The road ahead for augmented reality

April 1, 2016

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While existing smartglasses are adequate for many uses in enterprises, future advancements in optical performance, 3-D capabilities, authoring capabilities, and new interaction methods will define their success and the expansion of the market.

Augmented reality (AR) is quickly becoming an important technology in the enterprise, bridging the digital world and the physical world. In a recent pilot project, DHL equipped warehouse workers with AR-enabled smartglasses that guided them through item picking for order fulfillment. The result: fewer errors and a 25 percent increase in efficiency.

Increased digitization means the information demands of workers in the field are rising and starting to match those of deskbound workers.

Improving logistics like this is important—logistics represented 8.3 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014—but delivering needed information to any workers under any circumstances is increasingly essential to maintaining a competitive edge. AR offers potential benefits to field service, maintenance, marketing, customer support, and other functions.

Increased digitization means the information demands of workers in the field are rising and starting to match those of deskbound workers. “The deskless workers need access to rich information, schematics, videos, pictures, flows, lists, instructions, charts, and so on,” says Ketan Joshi, vice president of marketing for Atheer, maker of smartglasses and an AR platform. To meet such challenges, an equipment manufacturer can avoid sending experts to distant mine sites, for example, by outfitting field technicians with AR-enabled smartglasses that allow the experts to guide the field workers in diagnosing problems and repairing equipment.

AR-enabled smartglasses offer a significant opportunity in enterprise computing through hands-free access to contextual information optimized for workers engaged with the physical world.

The technology represents the next step in the coming together of the physical and digital worlds that is shaping human experience. However, there are hurdles to adoption. AR is limited by a highly fragmented ecosystem of hardware platforms and operating systems; a lack of standards for sharing data and supporting interactions; and technical barriers in optics, 3-D capabilities, authoring tools, and interaction methods.

This article introduces the various emerging technologies that are shaping AR.


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The physical and digital reality landscape

AR is part of a broader landscape of emerging trends and approaches that bridge the physical and digital experiences. This landscape, as shown in Table 1, includes:

  • Augmented reality (AR): Devices or wearable displays provide information tailored to the context and space in which a user works. The information appears as visual or audio supplements that help a worker more efficiently undertake a task. PCs, mobile phones, and tablets all are active platforms for AR, but smartglasses, and their hands-free use, will drive the next wave for AR.
  • Mixed reality (MR): A superset of AR, MR adds digital objects to physical ones, anchoring them to points in the real world. Users can then perceive physical and digital objects in the same space.
  • Virtual reality (VR): Users enter and interact with an immersive digital world. Enterprises have used VR in niche training and learning applications for years, but the difficulty and cost of developing and deploying content have been largely prohibitive. Some National Football League (NFL) teams and high schools and colleges use VR to train athletes and to analyze plays. Mainstream VR use is still years away and might materialize when AR and VR ultimately converge in five to ten years.
  • Extended reality (ER): Humans direct devices through separate physical spaces in real time. Those devices could be flying drones, remote undersea exploration craft, or surgical robots. Although in common use and related to the other technologies, ER is often overlooked as a separate category.

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Among all these trends, AR offers the most opportunities that are accessible to enterprises today. “Our analysis has found that there are more than 110 million deskless workers in the world,” says Joshi of Atheer. Deskless workers are engaged with the physical world, and hands-free solutions can provide a lot of value by bringing rich information to workers to make them more efficient and effective. Although AR solutions today have some limitations, they are evolving quickly.

Smartglasses: A force driving augmented reality

AR has been around for a few decades. Its evolution started with the invention of the head-mounted display by Ivan Sutherland and Danny Cohen as an academic research project in 1968. After many efforts to expand the concept of VR, the idea of AR was suggested in 1990. By 1992, Louis Rosenberg at the US Air Force’s Armstrong Laboratory (later merged into the Air Force Research Laboratory) developed the first immersive AR system, using digital overlays to guide people through physical tasks.

Today, AR has smartphone and tablet implementations that offer enterprise value. One billion smartphones in use have sensors and graphics acceleration to allow AR, but less than a tenth of users actually employ such applications.

At Boeing, factory trainees assembling a mock airplane wing were 30 percent faster and 90 percent more accurate using AR-animated instructions on tablets than trainees using instructions in PDF documents. Boeing is also experimenting with smartglasses, which likely will be the dominant AR platform.

Smartglasses for hands-free use cases will increasingly define the enterprise AR market. Available in the eyeglass form factor, smartglasses are wearable computers fully capable of running AR apps that present digital information layered on top of or integrated with the physical world and that enable a user’s interaction with the information.

Most industry analysts are generally positive about enterprise adoption of smartglasses during the next five years, projecting robust growth in the size of the overall AR market. Improving and increasing the capabilities of the devices and a drop in their prices likely will fuel this growth.

