SAP leads businesses into augmented reality

Taking a leaf out of the consumer handbook, SAP is working on augmented reality mobile apps that give business intelligence in the field to any employee with a handset, senior director Timo Elliott tells ZDNet UK

With the recent news that the EU has given the green light for SAP's purchase of Sybase, the business software and services company looks set to push forward in the mobile space. SAP is working on a new breed of software — augmented reality — that promises to let corporate users access internal data on a handset and match that data to what they are seeing in the real world.

Strengthened by the proliferation of smartphones and a booming mobile app ecosystem, the consumer mobile sector is leading the way in augmented reality application development. Timo Elliott, senior director of strategic marketing at SAP, thinks it is about time this changed. Just as consumer apps such as Layar allow mobile users to point a handset at a monument, for example, and get information about it, Elliott believes business augmented reality software could tell a factory foreman the maintenance history of the gear he is using. ZDNet UK caught up with Elliott recently to see what SAP has in store.

Q: What is SAP planning in terms of enterprise-focused augmented reality apps?
A: First let me emphasise that this is a prototype, not a product; we're taking a web 2.0 approach to innovation with the SAP BusinessObjects Innovation Center.

It's modelled on Google Labs. We create prototypes based on our ideas, or ideas we get from customers, and then we make them freely available for download so people can test them, use them and give us feedback. So they're free but not supported products. There's no guarantee that they will actually be turned into products at the end of the day.

We actually have a pretty good track record of taking these prototypes and turning them into products — mobile business intelligence and SAP BusinessObject Explorer products started off as prototypes. The idea is that it's more iterative — a new way of working. We co-innovate with our customers instead of just coming out with something and going, "There, go use it".

Is the demand for corporate augmented reality apps being driven by your customers or is it an SAP initiative?
A bit of both, really. Consumer technology is more advanced than business technology for perhaps the first time in history. So we know that part of our mission is to adapt these new technologies from the consumer world and make them suitable for corporate use, making them tools for grown-ups with all the security and all the things you just don't get in the consumer world.

When we first saw the augmented reality applications, we started thinking about could these — or should these — be applicable to the corporate world? So, what I did is start off with a blog post about augmented reality. That got picked up by people who follow my blog, and they shared it with some of our corporate customers who indicated that they were interested in finding out more and gave us some ideas about the context. Based on that feedback, we started a project in the innovation centre, and the prototype that is going to come to fruition in the next few months.

Does that prototype have a name and expected release date?
Right now, it's in the beta of an alpha phase. In other words, the application exists, and we're sharing it and using it among ourselves, but we have to distribute it based on the individual phone IDs. The next step is to share it internally a little more widely over the next few weeks. We're aiming to have it on the Apple App Store within the next two months, to be safe, but hopefully by the end of August.

We haven't fixed the name yet, but it's probably going to be something like the Augmented Business Explorer, something like that. So it's based on our existing business intelligence platforms, notably our Explorer product — it's an extension of that, from our point of view.

So it integrates with tools and products you already offer?
Exactly. It leverages our on-demand platform. So to use it, you can set up a free account at BI OnDemand and upload the data that you're interested in viewing as a simple spreadsheet. You include information about the points of interest: the name, the GPS coordinates, and the associated information. Upload that to the on-demand platform, and then using your mobile device — so initially it will be iPad, iPhone — you can view those points of interest, overlaid on the real world.

Of course, you could also have it connect to a corporate data source, if you have it set up right. Initially for the prototype, we'll be emphasising the do-it-yourself aspect, from the testing point of view. Obviously the data has to come from somewhere; we're thinking about what demo data sets we can provide so there is something that people can use right out of the box.

You mentioned platforms there, is it just going to be iPad and iPhone initially?
Yes, this is an iPhone application for now. Depending on feedback we might extend [it].

Having seen your blog posts, it seems that you have some interest in developing an Android version?
Well, yes, that happens to be because I'm a little bit more of an open-source person myself, so that [Android] was the first platform I played around with. But the feedback from customers has shown that the iPhone is a very popular platform. Although I do think that Android is going to come back this year, now that Android 2.2 is out, and it supports Flash – I think that's going to be very attractive to developers.

In the longer term, I believe that augmented corporate reality apps are inevitable in some form. So our job is to work with the customers to see exactly what form it should be taking to make sense for us all. From the customers that we've approached who are seriously interested, there was a large car company, interested for their sales courses; as they go to visit dealers, they want the information about their dealership at their fingertips, based on location.

How precise does the technology allow you to be? Does it allow you to measure not just a car dealership but the performance of specific spots on the sales yard?
The issue is that the precision of the location is not there for most applications yet. It's something that all of the phone companies and various other companies are working on. We rely on the location layer of the telephone operating system. Right now...

...there's pretty much three choices: Wi-Fi triangulation, cell phone triangulation and GPS.

GPS can be very accurate if you're outdoors, the other two obviously less so. But various companies are starting to figure out offers that companies can install within their own environments, so that you can get location down to less than a metre — at which point you can start using it as a sort of pointing device.

Is this an area in which you have to rely on mobile manufacturers developing the precision technology?
Exactly — it's not really our area of expertise. Another use, for example, is a large oil company interested in people in their refineries working in a big outdoor space, where GPS actually works well. They have lots of complex machinery and want to be able to point at a piece of machinery and say: "Give me some information about that".

What do benefits do you hope it will provide?
Obviously we're aware of the notion of glitz with no real purpose. I honestly think this is a way of improving ease of use, ultimately. One of our big themes is: instead of making business people bend over backwards to access information, as much as possible we should be bringing information to people and making it a seamless part of what people are already doing.

So if you're that sales manager for the car dealership, we know who you are, we know who you're visiting and we can offer you information you need for that meeting automatically.

As the concept grew out of consumer-focused augmented reality apps, are there different considerations in designing enterprise versions?
Absolutely: security. Security from a data point of view, and one of the big concerns talking to customers is security from a transport point of view. Making sure that the data viewed on the mobile device is encrypted in some way or otherwise secure. In the consumer environment, you're mostly talking about data that's not being updated, so not necessarily huge volumes of information. In the corporate environment, you're obviously talking about far more complex data sets.

All of the consumer apps I've seen typically have one or two points of data about each item — it might be a Wikipedia entry or an address. In a corporate world, clients are interested in using that as a jumping point for getting a lot more depth of information, so they want to be able to drill through and explore each data point.

Within our prototype, you'll be able to choose a point and then, within the handheld application, it takes you through to our Explorer interface. Explorer for iPhone is already available, and it allows you to very easily get quick answers to your questions off large data sets with just a few clicks.

Perhaps most interestingly, the locations of what we're looking at don't have to be static. So imagine moving trucks or people. Imagine using this kind of approach to try and find your corporate colleagues at a conference, for example.

We have a separate set of prototypes around corporate social networking where we bring together corporate data services, about relationships between people — you could use that as a data source for augmented reality and start getting some interesting and useful applications.

Is SAP is placing a lot of emphasis on mobile development right now?
Mobility in general is a huge part of SAP's strategy going forward. We're looking forward to getting feedback from our customers on how to make it real. On one level, as you say, it's an idea we put out there that we've validated with some customers, but now we're really looking to take it to the next level.

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