When Augmented Becomes Reality

4/24/2013

AR (augmented reality) continues to enhance reality with digital data. Most people are familiar with the idea of virtual technology, where users are “transported” into the digital world. We’ve seen it used in science fiction movies, video games, and the occasional off-the-wall product demonstration at industry trade shows. But could we AR make its case for business on a more consistent basis?

Formally, AR is defined as “a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual, computer-generated imagery.” So instead of creating a completely fabricated world, AR feels more realistic and allows the users to add digital-based information to their physical world.

While AR might sound like another “gee-whiz” technology, several forward-thinking companies are starting to experiment with practical ways to use it in a business environment. Lego, the well-known designer of children’s building blocks, is using augmented reality in high-tech digital signs used its retail stores worldwide. The Lego Digital Box integrates augmented reality and gesture to provide users with an interactive experience. Instead of consumers trying to guess what it would be like to play with a specific box of Lego building blocks, the Lego Digital Box will actually give the consumer that experience. The interactive kiosk uses camera sensors and Intel technology to provide a representation of the toy in 3D. For example, if the consumer rotates the box, the screen rotates. Consumers can also see the Lego figures moving, planes taking off, and trains arriving at the stations.


Industries beyond retail are also investigating the use of AR. Fiatech, www.fiatech.org, a research and innovation organization housed at The University of Texas at Austin, is currently working with UK-based COMIT (Construction Opportunities in Mobile IT) to develop modular construction techniques such as VRM (virtual reality modeling) to enhance and support onsite construction and operations processes. The two organizations just released their first report, “Advancing Asset Knowledge through the Use of Augmented Reality Technologies,” which investigates the potential business value of augmented reality using two proof-of-concept trials performed in the UK.

According to the report, AR, through its use of live streaming video feeds and object identification using GPS, could help construction site personnel more efficiently handle and interpret the growing amount of onsite digital information. Specifically, the report says that use of 3D models and handheld devices, coupled with AR technology, enable a construction site operator, engineer, or maintenance technician to better understand advanced modeling data. In addition, it could allow personnel to work more effectively than they would with written instructions or electronic manuals.

Another indication that this technology is emerging is the growing number of trade events that are starting to surface. Earlier this month, Vuzix Corporation, www.vuzix.com, a supplier of video and cloud connected video eyewear products, announced its sponsorship of two key industry conferences dedicated to AR. The events—Augmented Reality New York (ARNY) and The Ninth AR Standards Community Meeting—are being held at the end of the month and will bring together developers, investors, and others who want to advance the use of AR and reduce the barriers to its widespread use.

So will AR become a market reality? A November 2012 report from Juniper Research, www.juniperresearch.com, confirms that an increasing number of brands and retailers are deploying AR capabilities within their apps and marketing materials. As a result, the research firm estimates AR applications will generate close to $300 million in revenues globally this year. Juniper also estimates by 2017, more than 2.5 billion mobile AR apps will be downloaded to smartphones and tablets per annum. To put this in context, this represents 3.5 times the number of downloads achieved by Angry Birds in 2011.

Of course, the technology still has a long way to go. Juniper’s report states AR has several market barriers to overcome, including lack of consumer awareness. It also said that technological limitations of AR-enablers such as the phone camera, GPS, digital compasses, and markerless tracking has, in many cases, caused the AR experience to fall short of consumer expectations.

Maybe this means AR will find its place in industry first, as shown in the Fiatech report. Or maybe brands like Lego will push AR into the retail space until it finally trickles down into the consumer mainstream. Either way, AR is emerging and is perhaps one of the most literal examples of how digital data can truly enhance the world we in which we live.


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