve the ability to work and consume content with fewer restrictions and obstacles. This development is partly due to the improvement of smartphone and headset technology.

Although AR has become ubiquitous inside specific social media platforms (such as Snapchat and Instagram filters) comparatively with VR, it has seen a smaller uptake in a B2B setting. This may be because of the efficacy and reliability of available hardware, or because the cost vs benefit balance is perceived as too low.

Today, we are starting to see a shift towards web-based content and activity, where everything can be done online rather than within an app. Removing the need to download and install an app lifts a barrier, making access easier for consumers and, consequently, increasing uptake – social media platforms and brands are beginning to embrace this technology.

Google, for example, has been experimenting with things such as Persistent Cloud Anchors, which provide location-specific AR content that anyone can view within the same space. The technology is there, but we aren’t seeing continuous usage, past Pokemon Go’s likes, which was a real moment for AR and demonstrated to other brands how it could be utilized to captivate an audience.

 Can you point to any current innovations that show how AR has progressed?

The most significant development in the past month is Facebook’s public commitment to releasing an AR headset [https://tech.fb.com/facebook-connect-the-road-to-ar-glasses/]. Facebook has been very vocal about this innovation track and is one of the first companies to embrace this sector and seek to own the space entirely. This has sparked debate around the hardware and software that will be used to create a working headset and the ethical implications.

AR requires a live camera feed and some smart processing of that feed. This means that your device will be continually capturing, processing, and potentially recording both your personal and work life whilst using AR. As and when we switch to AR-enabled glasses, this may dramatically increase companies’ surveillance potential providing this hardware. Sharing that with a real tech giant like Facebook or Google and Apple (who will also be exploring this area) could be very problematic.

 What challenges do businesses face when implementing AR in their enterprises?

The key challenges fall into several categories, including:

Device Interruption

One barrier to smartphone-based AR is the requirement to use your device as the viewing portal. This poses an ergonomic obstruction for users.  Hands-free AR such as AR glasses address that problem and may improve update and usage.

Marketability

Millions of smartphone users engage with AR-powered content daily without being explicitly made aware of the fact, simply because these services or experiences are not labelled as AR – think Snapchat face filters.

It could be argued that there is an issue with how the technology sector defines the term “AR.” The definition of Virtual Reality is more clearly established. People associate the term with a headset, but AR isn’t associated with a tangible object to which we can attribute its identity. Perhaps this muddies the waters when it comes to its place within our work and home life.

Financial Accessibility

Smartphone uptake is huge; most of the developed world population has access to a device that can deliver AR. But the real barrier for most businesses is that they probably do not have pipelines in place to develop content which is compatible with AR.

 Are there security challenges within the AR space that must be paid attention to?

Naturally, there are privacy concerns with any technology centred around gathering and processing user data. AR might highlight this surveillance to the public whilst smartphones already continually monitor and harvest the user’s data. For consumers to swallow these concerns, AR needs to deliver experiences and services which make their lives better – in the same way as ‘eavesdropping’ smart speakers have invaded the home by merely providing great utility and convenience.

A more practical issue is the risk of theft. People using AR experiences on their smartphones are currently distracted and have their phones on display, often held at arm’s length – an invitation for an opportunist thief. 

 Do you think AR needs to take further steps in its development before it becomes technology businesses can harness tangible benefits?

Business USP
As we have discussed, AR technology (both hardware and software) is already relatively mature. This means that the barrier for adoption for many businesses is finding a good reason to engage and develop experiences or services which use the technology. The risks for brands and businesses adopting any new technology are more than just financial – poor motivation or execution can damage reputation or customer trust.

Our recommendation to any business considering adopting AR would be to step back and think of their customer. What problem are they helping their customer solve or what benefit are they trying to deliver? Once that has been fully established, it will probably inform which technology is best to employ and help businesses develop their ‘killer app.’

Establish a ‘product.’
AR glasses have the potential to be a turning point for AR. To succeed, these devices’ price point needs to be commensurate with the experiences they can deliver. In the early days of the iPhone, before the app store ecosystem was fully established before people knew how impactful a smartphone could be on their daily lives, prices were low enough to entice early adopters and more conservative consumers alike. A new product category like AR glasses needs to follow the same strategy to ‘move the needle’.

For Augmented Reality to truly achieve mass adoption, it has to offer two things:

First, simplicity needs to have minimal obstacles—no downloads, no sign-ups, nothing that can cause businesses and consumers to turn away.

Second, indispensability – it has to have something that you cannot live without. Phones are so popular because they encapsulate everything that we deem essential within one device. This is what any form of AR needs to embody to stick.


Photo by Ali Pazani from Pexels.

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