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What Businesses Need to Know About Augmented Reality

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

What is Augmented Reality (AR), what does the app market look like and should your organization adopt AR now?

Wrapping your arms around technology that's truly revolutionary is no easy task. Tech industry analysts and researchers at ABI Research say augmented reality (AR) is truly the technology of the future. It's expected to reach a total market worth of $100 billion by 2020 (and that estimate continues to be updated and increased as interest grows). So, it's no wonder IT pros are scrambling to understand this emerging and rapidly growing technology and what it can do for business.

Here, we break down the essential information nuggets you need to understand AR and factors to consider when adopting it.

What is Augmented Reality?

AR is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world to provide a composite view.  AR integrates digital information with the user's environment in real time. Enabling 3D applications can tie digital animation or contextual data to an AR marker in the real world.

For example, an AR application combined with a helmet-mounted thermal camera can superimpose digital images and data on a facemask. The specialized hardware and application enables firefighters and rescuers to "see" fire and victims as they move in the blinding darkness of a smoke-filled structure and keeps their hands free for work.

AR is a very different technology from Virtual Reality (VR), and it's important to know how the two technologies differ. AR inserts virtual objects into the user's real world environment where the user can interact with them with minimal immersion. VR creates a completely virtual world with which users interact and become totally immersed.

Hardware Needs

Microsoft HoloLens - Transform your world with holograms

Over the past few years, companies and scientific labs have worked on developing devices that enable AR.

Undoubtedly, the most famous of the early devices is Google Glass, an AR interface that debuted in 2013. The wearable device resembled common corrective lenses in many ways with the addition of a small projector above the right eye. That screen displayed data, audio, overlaying images and video on the user's lens. Plus, the device was responsive to voice commands.

Google has officially followed up on that first foray into this mixed reality with the Google Glass Enterprise Edition. Unlike the previous edition, the new model can be used by people wearing prescription lenses or safety goggles. In fact, this model appears to have found its niche in factories. Forrester Research even estimates that by 2025 nearly 14.4 million U.S. workers will be wearing something like these. 

MORE: Google Glass Redux: High-Tech Wearable Gets Ready for Business

Other improvements include a longer lasting battery, faster Wi-Fi and a better processor. The camera was upgraded from 5 megapixels to 8. The glasses were quietly rolled out to partners and are in use on factory floors all over the country. 

Although some AR applications run in small environments that permit tethered devices, most applications require untethered devices that allow users to move freely within their environment. This need for mobility is why most efforts have and continue to be focused on wearable devices, such as headsets, glasses, contact lenses, watches, earbuds, wristbands and pendants.

Startup Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens represent standalone solutions that give users freedom of movement and an annotated or augmented view of reality. Magic Leap reportedly uses a head-mounted, virtual retinal device that superimposes 3D digital images over real work objects by projecting a digital light field into the user's eye. Microsoft HoloLens uses a headset to bring Windows 10 apps into the user's environment using 2D and 3D holograms.

For industrial environments, the DAQRI Smart Helmet gives workers live digital information about machinery. The Meta 2 AR headset, a tethered device, enables users to manipulate 3D objects with their hands. It's not a consumer product.

But fancy headsets or all-in-one solutions aren't required for most AR applications today.

Mobile AR solutions work with smartphones and tablets, using sophisticated software and the mobile device's camera. So, an AR experience that can include holograms or 3D models can be delivered on hardware consumers already carry in their pockets.

The AR Application Market

Initial mass adoption of AR is expected to come from the mobile segment because consumers already own and understand the devices. In addition, many applications can be downloaded from app stores they already trust. The popularity of such apps as Pokemon Go, Sky View, Star Walk, Golfscape GPS Range Finder and many others demonstrate the mass appeal, ease of use and utility of AR.

There are literally dozens of software vendors offering AR applications, and still more vendors who can help businesses leverage AR in a variety of ways. Some of the top companies in AR mobile apps and software — geared toward business and consumer use — are (at this writing) Blippar, Layar, Wikitude, Augment and Vuforia.

Augment (augment.com) is an AR platform and software development kit designed primarily for enterprises throughout the supply chain, from design to sales to marketing and retail.

Blippar (blippar.com) and Layar (layar.com) are consumer-facing apps that enable users to obtain information about objects and venues by simply pointing their smartphones at the target of interest.

Wikitude (wikitude.com) creates vision and location-based AR apps.

Vuforia (vuforia.com) is an AR platform with a software development kit that powers augmented reality experiences for mobile devices.

Adopt now or later?

The technology represents a new platform that is exciting and promises to change the way businesses operate. Many enterprises are piloting AR technology with the goal of helping employees work more effectively. Now is the best time to explore AR and see what it can do for your company.

MORE: Augmented Reality Check: Innovative Ways Businesses are Embracing AR

AR is being used right now in military, industrial and medical applications as well as commercial and entertainment. Additional broad categories of business operations and markets that can benefit from AR adoption include:
Archeology
Architecture
Visual art
Commerce
Construction
Education
Emergency management
Sales and marketing
Search and rescue
Industrial design
Product development
Navigation
Workplace and remote collaboration

Be aware, however, that there are a few nagging issues concerning AR that need to be considered and addressed.

When it comes to AR (and VR, for that matter), processing power is still a limiting factor. A product or app demonstration that runs smoothly might not run so fast and seamless in the real world if hardware processing speeds aren't up to the job. Technologists are already at work on solving the problem, and many are looking to shift processing tasks to the cloud.

There are potential privacy concerns with the use of AR because AR depends on recording and analyzing the environment in real time. Whether legal complications may or may not impact business use of AR is yet to be seen.

AR wearable displays have a relatively narrow field of view (FOV) that can cause some user frustration. Like the processing power issue, technologists are working on increasing FOV through improving headsets and by inventing new ways to project images—including directly imaging into the user's retina. Magic Leap is reportedly using a virtual retinal display for its AR system.

Over the next two or three years, it's likely that we'll see significant innovations in AR hardware and software. Moreover, plug and play solutions are likely to become more prolific — making the benefits of AR technology even more accessible to businesses of all sizes and types.

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