You've likely heard of augmented reality (AR), the technology that overlays digital elements on the physical environment and allows the dynamic manipulation of data to achieve a new level of engagement with information and the world around us. AR, like it's cousin virtual reality (VR), enables new ways of interacting with the world, opening up avenues in entertainment and day to day life.
It can also change the way we approach business. Whether in manufacturing or retail, AR creates new ways to engage with colleagues, consumers, and the world around us. In many ways, AR proposes to change the way we do thing entirely. From better hosting meetings with remote workers to completing repairs and maintenance, AR is revamping the workplace with new, exciting applications that promise to streamline operations, communication, and enhance the bottom line.
Augmented reality's business applications
AR is distinct from VR in that it offers users graphical enhancements to their real, physical environment, rather than creating an entirely new environment. Experts predict an explosion of creative uses as the technology becomes more ubiquitous.
"The retail space has dipped their toe in AR briefly. For instance, Ikea used AR so customers could see how a couch would look in their living room, or if that color rug would work with their room design," Joe Arcuri, director of design and user experience at Overit, said. "[The technology] could also be applied to the construction industry. How cool would it be to see what a future house will look like on a plot of land, or how a deck or addition could look within the current environment?"
James Kovach, senior vice president of business development for AR company CrowdOptic, said many of their clients in the healthcare and athletic industries are already taking advantage of augmented reality in order to bring important data – like a doctor monitoring patient's blood pressure or a football coach analyzing a player's acceleration – into one, easy to access space.
"AR has the same value proposition across the entire spectrum," Kovach said. "An individual is looking at something through smart glasses, and AR compiles contextual information to assist that person, whether it's [a physician] treating a patient or you're in an office and trying to learn something."
Here's a quick look at how this versatile technology is currently used, and how it could evolve in the future to radically change the way people think about doing business.
Augmented reality can completely change the way geographically dispersed employees connect. When the team holds a meeting, remote workers can often be detached from the group or become easily distracted. With AR, however, it's as if everybody is actually present in the room. The meeting instantly becomes more engaging for the remote workers, and those who are physically present are more likely to include them in the discussion. Even subtle things like eye contact and facial expressions can really increase the effectiveness of your collaborative efforts.
"Augmented reality for business offers promise both in communicating with customers, and within the organizations themselves for work functions," said Gareth Price, technical director for Ready Set Rocket. "AR brings the internet from being contained on a screen to becoming part of the fabric of the world around us, which will benefit businesses with a physical presence."
Training and education
Training employees with AR technology creates an immersive, interactive experience across multiple senses, which is far more effective than a typical lecture or simply reading instructions. With either on screen instructions or layered graphics, users can be shown complex processes step-by-step, or given prompts and instruction on a certain task. Using these methods, AR offers the capability to increase the depth of the training process, while expediting it at the same time.
Augmented reality also promises improved knowledge in the realm of repairs, where even inexperienced people can fix complex machines. By demonstrating each component part of a machine and precisely what needs to be done to access and then repair it, AR overlays can illustrate step-by-step the process of repairing virtually anything.
"In the workplace, AR has promising practical applications, such as an engineer being able to see an overlay of a piece of machinery with repair information or sensor readings such as temperature," Price said.
The rise of e-commerce has made showcasing products especially important. With AR, online shoppers are able to fully inspect the product they're considering purchasing as if it were really there.
One popular use of AR for this purpose is software that allows potential buyers to place different three-dimensional models of furniture in their homes to see how the piece might fit in before buying. Not only is the customer empowered during the decision-making process, but it also helps reduce future expenses to the business by minimizing returns.
"For years, retailers and manufacturers selling high-consideration products have [used] tools like physical showrooms to help customers visualize what a bathroom, for example, would look like with a new sink," Beck Besecker, founder and CEO of Marxent, said. "This creates obvious cost and complexity challenges, and a disconnect for consumers in terms of what a product will actually look like in their home."
Tours and maps
Whether it's real estate or an art museum, AR can be used to create informative and interactive tours. Consider a realtor showing a home; everything from the homes history to recent renovations can be shown in a graphic overlay as the prospective buyer walks through. Visitors to a museum can see deeper information about artifacts or artwork. Deliveries can utilize graphical overlays for maps to help guide them quickly and efficiently without taking their eyes off the road. Directionality is a huge aspect of augmented reality.
"We have an AR platform called Terra Icons, on which we guide users to landmarks and points of interest in AR, avoiding for people to use confusing maps to get somewhere," said Joanan Hernandez, founder of mobile AR company Mollejuo. "Our business model is putting advertisement in AR; specifically, in geolocated AR."
For example, said Hernandez, businesses that are close to the Empire State Building can be displayed in Terra Icons as tourists get closer to the landmark.
Augmented office spaces
One particularly "futuristic" potential offered by AR is the ability to alter plain office spaces. Imagine a room where the only tangible things were people and load-bearing furniture, like tables and chairs. Beyond that, the walls are bare and windowless. Augmented reality could actually transform that room for whatever purposes you require, according to David Tal, president of QuantumRun.
"Through the introduction of augmented reality, smaller office spaces will become cheaply multifunctional," Tal said. "Through these AR glasses, you and your co-workers will see [an empty office as] a room filled with digital whiteboards on all four walls that you can scribble on with your fingers."
The possibilities don't end there, he added.
"You could voice command the room to save your brainstorming session and transform the AR wall decor and ornamental furniture into a formal boardroom layout," Tal said. "Voice command the room to transform yet again into a multimedia presentation showroom to present your latest advertising plans to your visiting clients."
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.