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Augmented reality rose from obscurity this summer with the Pokémon Go craze that captivated millions around the globe. But this year's hottest smartphone game is just the tip of the iceberg, providing a hint of the technology's potential to transform the enterprise in industries from retail to manufacturing.
Unlike virtual reality, which creates an immersive, computer-generated environment, the less familiar augmented reality, or AR, technology superimposes computer-generated images and overlays information on a user's real-world view. This computer-generated sensory data -- which could include elements such as sound, graphics, GPS data, video or 3D models -- bridges the digital and physical worlds. For an enterprise, the applications are boundless, arming workers walking the warehouse or selling on the shop floor, for example, with essential information that can improve productivity, streamline customer interactions and deliver optimized maintenance in the field.
The rise of enterprise augmented reality applications
Thanks to the rise of smartphones, smart sensors and improved 3D graphics capabilities, experts see signs that AR's time has finally come. Digi-Capital is projecting market revenues from augmented and virtual reality to hit $120 billion by 2020, with $90 billion of that number coming from AR deployments. According to a PWC report, AR is poised to break out as deskless workers increasingly require hands-free access to information, such as schematics, lists, instructions and charts, to perform their jobs, allowing an expert to guide a field technician, for example, in diagnosing problems and repairing equipment at a remote site.
Lisa Woodleyvice president of experience design, NTT Data
For now, the vast majority of early enterprise augmented reality applications are in marketing, giving companies a fresh take on consumer campaigns or, more substantially, an opportunity to showcase products in a different way. Audi, for example, has experimented with an augmented reality application as an alternative to an owner's manual, giving drivers a more intuitive way to explore all the features on their car. For its part, Microsoft demonstrated how its HoloLens augmented reality headset could be tapped to transform a traditional product catalog into life-size 3D models, enabling a salesperson to showcase a large-scale product like a Caterpillar forklift without having to see it in a physical showroom.
"Now a salesperson can go from having a brochure to a full-scale, 3D model that sits in someone's office," explained Jay Wright, president and general manager at Vuforia, the AR company now a part of PTC. "It becomes a valuable tool for selling consumer and industrial products."
Enterprise augmented reality's promise and potential
Beyond a marketing and sales tool, applications designed for enterprise augmented reality extend to training and maintenance operations. AR can serve up blueprints, instructions and real-time data to workers on the plant floor, enabling them to easily address problems that might lead to downtime or to garner efficiencies in overseeing plant operations. Engineers in remote offices could also leverage the technology to view and interact with machinery from afar, offering guidance to plant floor workers for optimized service.
In the warehouse, AR can be leveraged to improve efficiency and create a safer environment for workers. AR can lead warehouse workers directly to the right location for picking inventory items, as well as facilitate packing and shipping. AR can also deliver highly customized and real-time training to instruct operators in how to use a specific piece of equipment, experts say.
Another potential use case for AR is in quality and inspection applications, according to Lisa Woodley, vice president of experience design at NTT Data, a global business and technology services firm. The combination of digitized building plans and sensored buildings would allow an insurance inspector to get an inside view of a damaged building. "You can imagine a future where AR is used by insurance clients or first responders to look behind the walls," she explained. "If you think about the dangers faced by first responders, this enables them to see through the walls and become Superman, knowing exactly where a gas line is, for example, or where the electrical fire is going on behind the walls."
Mercedes-Benz is experimenting with this concept for its cars. Rescue Assist, its augmented reality application, gives first responders a clear picture of what parts go where so they have an optimized way to enter a vehicle in the event of an accident.
As AR becomes more familiar and less associated with games, customers are uncovering ways to exploit the technology for enterprise use. "Companies are evaluating AR across the board," Vuforia's Wright said. "It's a technology with a ton of promise and potential, and what we're seeing now is enterprise customers trying to understand exactly how and where it works."
Learn more about PTC's enterprise augmented reality applications