How Augmented Reality Could Deliver Tremendous Advantages to Your Business

Pokemon GoIf you've spent the past few months hidden in a cave or stranded on a desert island, you may not have heard of Pokèmon Go, a game in which players use their smartphones to find and capture Pokèmon characters at parks, shopping venues, government buildings, and other locations outside the four walls of players' homes.

Although Pokèmon Go is all about getting off the couch and having fun, the game represents a powerful mashup of corporate brand, social interaction, geolocation, gamification, and augmented reality. It also represents new opportunities for businesses.

With 21 million users each day in the United States alone, Pokèmon Go leverages technologies that businesses in many industries - not just gaming or entertainment - can use to improve the user experience, build brand loyalty, engage customers, and deliver technical capabilities that boost efficiency as well as customer satisfaction.[1]

Augmented reality (AR) is one of the most important of these technologies, and it carries great promise for business. AR involves taking the view from a camera - notably, the camera embedded in a smartphone - and superimposing real-time information and images atop the camera display. In Pokèmon Go, pictures of Pokèmon characters and Pokè balls appear on the camera display, and these can be used to capture Pokèmon characters.

If you aren't a Pokèmon enthusiast, other examples of AR may be more familiar to you.

Next time you watch a National Football League game on television, note the first-down line displayed on your television screen. It's an AR image that moves in real time as the game proceeds, showing the distance the offense must cover in order to gain a first down.

Google Glass, released in 2013 and later discontinued, also leveraged AR, but the product proved to be more reality than augmentation. Google Glass was a wearable computer that resembled a pair of eyeglasses, with text and images superimposed on what the wearer saw through the glasses. For example, an icon might appear as the wearer approached a particular intersection, indicating which way to turn.

Microsoft's HoloLens, also a wearable computer, is a more recent innovation with more powerful AR capabilities. "The [HoloLens] goggles will track your movements, watch your gaze and transform what you see by blasting light at your eyes (it doesn't hurt)," according to a 2015 review by CNET.[2] "Because the device tracks where you are, you can use hand gestures - right now it's only a midair click by raising and lowering your finger - to interact with the 3D images."

Two types of AR

Two types of AR are available: geolocation-based and image recognition AR.

  1. Geolocation AR uses GPS or other location technologies to determine the whereabouts and position of your device. An on-board electronic compass determines the orientation of the device. As you move the phone, its gyroscopes and accelerometers detect the changes. The AR software moves the superimposed augmentation images to correspond with what's on screen from the camera. If the Pokèmon Go software places a picture of Pikachu in the center of your screen, for example, and you tilt the phone up, the software will move the Pikachu picture down.

    AR packages can use pictures, videos, or - as in the case of HoloLens - 3D images to provide augmentation. Actions can be added to the augmentations; for example, the software might detect tapping on the augmentation picture and then perform an action in response.

    Stargazing applications use geolocation AR. Point the phone at the night sky and, based on where you are and which way the phone is pointing, the app will determine your location and then draw lines on the screen, indicating the constellations.

  2. Image recognition AR uses the camera to capture a stream of video, which is fed into the phone's image processing engine. The engine detects target images that may appear within the video stream. The software takes action in response to the appearance of target images.

    The number of target images that a phone can recognize is limited, although some AR packages support hundreds of target images. It is possible to support thousands of targets, but this requires reliance on the cloud, which creates latency issues, slowing processing speed and impairing the effectiveness of AR.

Does AR have a place in your company?

While AR in general may appeal to a younger and more tech-savvy audience, it can provide valuable information in a wide variety of contexts to a wide variety of users - and do so quickly. Imagine, for example, a manufacturer's using AR to provide real-time feedback to a mechanic who is working on a particular machine.

Other possibilities:

  • Maintenance: Allow users to point the camera at the label on a mechanical device or a part for that device - for example, a fan assembly for an engine - and receive the appropriate manual.
  • Wayfinding: Help visitors find their way around your museum, park, university, resort, hospital, stadium, or other location.
  • Games: Provide users with a game that involves "finding" items within your facilities or out in the wild.
  • Product information: Enable users who point the camera at your products - not just at the UPC code - to get additional information about the products or to trigger an action such as the playing of a piece of music or the performance of a dance by your mascot.

To keep users engaged, you'll need to keep your AR content fresh and ensure that it offers value, the excitement of discovery, or both. If you decide to gamify a mascot, you'll need a strategy for keeping users engaged over time.

Another concern involves safety. Pokèmon Go characters have been known to pop up in unsafe places, and drivers have been known to crash vehicles while playing the game. It's critical that you understand how your app will be used and where your AR images will show up, so that you can limit potential problems.

It's worth keeping in mind that AR drains batteries. If you're building an app that will help employees perform maintenance, the employees will be able to use the app for only a few hours at a time.

Another consideration is that the app will have to fit within the user experience flow. In other words, it will need to be readily accessible, easy to use, and consistent with the kinds of interactions users already have with your company and apps.

Pokèmon Go may be a fad, but it is getting millions of people off the couch while demonstrating AR's ability to engage and delight users. Businesses that leverage the technologies underlying Pokèmon Go can go even further. They can also improve the user experience, build brand loyalty, and deliver mobile capabilities that increase efficiency as well as customer satisfaction.