The Business Case For Augmented Reality

When we think of augmented reality, we think of the interaction of superimposed graphics, audio, GPS data and other sensory enhancements converging within a real-world environment displayed in real time. We might associate AR with future-facing products like HoloLens or Fashion3D, which offer interesting consumer and business experiences.

But this kind of technology has not realized its full commercial potential. As scientists are busily developing AR with commercial use in mind, we hear claims that AR technology will completely change the way we see the world.

It would seem the leading technology giants agree, as evidenced by Apple’s acquisition of Metaio, an AR startup; Google’s $500 million investment in Magic Leap, an AR company; and Microsoft HoloLens’ evolution into a fully untethered holographic computer.

I see true promise of AR in how we conduct business and connect with consumers, as well as its impact on the job market. Digi-Capital predicts, “AR/VR could hit $150B revenue by 2020, with AR taking the lion’s share around $120 billion and VR at $30 billion.”

With AR targeting the smartphone/tablet market, the potential user base is hundreds of millions, driving large revenues for device makers. The market is equally as ripe for the software and services industry, as well as mobile networks’ voice and data businesses. And let’s not overlook the impact on the workforce, as AR creates new types of jobs.

To be useful, AR systems need to know about objects in the real world, including exactly what an object is and an accurate real-time 3D position and shape of the object. For AR systems to have this information, jobs will be created to literally scan and tag the world (let’s call them taggers). Imagine these resources as 3D graphic designers running 3D Photoshop.

They will edit object scans to remove imperfections or make changes in order to print customized 3D copies. Eventually, taggers will be mostly replaced by robots and/or permanently mounted in home surveillance systems, and automatic 3D scan-healing and scan-editing software.

The pieces of a mature AR ecosystem are rapidly emerging.

Within the next 3-5 years, we’re going to see more brands roll out AR apps to bring customers more immersive and personalized experiences — whether it is bringing a static print ad to life, watching a movie trailer by pointing your smartphone camera at a poster or seeing how a new couch may look sitting in your living room.

A few AR early adopters in the market are paving the way. One of my favorites is SnapShop, an augmented reality app that lets consumers visualize how furniture might appear within a room. It takes advantage of the camera and photo roll in an iPhone or iPad to display overlays of furniture pieces from leading brands, such as IKEA, Crate & Barrel, Pier 1 Imports and more.

Users can easily browse products and view dimensions, display overlays live using their camera and even access color variations and other viewing tools. Users can then save these previews, email them to friends or go straight to the retailer’s website to get more information or make a purchase.

ModiFace is another great example. Its incredible virtual makeover and visualization app enables customers to virtually try on a cosmetic brand’s lipsticks, glosses, shadows, mascara and foundation products on their own face by uploading a photo to the app. The application features also include virtually trying on celebrity hairstyles, experimenting with different hair colors and changing eye colors from available contact lens shades.

But the emergence of these kinds of niche applications really underscores that AR is still in its infancy. As AR evolves, I see three areas where AR offers the biggest potential for the commercial market.

AR Scales To More Sales

Just like the ModiFace and SnapShop examples, we’re going to see an explosion in AR being used to boost sales and market share through more immersive customer experiences. Businesses will build connections with consumers in multiple ways — like trying on products and experiencing how they may look in real life, 3D animated product demonstrations and 3D visualizations of products in a particular environment, such as a home or office.

By engaging our visual sense in the shopping experience, AR will foster greater customer attachment and trust in products, increasing the likelihood of a purchase. But as businesses embrace and implement AR, they will be faced with many challenges, such as smartphones not being equipped with adequate sensors and chips, the costs associated with more cameras required to implement AR and the challenges of fitting AR technologies into existing business workflows.

Slowly over time, as software, hardware, resources and user adoption move to a more stable and mature stage, the cost to implement AR will diminish.

Replication Of In-Store Experiences

Instead of relying on traditional showrooms to get hands-on with products, more retailers will give customers the opportunity to check prices, view 3D renderings of the products or try on clothes digitally, then seamlessly place an order. An example of this is PrestaShop, which integrates Webcam Social Shopper with software that turns a shoppers’ webcam into an interactive mirror, instantaneously providing a more fun, visual and social shopping experience.

Just as exciting, we’re going to see brick-and-mortar businesses get innovative by reorienting store layouts to foster more augmented experiences. Virtual shopping stores will be set up to combine the power of traditional retail experience with e-commerce. The companies creating virtual shopping stores will be successful if they are able to remain connected to the customers with no increased inventory cost, and provide a superb retail experience without the need to stand in long queues.

The Holodeck Of Training Systems

Most user manuals are worthless. They’re chock full of poorly written text, confusing diagrams and outdated knowledge. What if, instead of leafing through pages or scrolling through an online manual, you could simply see your way through a task?

This approach will allow users to see complex procedures animated directly on the equipment they are using. Furthermore, this approach consistently reinforces best practices and incorporates the most up-to-date instructions in the most easily understood form possible — direct demonstration.

Within the next 3-5 years, we’re going to see more brands roll out AR apps to bring customers more immersive and personalized experiences.

While still a relatively immature application, instructional AR is showing real promise commercially. For example, in the oil and gas industry, FuelFX deploys interactive simulations, animations and 3D graphics to create step-by-step guides for trainees learning new equipment. Utilized by some of the largest oil companies, including BP, the application has shown that trainees can quickly master complex procedures and processes without the risk factors involved in real-life situations or using real equipment.

Beyond basic training, FuelFX allows virtual instructors to survey a facility and point out safety concerns, displays complicated refinery models with links to pressure and temperature readings in real time and enables crises managers to access digital facility models connected to real-time security and safety software.

Such interactive procedures can be deployed across a host of devices, including tablets, smart phones, Google Glass and large trade-show touchscreens, offering versatility that delivers a lasting impact.

For the healthcare industry, EyeDecide helps educate patients. It uses the camera display to simulate the impact specific conditions could have on a person’s vision, such as cataracts or Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD).

Trying to explain the impacts of such conditions can be difficult. But with EyeDecide, it can be much easier, offering patients a snapshot of how their vision will be impacted by conditions while also displaying how the eye itself will be influenced. With EyeDecide, both patients and family members can understand how a potential disease could impact vision in a number of surroundings, including one’s home.

Given that multi-sensory learning has been shown to be more valuable in transmitting information, we’re going to see a variety of industries adopt these AR instructional methods for better-informed and safer workforces, thus changing the shape of the medical and healthcare industry.

The pieces of a mature AR ecosystem are rapidly emerging, helping to drive the potential of practical applications for augmented reality. Despite the technical challenges that exist and the ones we will face, there will be plenty of excitement along the way. We’ll continue to see new AR experiences on phones and tablets that push the limits of computer vision and change the way we play, shop, learn and work.