What is Augmented Reality?
Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’ve probably seen Augmented Reality (AR) in action. While Virtual Reality (VR) immerses you in a completely different world, AR lets you see the real world, but with additional ‘virtual’ elements. These could be anything from signs that help you navigate a high street, to fantastical creatures in a mixed reality video game. Perhaps the most famous AR application to date was Pokémon Go, a game in which players sought out and collected Pokémon characters ‘hidden’ in the real world.
But there is much more to AR than video gaming. In fact, AR has been used in the business world for some time now – especially for retail and e-commerce. Ikea began offering shoppers the option of viewing virtual furniture in their own homes in 2017 – shortly after the release of Apple’s ARKit software for iOS. But, as the technology has become more widespread, and new tools have become available, more and more business leaders are beginning to see the potential of AR to transform the way we work.
The growth of AR
AR was actually invented in 1968 by Ivan Sutherland, a Harvard professor and computer scientist. The name ‘Augmented Reality’, however, didn’t appear until 1990 – just as the technology really began to take off. During the 1990s, for example, the USAF began using AR in training simulations, and NASA used AR to display map data directly on the viewing screen of its X-38 spacecraft. The technology also entered our everyday life, as sports programmers used it to overlay markers and arrows on the screen, helping viewers to understand the action.
More recently, forward-looking companies have begun to understand that AR can deliver serious business benefits as well. Some are already using AR to train employees in new roles or workflows, improve workplace safety and even ideate and troubleshoot potential problems before initiating a significant product launch or investment. Benefits like these are fuelling the incredible growth projections for the AR market.
According to research by ARK Invest 2030, the AR market could grow from under $1 billion today to $130 billion by 2030.
AR engagement is up nearly 20% since the beginning of 2020 with conversion rates increasing by 90% for consumers engaging with AR compared to those that don’t. A recent Grid Raster survey found many organisations are looking to scale up their AR/VR capabilities to maintain productivity whilst minimising physical interaction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Making AR accessible to all
Just last year, Microsoft introduced the HoloLens 2, an untethered holographic computer and what Microsoft calls, “the ultimate mixed reality device.” HoloLens 2 bridges the digital and physical worlds using recent advances in the intelligent cloud and at the intelligent edge. Microsoft Corporate Vice President Julie White says, “We’re now in a place where this technology is solving real-world problems. You can really begin to see what this new wave of computing looks like and how it translates into real business outcomes.”
AR’s ability to blend the human element of critical thinking with the computing power of a device brings new possibilities to organisations in several industries, from retail to medicine. Let’s explore the potential of augmented reality in the workplace and how it can enable employees to place information where they need it the most: in the real-world context of their work.
Retail and e-commerce
It’s hardly surprising that many e-commerce businesses were ahead of the game with AR, as lots of them used digital technology to disrupt traditional business models. Amazon Prime, for example, has incorporated AR into its app to bridge the gap between the online and physical shopping experience. The View in Your Room feature uses AR in combination with your phone’s camera, to show you how an item of furniture would actually look in your house.
Other brands, including Ikea, John Lewis, Ray Bans and Burberry, offer similar experiences. The clothing company, Timberland, came up with a twist on this idea – placing ‘magic mirrors’ outside its stores. Customers standing in front of these mirrors can instantly see themselves kitted out in a variety of virtual Timberland outfits.
Many e-commerce businesses, such as Ocado, are working to optimise the ‘last mile’ of delivery – as this is difficult to manage efficiently and has a direct effect on customer experience. AR can help here, too. Delivery drivers equipped with mobile devices can scan multiple barcodes at the same time, and instantly pick out specific parcels or receive updates on delivery changes or special instructions.
Fulfilment and logistics
One of the principal benefits of AR is its ability to show, rather than tell – which is especially useful for demonstrating complex tasks. Instead of leafing through 100s of pages or scrolling through an online manual, you can literally ‘see’ your way through a task. Engineers, for example, can use AR to see complex procedures animated directly on the equipment they are using. As well as dramatically speeding up the learning process, AR training consistently reinforces best practices while incorporating the most up-to-date instructions.
