Augmented reality is becoming the new competition ground for major tech companies. All of the five big players, Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, are making big investments in AR projects. Some of these projects includes smartphones with AR-enabling hardware, AR headsets and AR application development platforms.
But is all this investment aimed at enabling users to play the next version of Pokemon Go, put cat mustaches on their selfies or preview how furniture will look in their living room?
I believe the promise of AR is much more than trivial or entertaining use cases—in other words, “nice to haves.” The fact that makes augmented reality a bigger deal than its better-known cousin virtual reality is that instead of immersing you in a world that is completely detached from the one you’re in, it “augments” the immediate space around you with bits of information or graphical data.
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This can be a huge deal for the professional workers, as I learned during a recent journey I embarked to see how the hands-on workforce is using augmented reality gear to improve their speed and efficiency.
Access to information
The evolution of computing devices and internet connectivity has transformed the way we access information. Geographical barriers have been erased thanks to broadband connections and cloud platforms. A computing device and an internet connection is all you need to access an endless sea of information and applications. With a smartphone or a laptop, and a mobile data plan or even a free Wi-Fi connection at a local library, you can read your emails, access cloud applications and perform business tasks.
However, when it comes to the on-site work, access to that information is still restricted to a computer display. In most cases, this can be a barrier. For instance, in an assembly line, workers still have to use printed manuals or information terminals (such as laptops), which they have to go to in-between tasks in order to obtain information about the next step of their work.
At the very best, workers have a smartphone or tablet they carry around with them, which they use to access the information and applications relevant to their task. However, even that will require them to abandon the task and interact with a computing device.
Augmented reality provides a frictionless way to obtain information and interact with applications, which was previously unavailable to users. Smart glasses (such as the Google Glass) can project information relevant in the field of view of wearers, keeping their hands free to perform tasks and obviating the need to interrupt their work. This can be a worker at a warehouse, packing and order list, or at a factory, assembling a complicated device such as the wire harness of an airplane, or a maintenance officer checking on a vehicle out in the field.
The devices can process voice commands or scan QR code to launch applications or query for information, so interacting with them does not necessarily require the use of hands. The same technology helps workers capture information (pictures, video) during work and send it to the backend of the company without stopping their work.
This use of augmented reality, also called “assisted reality,” directly translates to an improvement in speed and a reduction in errors. Ironically, the Google Glass, which was shunned in public consumer space, is becoming widely popular among the hands-on workforce due to the specific problems it solves.
Another field where augmented reality can be of use is getting help from experts. In most field, expert assistants who have long-time experience are a coveted asset. However getting their help to on-site workers and operators has its own challenges.
One of the people I interviewed said their company required to fly in experts from Germany to maintain and reset their devices. Another said their assembly lines were in clean rooms, which required experts to suit up and go through a lengthy preparation process whenever they wanted to assist their workers.
AR glasses enable workers to directly stream a video feed of their line of site to a remote expert while doing their work, getting a second pair of eyes on the job. Where companies are using this method, experts can guide workers through the steps of the task or provide them with visual aides, videos and more on their AR display.
Dealing with the effects of automation
While interpretations about the severity vary, most experts agree that artificial intelligence is disrupting employment. More and more jobs are being automated by AI algorithms, and the tasks that remain within the domain of human cognition require higher-level skills.
This is a trend that will accelerate as AI developments pick up pace, making the landscape more fluid. Human workers will have to learn new skills and adapt to new tasks at a faster rate than before if they want to stay in the competition.
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Augmented reality is one of the technologies that will help humans maintain their edge. Immediate access to information, made possible by assisted reality, can dramatically cut down the time required to master new tasks.
A bigger promise lies in mixed reality, the more advanced form of augmented reality that embeds graphical objects into 3D space, as opposed to overlaying them on top of real-world imagery the way classic AR does. MR provides a more immersive way to learn tasks, reducing education time and improving the quality of learning. Some companies already use interactive MR models to help workers learn the steps of assembling parts in a factories.
With MR, users will be able to directly view and show what a design or plan will look like in its final location. This advanced form of visualization may one day obviate the need for some skills such as reading complicated maps.
As we move forward, AR will evolve and become more integrated with other technologies. There are already cases where the combination of AR and IoT sensors is helping workers read measurements as they perform tasks, such as the amount of torque being applied to a bolt. In a not too distant future, we can imagine headsets that leverage computer vision algorithms to analyze the wearer’s field of view to autonomously understand and assist in tasks.
While VR might remain a niche field, there’s a likely chance that AR will become an integral part of everything we do.