When we see or hear a reference to advanced technologies, many of us think of modern machinery used to perform physical processes, often without human intervention. CNC machining centers, robotic work cells, automated logistics systems, drones, and autonomous vehicles often eclipse other technologies in our visions. Digital tools are often overlooked simply because many of us find it difficult to visualize their use in the physical environments we regularly inhabit.
There is an entire class of digital tools that is rising in prominence, yet currently receives little attention in mainstream discourse: augmented reality (AR). There are valid applications of AR in varied industries. Increased awareness and understanding of these applications and the potential they possess for improving safety, quality, and productivity will help organizations identify opportunities to take the next step in digital transformation, building on predecessor technologies such as digital twins and virtual reality.
Popular Applications of AR
While many of us remain unaware of the range of applications for augmented reality, most have encountered – even engaged with – AR. When the entertainment industry embraces a technology, it often becomes highly visible; such is the case with AR.
A recent, highly-publicized example is the Pokemon GO mobile game that became a national sensation in 2016. It adds fictional characters to a player’s real-world surroundings to be sought out and “collected.” Critics of the game bemoaned user’s focus on the augment – the Pokemon characters – to the exclusion of reality – the danger in their inattention, lack of courtesy for others, trespassing restrictions, and so on. Fans of the game simply played on without consideration of the background technology that made it possible.
Another smartphone-centric entertainment application of AR is the augmented selfie. Users can add a variety of digital enhancements to their “self-portraits,” including an animal’s ears, nose, and whiskers. “To each his own.”
An earlier example of AR in entertainment is Terminator Vision. As The Terminator searches for future resistance leader John Connor, information about his surroundings appear directly in his visual field. Although the AR is simulated, it is a prescient representation of the capabilities of AR technology. Red tint not required.
Adding an educational element to the entertainment applications, museums and historical sites can complement their tours with AR. Viewing a sculpture, for example, could prompt display of the sculptor’s biography or suggested additional works for the visitor to view. The site of ancient ruins could be viewed in its original form using AR, providing before (augmented) and after (unaltered) images of a scene. A site destroyed in battle, for example, may be viewed, linking the before and after images with a recreation of critical events.
Moving to a purely educational application, students can use AR to proceed through lessons at their own pace. Images, text, and audio can be integrated in an educational program to cater to different learning styles. The independent nature of study ensures that no student is rushed through material with which they struggle, nor bored and disengaged by lingering on material they have mastered.
Teaching with AR is particularly useful in manufacturing and service industries. Employee onboarding and upskilling can be done efficiently with the aid of AR applications. Training with AR will be discussed further in future installments of “Augmented Reality” on “The Third Degree.”
Applications of much greater consequence are also in development. Military forces can use AR to aid navigation through dangerous environments, such as unfamiliar structures (buildings) where enemy combatants are believed to be, or previously mapped minefields. Any time soldiers must operate with poor visibility – dark of night, sandstorm, fog, etc. – AR could provide information beyond what can be seen with night-vision technology.
Medical care is also improving with the assistance of AR. Presentation of electronic medical records in a doctor’s visual field provides immediate access without attention straying from the patient. Blood vessel mapping identifies appropriate vessels for IV insertions and blood draws; accuracy is improved, resulting in less pain and discomfort. MRI and CT scan overlays viewed during a procedure improve the accuracy and efficiency of surgeons. Patients can also be educated about medical procedures or disease progression by projecting information onto a patient’s own body. Such a gripping presentation – more concrete, less abstract than any other form – has the potential to improve patient decision quality and, therefore, healthcare outcomes.
Augmented reality technology is built on a foundation of several digital tools. Information processing and computation (computers) undergird and make possible development of all related tools. Digital twins could not be created, and simulation could not be performed efficiently without computers. These form the basis for virtual reality. Vision systems have transitioned from analog to digital cameras, allowing visual information to be processed like any other data. Augmented reality integrates capabilities from each of these technologies to create a composite “best-of-both-worlds” experience. How these building blocks are used to construct an AR application is summarized in the diagram below.
As awareness of augmented reality spreads, new applications will continue to appear. I am confident that creative developers will find new applications, in new industries, with increasing capability, far into the future. Corresponding rates of adoption and development are likely to accelerate, following the pattern of many previous technologies. This technology is not just an interesting element of entertainment, but a highly valuable tool for many practical applications.
Forthcoming installments of “Augmented Reality” will discuss practical applications in the contexts typically explored in this forum. Be sure to come back to “The Third Degree” for Part 2: Manufacturing Industry Applications and Part 3: Applications in the Service Sector.
For further discussion of advanced technologies and how they can be leveraged to improve operations, feel free to contact JayWink Solutions. We would enjoy helping you augment the reality of your organization’s situation with improved financial and operational performance.
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Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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