Welcome to assisted reality

Augmented reality's star is finally rising in the workplace, writes James Francis.

Read time 5min 20sec
Guest columnist James Francis.
Guest columnist James Francis.

I am notoriously down on virtual reality (VR), despite admittedly some brilliant experiences on the various sets I have tried ? from the HTC Vive to the low-fi Google Cardboard. My reasoning is simple: what are the use cases?

Strip gaming and watching novelty videos (I love showing this video to visitors) away from VR and the pool narrows considerably. VR is not going to replace cinemas, just as a recorded video of a concert never replaced going to an actual live event.

It's also not really a good tool for businesses, outside of some design applications. I struggle to think of corporate hells more insidious than having to sit in remote meetings on a VR headset. Instead of going to the meeting, the meeting comes to you. Please tell me how that will be a good thing for your average desk jockey (not the CEO sitting on the beach).

VR has potential, but it is limited and concentrated to niches. Augmented reality (AR), on the other hand, has good prospects. To draw a specific distinction, AR in this case is when you overlay digital information on a natural real-world view. This is different to capturing a real-world view with a camera, and then laying information on top of that. Though popularly referred to as AR on smartphones, that is actually 'mixed reality'.

Definition nit-picking done, AR is what we have seen thus far in Google Glass, Microsoft Hololens and the hugely-hyped Magic Leap. After a blazing rise and sudden crash a few years ago, Google Glass is back in the news, operating where it should have been in the first place: on factory floors.

News first surfaced in March and is now the subject of a lengthy Wired article: Google Glass EE is the new breed of the search giant's AR devices. It is quietly being tested by industrial companies such as GE, Boeing and Volkswagen.

Microsoft's Hololens has been doing similar things, finding traction at architecture firms and elevator installers for design or inspection purposes. Main uses include pulling up relevant information and including remote workers in on-site collaborations.

Glass was once touted as a revolution, but soon became a running joke for our screen-obsessed lifestyles. People got annoyed that Glass users seemed perpetually semi-engaged, not unlike a smartphone owner beavering away at their device while with company. Bystanders also became paranoid that Glass users were recording them. The unflattering moniker 'Glassholes' was born. I would have felt the same and, perhaps rightfully, Glass was sent to the wilderness.

Since then, AR manufacturers have been looking for a better way. Yet they have actually been doing so since Glass' early days.

On the job

Several years ago, I attended Mobile World Congress as SAP's guest. At its stand it demonstrated how you can wire AR goggles into SAP's vast ERP systems to deliver similar industrial applications as above. In fact, while Google Glass' re-emergence into the industrial space is being celebrated, it's not a surprise. AR as a sheer work-enhancement system has been popping up everywhere. I know that a major local mining supplier is looking at AR to improve its equipment inspection regimes, so it is even gaining traction in SA.

This is despite some eye-watering prices, like $3 000 for a Hololens kit. But unbeknownst to most, companies such as Epson have been shipping cheaper AR goggles for a while.

Analysts have become bullish around AR. IDC predicts AR will make nearly $50 billion in revenue in 2021. That is an incredibly high estimate and I suspect quite off the mark. Then again, it assumes AR glasses will cost a lot (as seen with the Hololens.) But in order for AR to take off, it can't retail at prices that make even an iPhone look like a cereal box prize. Forrester has a slightly more realistic number going. It predicts that almost 14.4 million US workers will sport AR glasses on the job by 2025.

I know that a major local mining supplier is looking at AR to improve its equipment inspection regimes, so it is even gaining traction in SA.

But both are right about one thing: AR's star is finally rising in the workplace. Yet unlike the somewhat ridiculous notion that you will run your workday ? your desktop, meetings and maybe even smoke breaks ? on a VR headset (seriously, this idea just sounds awful), AR is primed for use in the industrial and manufacturing space. It's not even unheard that maybe one day bank tellers and till attendants will use AR, but I think that won't stick. We like the very human roles those people provide and certainly don't want them to appear part machine.

We also won't be wearing these things in the street any time soon. Even though AR systems have been around for decades on fighter jets, these employ special symbols and require some training to use. More complicated schematics on our eyeballs appear to cause confusion and studies suggest we struggle to discern the difference between virtual and real-world objects during snap decisions (such as walking into a road and navigating the cross-stream of traffic). AR also really messes with peripheral vision, which is critical for our spatial awareness.

Still, Google Glass EE is the delayed sign of a growing shift around AR technologies. Is it a good thing? Might it leave gaps in training (as seems to happen with newly minted airline pilots?) Will I soon get a cheap AR knock-off as a bit of corporate SWAG at an event?

Who knows? But learn to love it. The age of assisted reality ? AR on the job ? has arrived.

* James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.

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