However, today the smartglasses market is highly fragmented, which is indicative of its early days. There are diverse hardware form factors, different operating systems, different data formats, and wide-ranging capabilities. Over time, platforms should emerge that can operate across the diversity of devices and connect to the existing back ends that most enterprises have.

Today, no such platform is dominant. Emergence of a dominant platform would likely signal the inflection point where adoption accelerates.

Vendors of smartglasses include Atheer, castAR, Daqri, Epson, IMMY, Meta, Sulon Technologies, and Vuzix. Microsoft entered the market when it announced HoloLens in January 2015, and Google has been active with Google Glass and its investment in startup Magic Leap.

Challenges to adoption

While many solutions are on the market and innovation is significant, many barriers limit enterprise adoption. (See Table 2.) “Most people have not had their aha moment with AR,” says the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance’s (AREA) Christine Perey. “Getting them to that moment without creating hype or expectations that the technology cannot meet is a serious issue that the AREA is working to address.”


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The largest barriers are technical and encompass the performance of the smartglasses, their size, weight, power requirements, and so on.

As the examples in this article suggest, early adopters gain benefits such as reduced errors, improved efficiency, and better use of labor. However, success in one area is difficult to replicate in other situations, each of which has custom requirements. “All AR experience authoring is basically handcrafted, which is not scalable,” Perey observes. As standards emerge across hardware, operating systems, data exchange, and interaction methods, then adapting solutions to a multitude of use cases will become easier.

The largest barriers are technical and encompass the performance of the smartglasses, their size, weight, power requirements, and so on. Therefore, technological advances will be the main driver of AR adoption.

Key technologies that will shape AR’s future

AR capabilities will evolve through the loosely coordinated development of four technology areas:

  • Optics: The optical performance of most smartglasses has a long runway for improvement. While digital imaging and video capture ability are highly sophisticated and useful in AR, the real challenge in optics is the display of information. For instance, field of view today is typically only 25 to 40 degrees horizontal and vertical, compared to the 190 degrees horizontal and 120 degrees vertical for normal human vision.[1 Limited optical capabilities reduce the variety of use cases and the potential of AR. The weight, size, and power requirements of optical components can be expected to continue to improve.
  • 3-D capabilities: AR pushes the computing paradigm into three dimensions. Sensing, tracking, orientation, interaction, modeling, and display all must happen in three dimensions. Desktop computers already can provide powerful 3-D capabilities in real time, but they have more processing power than AR displays. While today’s 3-D capabilities are substantial, progress is needed across tracking, processing, and display to ensure the virtual world and the physical world match precisely and change in real time according to user movement, so the virtual content seems anchored to the real world without jitters and delays. Progress is also needed in the accurate integration of 3-D audio, charts, images, and video in the display so they are intuitive, seamless, and responsive to user actions.
  • Authoring: Compelling AR solutions will be built using compelling content tailored to the environment, to the work context, and to the user. Authoring methods today are complex, fragmented across media types, and not well integrated. Look for new solutions that reduce complexity while taking advantage of content that already exists. The emergence of these tools is essential to make AR technology accessible to more developers.
  • Interaction: AR solutions are pushing human-computer interaction beyond keyboard, mouse, and touch-screen methods. Advances are underway to use gestures, speech, eye tracking, motion tracking, and other new methods to enable interaction with information in 3-D space. Most solutions will use a combination of several methods to accommodate varying environmental conditions, such as noise and brightness.

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Is AR ready for takeoff?

The value proposition of AR solutions seems to be real. The appetite for contextual and pertinent information at the point of action in a hands-free manner is real. The benefits of higher efficiency, reduced errors, and optimal use of labor are also real—as early adopters are learning. But is AR technology really ready for broader enterprise adoption?

The key challenge is to make the solutions so easily plug and play that the industry gets past the early adopters and expands the depth and breadth of use cases the technology can support.

But many more enterprises are piloting the technology. The AREA’s Perey notes that her organization’s members are all large, traditional enterprises heavily invested in the physical world, and they are motivated to try anything to make their workers more effective. That’s where the digital world comes in. “For these members,” she says, “AR further augments the capabilities of the human resources to be more effective in their work.”

These are early days and the market is still fragmented. The devices are good, but they must get better to attract more enterprises and more use cases. Many areas of technological progress, particularly optics, 3-D capabilities, authoring, and interaction, will shape AR’s future. Over the next two to three years, look for substantial innovation that significantly improves the performance and cost of smartglasses.

 


  1. Bettina L. Beard, Willa A. Hisle, and Albert J. Ahumada, Jr., Occupational Vision Standards: A Review, NASA, 2002.
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