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Forget how mobile apps are transforming business activities. Augmented reality is the new frontier for digital...
experiences in the enterprise, blending physical and digital worlds. Things are changing rapidly, and I suspect we'll see wide-scale adoption of AR content over the next three to five years.
Consider current teasers: When it comes to video gaming, Pokémon Go enables players to engage with virtual creatures that appear on their mobile devices in their actual locations. Turning to shopping, the Ikea Place mobile app puts Ikea furniture -- from its digital catalog -- directly into rooms through an augmented reality (AR) experience on iPhones and iPads. We can interact digitally with the world around us for a new gaming experience or to visualize a buying decision.
With AR content in action, digitized bits overlay analog environments to augment, in real time, specific tasks and activities. AR combines digital content with physical things. We experience the results in the moment, and have the capability to directly manipulate the objects around us.
AR is becoming mainstream. In mid-January, the third semiannual Augmented Reality in Action conference at MIT took the pulse of this emerging market. As one might expect, it is both promising and problematic.
Industrial applications ripe for AR content
Here's the good news: The inflection point for industrial applications is fast approaching.
With its ThingWorx platform, AR technology vendor PTC is now demonstrating state-of-the-art tools and technologies that combine the internet of things with AR displays to deliver content snippets -- or snackable content -- within industrial contexts.
For instance, factory workers can control machinery with settings and dials that appear virtually, converged within their field of vision using AR displays. These displays range from specialized goggles and glasses to familiar smartphones and tablets. Service technicians can troubleshoot equipment and receive step-by-step repair instructions through AR content. Workers can also see what they're doing and make repairs in context without prior training.
ThingWorx captures data from multiple industrial sensors and contextualizes the disparate sources to create granular content snippets. It then relies on heads-up AR displays -- produced using specialized toolkits -- to layer the content snippets within work-related contexts. By encoding standard operating measures and procedures, operators' performance for first time fix rates and service efficiencies increase.
But the hard work to create the underlying models still remains. Needed is the a priori expertise to model physical devices within an industrial setting, and to capture the technical information within an AR environment. Like other forms of digital experience management, this is a knowledge engineering problem that requires upfront investment to solve.
Cognitive enhancement on the horizon
While augmented industrial applications are fast becoming part of enterprise IT, augmented reality remains an active topic for applied research when it comes to enhancing what we know and feel.
These kinds of cognitive/emotional systems are always with us and are continually aware of our current contexts. They mediate experiences by tapping into both conscious and subconscious stimuli, and they are often personalized to our current activities. Neuroscience, knowing how various pathways in our brains work, also plays a role.
Pattie Maes and her students at the MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces research group are exploring cognitive enhancements based on sounds, sight and smell to detect moods and to improve performance. The wearable sensory systems in her lab include:
- headphones that adjust to the ambient noise in the room and alter what we can hear;
- mixed-reality glasses where avatars, icons and other types of digital objects move directly around our fields of vision to reinforce concepts, improve memory and enhance learning;
- devices that produce digitized scents based on our biometric or contextual data to stimulate feelings and shift mental states; and
- headbands that monitor our brain frequencies to detect states of peak performance and concentration.
Of course, these AR experiences depend on the underlying cognitive models and computational algorithms, which are based on innovative approaches to machine learning and other AI techniques, to not only make the AR experience work, but also to populate the proper AR content catalogued with the metadata to keep it close at hand.
As the research at MIT demonstrates, cognitive modeling of sensory experiences is not for the faint of heart. But stay tuned. The R&D results are intriguing and breakthroughs for wide-scale adoption are likely.
When it comes to cognitive enhancements, remember that there are two sides to our brains. The left side performs tasks that incorporate logic, such as science and math, while the right side performs tasks related to creativity and the arts. While left-sided tasks are the stock and trade of computation, AR has the potential to support many right-sided activities, as well.
Before too long, we are going to have access to new sets of digital experiences that can help to enhance our memory, improve our creativity and even regulate our moods. We are going to be able to extend AR from logical and factual experiences to sensory and emotional ones.
Business stakeholders for AR innovation
Between AR breakthroughs for industrial applications and research on cognitive enhancements, there is the vexing matter of organizational change. In this fast-moving field, innovations have a cost.
Not surprisingly, there is an ever-increasing need for an enterprise ecosystem to ensure businesses can leverage the benefits of the AR revolution while also mitigating risks. Stakeholders in this ecosystem include enterprises that utilize AR to solve business problems, together with the technology firms and research labs producing the AR devices, displays and software applications for powering competitive business solutions.
The Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA) is creating just such an ecosystem of stakeholders. The nonprofit alliance seeks to accelerate the adoption of AR by sharing technical information and best practices around knotty problems that are beyond the concerns of any one particular organization or set of players.
AREA focuses on helping enterprises find vendor-neutral information, evaluate available tools, develop confidence around implementing new technologies and provide insight to support ROI decisions. It also spearheads initiatives to help both providers and enterprises define technical requirements and use cases where AR delivers business benefits -- increasing the efficiency of operational tasks and activities by reducing time, minimizing errors and lowering costs.
Here's the business bet. When stakeholders are able to share information and insights on topics of mutual concern, they will be able to advance the state of the art of introducing AR into their respective work environments.
When it comes to enterprise IT, AR for business solutions remains a nascent field. An ecosystem of stakeholders should help to build momentum for enterprise adoption.
Yet another digital experience
In fact, AR -- in all its varied forms -- is an up-and-coming extension of content technologies. Certainly, AR content delivers new modes to create and interact with digital objects. Nevertheless, the lessons from web content management, the mobile revolution and digital experience management still apply.
To be successful in a business environment, human experiences must drive technology decisions, and not the other way around. Needed are the design insights and computational models to blend digital with analog experiences and translate the results into competitive business activities. To do this, AR relies on granular objects and snackable content.
New with AR are the granularity and interactivity of rich media objects -- not only photos and other viewable or audio objects, but also sensory, haptic and cognitive items that trigger emotional responses.
Needed for any successful digital experience is the information architecture capable of structuring these objects and delivering them in context on demand. When it comes to enterprise adoption, innovative front-end experiences are going to depend on agile back-end content sources.