Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: VR and AR: The Business Reality

Five ways augmented reality will transform your business

From better customer service to expert help for remote workers -- here's how AR will help firms work smarter.

microsoft-hololens-holostudio.png

A mock-up of what Microsoft wants to achieve with its augmented reality HoloLens headset.

Image: Microsoft

Augmented reality (AR) holds a lot of promise for businesses looking to work smarter.

AR merges the virtual and the real world -- dropping virtual overlays or 3D objects directly into the view of headset-wearers, or inserting these digital add-ons into video captured on a phone or tablet.

special feature

VR and AR: The Business Reality

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are going to be useful for far more than just gaming.

The technology that will underpin this latest AR revival is far from mainstream, with Google now only selling its Glass headset to businesses and Microsoft yet to release the HoloLens. These headsets are largely unproven and come with caveats: Google faced a privacy backlash with early releases of Glass, while early Hololens units reportedly suffered from a restricted field of view. However, analysts are bullish about the usefulness of the technology -- particularly when it comes to businesses looking for new ways to make staff more productive.

Here are five ways that businesses will be able exploit AR and its associated technologies in the near future.

Remote guidance

Whether they're salesmen or field engineers, many workers spend much of their working week outside the office.

When working remotely, even the most capable professional can run into situations where they need a helping hand from someone back at base, and it's here that AR glasses could come in handy, according to Gartner research director Brian Blau.

Workers in the field could use AR glasses, like Google Glass, or smartphone AR to feed them relevant information such as manuals or instructions on how to solve the task in front of them.

That information could be provided by a remote human expert examining the scene from afar or -- in the case of a system capable of computer vision -- via smart software.

The help could even extend to precise and easy-to-follow guides, for example highlighting to a mechanic the precise parts of a car engine that need to be replaced.

"If the system is sophisticated it's entirely possible those glasses can give them very prescriptive step-by-step instructions or exactly what to do," said Blau.

"It could mean there is a lot the remote worker could do on their own."

There are tangible benefits to using an AR headset over a phone or tablet camera feed to get this information, says the Forrester report Augmented And Virtual Reality Should Be Part Of The Innovator's Toolkit. Using a headset means the "immediacy is tangible", it says, with the added advantage of the worker's hands also being free.

The report gives the example of how someone with a tablet could see the viewpoint of a remote colleague wearing a HoloLens and walk him or her through how to install a light switch.

Better training

When it comes to training and education, AR and virtual reality have a lot of promise.

Unlike a real-world training scenario, a trainee can play through an AR situation as many times as they need to grasp a concept or a procedure.

Training can also be a lot more elaborate -- it's far simpler to have someone take a virtual car engine apart than a real one -- and be repeated with as many people as necessary.

"You can practice it over and over again. You can use it in educational situations where you want to learn something or enhance a particular skill," said Gartner's Blau.

"There's lots of evidence that we have that says that these devices are going to be great for training. It makes sense. Training, educating employees, helping them improve their skill sets, expand their capabilities -- these types of things are really beneficial to a business."

Visualising objects

Another useful ability of AR is how it allows virtual objects to be placed in the real world -- a process referred to as visualisation.

Melding the virtual and the real in this way offers designers a way of interacting with virtual 3D models of their creations as if they were physical, real-world objects.

An example might be car design, says Blau, where those drawing up plans for the car manipulate and refine 3D virtual parts, which are projected into their view using an AR headset.

Car designers have got to "get the design right" for "thousands of pieces of parts", he said, and visualisation "using computer graphics and these immersive techniques" helps them to do so. He added that car designers have been using the technique for a long time, using earlier technologies. One such example is this spatial augmented reality setup used by Volkswagen, in which virtual layouts of a car interior are projected onto a full-size model of a car dashboard.

Visualisation of 3D objects using AR in this way could also offer a better sense of what a finished product would be like than a flat image on a screen.

Better customer service

AR has the potential to make life easier for customer-facing staff, particularly for those working in retail.

For example, a sales assistant at a make-up counter could use AR glasses to help the customer buy cosmetics that best suits them, says the Forrester report.

Not only could the assistant see what the customer would look like wearing different make-up, they could also get guidance on how to apply it.

"By superimposing makeup directions directly into the sales associate's field of vision, the end results will be far better for the customer," says the report.

There are already examples of AR and virtual reality being offered to customers using tablets, rather than head-mounted displays. For example, the hardware retailer Lowe's allows customers to explore 3D models of custom-designed bathroom suites using iPads, as part of its Holoroom experience. Customers explore the virtual 3D environment by walking around the Holoroom holding out the iPad, whose screen shows the virtual space around them.

New ways of working

Beyond giving remote workers a helping hand, AR headsets could also change the way we work.

Blau gives the example of a loss adjustor from an insurance company who is examining a car that's been in an accident.

As the adjustor examines the wrecked vehicle, an AR headset could feed video of the car back to a system that recognises the damage and estimates how much it will cost to fix.

"It's using the recognition capabilities of the device to help that insurance worker to determine what happened," said Blau.

"That could help that insurance worker process claims faster and potentially more accurately."

Similarly in the health industry, AR could also change how doctors diagnose and treat illnesses, said Blau. For example, an AR headset could capture symptoms during the examination of a patient and place relevant medical information in the doctor's view.

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