Augmented Reality (AR) technologies have been around in one form or another for years, but it is only recently that computers and sensors have gotten small enough, fast enough, and accurate enough for it to be feasible to create AR headsets that can be mass produced. The first generation of hardware will certainly have its limitations as all technologies do, but when AR is unleashed into the world it will nevertheless find applications and scenarios where it will flourish.
To see this, consider how we work with computers now. When you boot your computer, you are taken to your “desktop”, you organize your “files” into “folders”, when you surf the web you see “pages”. I put these terms in quotes because these are all metaphors that we borrowed from the real world to describe abstract concepts in computing. You don’t really push buttons on a touch screen—you tap a region of the screen and the system responds by updating the display to show a pushed button and finally a button at rest. Even 30 years into the personal computer revolution, and even after the first digital generation has now grown up, we still rely on the physical world to understand how to work with computers. The benefit that AR has is that it no longer requires us to use these, often times contorted, metaphors to interact with a computing platform. Instead AR celebrates the physical world that we understand so well by simply adding to what we already see and AR it will thrive in solving problems grounded in the real world.
Consider the problem in Flint Michigan where lead is now contaminating much of the city’s drinking water. This contamination is due to corrosion that has occurred on CNL (copper and lead) pipes. The most direct way to fix this problem is to replace the corroded pipes, but there are probably hundreds of miles of service pipes even for a small municipality, segments of which have been built over the entire course of the municipality’s existence with pipes made of different materials. Which segments do you replace? Where do you start digging? Imagine if you could put on an AR headset and just see the pipes that are underground, right through the soil that buries them, like x-ray vision. Imagine if you could see the individual segments that were corroded. The amount of time that AR could save in such an endeavor could literally change lives for the better. To be fair, simply having AR wouldn’t completely enable a solution where you can see through soil to the pipes below; very accurate map information would also be needed, but it does illustrate how AR enable near-magical powers in the real world.
Augmented reality would be no less magical in marketing. Consider a personalized home builder that builds standard spaces, but then allows the buyer to specify what types of cabinets and counter tops to use in the kitchen, what type of floors to use in the den, what color paint to use on the walls, and what types of tile to use in bathroom. An AR experience that allowed prospective buyers to see the property, not as it is now, but as they want it when they move in, and could have an enormous positive emotional impact on the buyer. This is an example of where AR can have a tremendous impact when someone is buying what is likely to be the largest purchase in their life—AR could be just as powerful on the other side of the buying spectrum. Consider a liquor manufacturer that wants to elevate its brand from simply “maker of premium booze” to a lifestyle brand. AR could be used to build an experience that helps a party thrower make mixed drinks for guests by calculating the volume of a serving glass and then super imposing pour levels for various ingredients. More involved drinks would of course require more detailed instruction but the point is the liquor manufacturer start to solidify itself as a lifestyle brand by enabling one to live the lifestyle they want to embody.
These applications are really just the tip of the spear. Augmented Reality enables an entirely new class of computing platforms. In just a few years you will see AR configured, IoT based, personal area networks; AR based, multidimensional data analysis systems; and, through the integration with object recognition via advances in computer vision, open computational environments.