You can also use AR to enhance training for engineers by creating interactive simulations, animations and 3D graphics to serve as step-by-step guides. This approach has already been used by one retail tech company to overcome difficulties posed by COVID-19.
A leading US grocer was looking to deploy new customer fulfilment centres in order to expand its e-commerce offering and customer footprint. However, the company’s skilled engineers were all based in Europe and travel restrictions threatened to delay the project. Insight’s Digital Innovation team worked with the client to create an AR training program and deliver it through Microsoft Remote Assist and HoloLens 2. Using AR, the company’s own engineers were able to upskill the local team and get the new customer fulfilment centres up and running without delay.
This AR training solution was driven by necessity – but delivered value above and beyond overcoming the problem it set out to solve. The training was so successful that the client is now looking to use the Guides functionality in HoloLens 2 to develop a set of training assets for future use.
AR’s potential as a training tool has proven useful in other scenarios too. In healthcare, it can boost the depth and effectiveness of medical training in many areas, including the use of imaging equipment and the performance of complex surgeries. Doctors at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital use the HoloLens 2 and Dynamics 365 Remote Assist to communicate hands-free and share information with other clinicians in real time.
“I was in the operating theatre performing a complex repair on a little heart, no bigger than the size of a strawberry. By using the HoloLens, we were able to transmit live the view of the heart to other colleagues, as well as reviewing the echocardiogram at the same time.”
Rafael Guerrero, Director, Heart Unit, Clinical Director of Innovation and Chief of Congenital Cardiac Surgery
Digital imaging overlays can also give medical professionals the ability to render Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM), MRI and CT scans in real time. Surgeons are taking advantage of AR capabilities to run simulated operations using 3D imaging of actual patients’ bodies.
Whilst tablets and other smart devices have long been widespread in educational institutions, educators are now ramping up the student learning experience with AR. Teachers are already using the HP Reveal app, for example, to allow students to participate in classes via a smartphone or tablet for a richer learning experience.
Students learning about astronomy can explore topics through a full AR-generated map of the solar system, whilst those in a music class can use AR to see musical notes in real time as they learn to play instruments. In higher education, AR is being used for immersive learning, enabling chemistry students to experiment with and create complex 3D visualisations of molecules.
AR’s ability to deliver virtual training really comes into its own for the armed forces. Time spent training in the barracks conceptualising war using two-dimensional models can do little to prepare soldiers for their first experience in an actual combat situation. But the army is about to trial a completely new approach.
Microsoft has won a contract to supply the US army with 120,000 HoloLens headsets over the next ten years. Initially, the headsets will be used to create a Synthetic Training Environment (STE) – an immersive augmented reality system designed to place soldiers in diverse operational environments, stress them physically and mentally, and bolster readiness through a gruelling series of virtual scenarios.
The same type of training could apply to police officers and departments looking to improve de-escalation capabilities, implement anti-racism measures and earn back the trust of communities.
In February 2021, the army revealed that a newer, more rugged version of the HoloLens headset will also augment their military readiness by letting them see through drone and vehicles sensors whilst in a safe environment themselves. Operators of armoured vehicles, such as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle for example, will be able to ‘see through’ the walls of the vehicle.
From Augmented … to Reality
If you are looking to harness the power of AR to solve your business challenges, Microsoft HoloLens is a good place to start – but you need to think beyond the initial device purchase. To get full value from your investment you will need to work with talented people inside and outside your organisation to identify opportunities and create bespoke solutions. Insight has proven experience in implementing AR solutions using Microsoft HoloLens 2. Take part in one of our design thinking workshops and discover how to create innovative mixed reality solutions built for your business.
A common starting place for many of our customers is a Proof of Concept. Insight’s ‘Proof of Value’ workshop service demonstrates the value of your investment. During the workshop, we will start a small pilot programme for you, help you to build a business case, and focus on your ROI. You will have credible proof because we will help you use the technology to solve a real company problem. For example, we can run a pilot project using the HoloLens2 and the software that is appropriate to your needs – whether you are looking to facilitate remote assistance, create guides for training purposes, integrate with a third-party app, or even create your own app.
To book a consultation, or talk to us about having your own Proof of Concept contact us today.