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Augmented Reality

12th August 2015

You wait years for an alternative to reality, then two come along at once...

In recent months Virtual Reality has garnered most of the press, its hi-tech headsets heralded as the next gaming revolution, enveloping players in totally computer generated worlds. However while its quieter cousin Augmented Reality may be less dramatic, it offers many more practical and affordable applications to businesses and organisations that need to engage with or train customers, community or workforce.

So what’s the difference? AR stands apart from VR by retaining the real world rather than replacing it. It superimposes computer information, graphics or videos on your view of the surroundings so they seemingly ‘float’ in mid air but appear attached to real objects.

Like VR it can use headsets but importantly AR also operates on tablets and smartphones - their cameras show the world while the software adds the floating image to the screen.

This dramatically reduces the technology’s cost of entry and gives organisations a delivery system millions of customers already have in their pockets. So far AR’s widest use has been in marketing….

  • IKEA’s 2013 AR catalogue enabled shoppers to ‘pick up’ furniture from the page and have their phone drop it into place on an image of their room.
  • Retailers use it to trial new packaging letting customers experience the revised design on the shelf without going to the expense of actually printing it.
  • Online AR fitting studios superimpose everything from glasses on your face to clothes on your body.
  • Even the relatively mundane utility bill can spring to life with links, graphics and personalised messages.

But AR also has multiple applications for manufacturers and service industries, especially for workers with both hands full. An engineer can refer to an exploded diagram of the part he’s repairing as it hovers where his fingers are, a fireman could verify the temperatures of the exits he has to choose from.

Boeing, BMW and Volkswagen are among those already using AR to help mechanics see through layers of complex machinery on the production line. In fact it was Boeing who pioneered the technology on the factory floor in 1990 by replacing expensive printed diagrams with units that projected schematics just where the workers needed them.

AR is also highly effective for education and training says Ronald Azuma who leads the AR team at Intel Labs. Why? “Because it makes instructions easier to understand by displaying them directly over the real-world objects that require manipulation, thus removing the cognitive load and ambiguity in spatially transforming directions from traditional media like manuals, text, images and videos into the situation at hand."

Presently the majority of AR applications require a physical marker, a printed sheet the software recognises to create the image. But increasingly research has focussed on freeing AR from a physical cue by employing GPS and geolocation to tell the software where it is and what it should be showing. There’s now an early generation of apps that can overlay information on landmarks or streets about their history, attractions, restaurants, directions and more.

It’s these outdoor applications that present AR and organisations that use it with some of the most interesting opportunities, but it’s also where the technology will meet its greatest challenges in coming years.


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