Augmented reality business applications start to get real

Augmented reality applications have tended to be gimmicky marketing wheezes, but firms are starting to explore their business potential

The United States Air Force recently revealed how one of the most advanced components of its F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft is the pilot’s helmet

Integral to the helmet is the ability to aim the weapon from it, without needing to orientate the plane. The pilot is able to “see” through the structure of the F-35 itself, by using a series of cameras attached to its hull. 

This technology is still very much in the development stage, with a low-rate initial production phase planned for 2016. It is estimated that each custom-made helmet will cost $400,000 (£270,000).

But the core idea behind the F-35 pilot’s helmet is nothing new. The phrase augmented reality (AR) was coined in 1990 by a former Boeing researcher called Thomas Caudell. Likewise, the heads-up displays (HUDs) found in the cockpits of jet fighters have been around for 40 years. This helmet is simply a marriage between the two.

James Hogan, client solutions director of augmented reality engine company Kudan, describes augmented reality as “a graphic overlay – be it 3D graphics or flat 2D visuals – over a real‑time view of the physical environment”. This view can be from either a live camera feed or a transparent lens. It differs from virtual reality, which is purely synthetic and has no direct correlation with the physical environment the user inhabits.

Traditionally, augmented reality consisted purely of information tags and web links which could only be viewed/accessed from a specific geographic location and, as such, had little interactivity with the user’s environment. But ongoing development in computer vision – the acquiring, processing, analysing and understanding of images – now allows for a far more interactive approach to augmented reality.

Augmented reality applications for business

One of the biggest developments in augmented reality is the HoloLens by Microsoft, intended as part of the Windows Holographic platform that is set to debut with Windows 10

Current perceptions of the HoloLens suggest, however, that this device is not so much augmented reality, but a means by which users can access applications via holographic displays, in much the same way as Tom Cruise in Minority Report or Robert Downey Junior as Iron Man. Whether this will change as the technology develops remains to be seen.

Augmented reality has previously been viewed as wearable technology, yet the greatest uptake recently has been on smartphone and tablet platforms. This is because a significant proportion of the population already owns such devices, which already have all of the requisite hardware – camera, display, GPS module and gyroscope – to run AR applications.

Read more about augmented reality business applications

Many of the recent applications for augmented reality have been for promotional marketing campaigns. “The take-up of AR technology has tended to be gimmicky,” says Kudan’s Hogan. “The advertising and marketing industries are the sectors that have most embraced the technology.”

The retail sector is starting to explore how augmented reality technology could improve sales and enhance customer experience via their customers’ smartphones or other devices.

Experimenting with augmented reality

Augmented reality applications are already being developed for product identification purposes, using image recognition rather than barcode scanning, to give customers additional information on each product, such as price and specific dietary information.

In-store navigation is a key area being explored, as it will allow customers to find specific items without having to search a store, while providing them with contextual information – such as sales and special offers – and potentially allowing the store to detect patterns in the routines of their shoppers. In-store navigation systems are not yet fully developed, however.

GPS technology does not take into account the elevation of the user, thus in-store navigation will become problematic if there are several storeys. Likewise, GPS modules struggle to connect with the satellites when in a building, and this is further compounded when there are multiple levels.

There is also the challenge of respecting user privacy and gaining permission for the companies to capture and monitor this information, as well as ensuring it is securely protected.

Logistics firm DHL is one company that is currently experimenting with augmented reality. Warehouse staff are equipped with augmented reality headsets for the item “picking process”. This system offers digital navigation for the optimum route to the correct item, minimising the initial training and orientation required, as well as reducing search times and the number of errors.

Challenges of wearable augmented reality technology

As vaunted as the F-35 helmet is, it is not without its share of problems. Earlier iterations of the helmet’s visual feed were jittery, causing problems such as motion sickness, and the night vision was not as effective as originally intended. 

Alongside these issues, wearable augmented reality technology also experiences problems with battery life. The problem with accounting for user’s elevation (floor level) remains for the GPS elements of wearable technology too.

Developers will also need to ensure that the visual feed provided by augmented reality does not disrupt the user’s spatial awareness by blocking their field of view.

Although perhaps not strictly augmented reality, if there is one thing that the Google Glass experiment taught us, it is that we, as a society, are not yet fully ready to accept the possibly invasive nature of wearable technology. There will need to be a greater acceptance in society before wearable augmented technology can be viable for mass take-up.

First steps to augmented reality world

There are now devices coming to market that allow users to clip a second camera onto their iPad. The addition of this second camera has huge implications for the development of augmented reality applications, as it will allow the device to perceive depth, much like we do with our own eyes. These techniques are currently insufficiently accurate. yet, as algorithms evolve and sensors improve, we will soon be able to, for example, measure a child’s physical development by simply using an augmented reality application on our tablets.

One of the core advantages for businesses in developing augmented reality applications for smartphones and tablets is that the hardware is readily available, in use and understood by customers.

The main development costs for businesses will be in the initial programming of the application and populating it with content. This can be mitigated by using existing content (videos, images, brochures, etc). Naturally, creating a new product range in computer-generated imagery further increases the necessary budget.

However, just because you can develop an augmented reality application, does not necessarily mean you always should. Despite the proliferation of smartphones, flat 2D maps are still the preferred medium for navigation, as they provide situational awareness with an understanding of the direction of their destination.

At present, there is no form of standardisation for sharing content between augmented reality applications. Thus, what works in one system is unlikely to work in another. As AR companies begin to license their own augmented reality software, shared content between applications will become more prevalent, allowing for greater accessibility of information.

When the power and accuracy of computer vision improves, AR could be used to stress-test fastenings and materials or assist engineers in routine maintenance and manufacturing tasks

James Hogan, Kudan

However, there are emerging markets in the medical and engineering sectors, where augmented reality is now starting to make breakthroughs. Here, specialists requiring immediate information can have data via augmented reality, while keeping their hands free.

“Augmented reality is slowly emerging from the trough of disillusionment of the Gartner hype lifecycle, given that the discussions we are now having are not those of a year ago,” says Hogan. “It is on the cusp of the slope of enlightenment, leading to the plateau of productivity.”

Future real-world applications for AR technology

Commenting on where this kind of technology could go in the future, Hogan says: “We'll see this kind of application moving from projection-based systems to more mobile devices and ultimately to wearable HUD-style devices. When the power and accuracy of computer vision improves, I can envisage a situation where AR is used to stress-test fastenings and materials as well as assisting engineers in routine maintenance and manufacturing tasks.”

Other implementations for augmented reality include heads-up displays for motorcycle helmets, such as the Skully AR-1, which comes with a wide-angle rear-view camera and transparent heads-up display providing speed, navigation and fuel levels. However, the AR-1 is still not available and costs $1499 to pre-order.

Future applications for augmented reality could also include a heads-up display for search and rescue pilots, allowing them to locate and co-ordinate suitably tagged ground teams in low-visibility conditions.

It will be in these pilot projects, for specialist fields, where development of augmented reality will initially accelerate. While they may not be perfect in their solutions, it will nonetheless demonstrate what the technology is capable of. However, these projects will, as the hardware develops, pave the way for future widespread applications of augmented reality.

Next Steps

Uses for augmented reality and virtual reality come into focus

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