Augmented reality: Not just the stuff of sci-fi. Businesses can benefit too

Tourism, networking, engineering and healthcare - the applications are numerous

Tourism, networking, engineering and healthcare - the applications are numerous

Augmented reality adds digital information to our physical world. Sound like a pipedream? Quocirca's Clive Longbottom says the tech is very real - and could soon prove useful to businesses.

Will augmented reality (AR) be the next big thing?

AR takes a person's physical environment and uses technology to provide enhanced information around it. As in many areas, defence has been a major area for early development, with heads-up displays for example, but the advent of the GPS-enabled cameraphone with in-built compass is bringing AR to the forefront of the consumer environment.

It may sound like science fiction - but we at Quocirca believe this technology could become an exciting and powerful tool for businesses and consumers alike.

The emerging AR applications span tourism, business networking, engineering and healthcare. Most seem innovative and fun - and may even have a modicum of real world usage.

Are you a tourist looking at a wonderful building you know nothing about? Point your cameraphone at it, and you'll see a raft of information.

Shopping on your local high street? Use the cameraphone to see what shops have special offers you might be interested in.

Lost in a new city? Point the camera and see an overlaid map, with directions to the nearest train station, restaurant or bank.

Then there's gaming. Nintendo's Wii showed some pretty nifty almost-AR features with its remote controls, and Microsoft's upcoming Project Natal looks to be taking this to the nth-degree and opening up a whole new world not only in gaming AR but also in desktop and mobile-based AR.

All good stuff, maturing pretty rapidly and coming to a phone, console or PC near you in the very near future.

So what about AR for business use? Can this tech provide useful information for organisations and their employees?

How about all those business cards that you get - why not add more information to them? James Alliban, an employee at UK creative agency Skive, has created an application that recognises a standard business card and then overlays other information - such as the person's current projects and interests - on top of it.

The app may have some promise - though people may prefer to use social networking sites to keep tabs on what people are now up to, rather than trying to find that one business card.

Speaking of social networking, Swedish mobile firm TAT has demonstrated an application which aims to help business people manage the various 'personas' they inhabit online.

The app, Recognizr, allows an individual to take a photograph of himself using his cameraphone, and then drag icons representing the social networking sites they associate with this persona onto the picture. This may be LinkedIn, Twitter and Plaxo for a work persona, or Facebook and YouTube for an after-hours one.

Recognizr users can then glean information about each other. How does this work?

Imagine a Recognizr user is speaking to an audience at an industry conference...

A member of the audience wants more information on the subject being discussed and on the presenter. The audience member points his cameraphone at the speaker, and facial recognition technology identifies him. The app then brings up a constellation of site icons superimposed around the real-time head of the presenter.

After the conference, the speaker could change their persona - and the same audience member could call up a different constellation of sites relating, for example, to the speaker's leisure time activities.

The downside here is that to be useful the app requires a broad group of people to install it, and so it probably falls more into the 'fun and vaguely useful' category.

Another example of AR, this time in the world of engineering: Imagine a field service engineer sent off to fix a valve in a sewage plant. The plans show that the valve is an ABC Co. globe valve, type ABC GV 36b. The field engineer has all the details for this item, and has all the spares for it. At the plant, he finds that the valve was replaced a year ago with an XYZ Inc. needle valve, type XYZ NV 22x. No details available on that - and no spares.

AR to the rescue. Using a cameraphone, the engineer takes a picture of the valve, and an AR app identifies it. The engineer can then access all the details he needs - including the requisite plans layered over the picture of the valve itself, location of spares, expected timescales for non-available spares and a guided overlay of how to take the valve apart.

Moving on to sales, AR could make a sales person's work a lot easier. Rather than carrying around a finite amount of samples that will never please all customers, she can take an AR environment with her. This means she can not only show prospects an item in any colour or size but - for clothing - could allow the customer to virtually try it on. For cars, AR allows shoppers to step inside a virtual car, push buttons and turn knobs and have the 'car' respond accordingly - all without visiting a showroom.

How about in healthcare? A surgeon with a set of specialised glasses can use AR to superimpose extra textual and graphical information across their view of an operation.

AR tools could identify anomalies the surgeon may be unaware of (such as the presence of an enlarged organ), or explain new techniques the surgeon has not yet been trained in.

These examples are just the beginning. Of course, for AR to live up to its potential, businesses will need to filter out the noise from those jumping on to the bandwagon with AR that isn't really AR.

The main drive to AR uptake will undoubtedly be through the consumer but the technologies and approaches developed in this market will quickly spread through to include the business environment and become major tools in everyone's day-to-day lives.

A leading user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the big picture, Quocirca is made up of a team of experts in technology and its business implications. The team includes Clive Longbottom, Bob Tarzey, Rob Bamforth, Louella Fernandes, Fran Howarth and Simon Perry. Their series of columns for silicon.com seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking. For a full summary of the consultancy's activities, see www.quocirca.com.

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