Written on 4th October 2017 - 3 minutes

Augmented Reality (AR) in the Real World

AR black glasses

There’s a new toy in the office and the excitement from those of us who covet techy things is palpable. Well, it is IN the office unless the MD’s slipped it into his bag to take home and play with. So far only Rudi has had time with the precious. Hands up who knows what the picture is?

If you said VR, close, but not quite. It’s a Microsoft HoloLens. Microsoft’s Augmented Reality (AR) headset.

Augmented Reality is the same technology that convinced people to step into moving traffic in search of imaginary creatures. Or Pokemon Go as my daughter called it for the 1 month it was the best thing in the world ever™. For those not up to speed; AR allows you to insert virtual images into a view of the real world. Usually through a physical headset as seen above, or when viewing the world through the camera/screen of a smartphone. The lust for this technology wasn’t confined just to the easily impressed youth though (seeing a bunch of burly guys in my gym huddled round the benches showing off their Snorlaxes absolutely made my day). People of all ages were going nuts for this technology. Sure, the recreational uses of AR are exciting, especially with everyone and their dog having a capable smartphone. What is more interesting though is all the business use cases for this technology.

Augmented Reality for business

Designers, architects and the medical profession spring to mind initially. The technology really comes alive though when you combine it with the location-aware smartphone. It’s one thing to place these virtual items in your immediate world, things really get interesting when you can overlay these items to very specific points in the world. Flagging dangerous items while surveying a specific construction site, inserting customer’s car details onto the bays of an MOT garage or measuring the distance between two markers for example. This was very much the driving force behind Google’s foray into AR with Google Glass; overlay contextual data into the user’s world (and boy, do they have a lot of data to work with!) by the way of a pair of not-so-hip lense-less spectacles. It didn’t really take off, at least not in the recreational world. The glasses were expensive, limited in battery life and made the owner look like a bit of a wazzock. Not to mention the minefield of privacy concerns when used in the wild by normal people. It didn’t take Google particularly long to realise that maybe they were barking up the wrong tree with their target demographic and business was the real interest.

Making Augmented Reality accessible

AR isn’t just limited to the native apps space neither. AR web frameworks are somewhat in their infancy but integrating AR functionality into an offline capable, mobile-friendly web app is entirely doable. Without plugins, too! With AR you have options. Virtual objects can be superimposed onto specific visual markers, your company logo for example, or they can be location based “markerless” and encoded with geo-coordinates; or a combination of the two. The applications for marker based AR is somewhat more limited. Markers need to be printed or displayed on a screen and viewed with a suitable device. Hardly a good user experience. At the high-end, devices like the Hololens are actually capable of mapping your environment and building those augmented elements directly onto them (“SLAM” – simultaneous localization and mapping).

Augmented reality is certainly shaping up as an exciting and useful tool for business. Will it be the slick Minority Report blend of real-world and virtual that people are hoping for, or will it be an expensive techy toy without the refinement/utility and durability businesses are going to expect?

If not, there’s always Minecraft on the coffee table.

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