There is a fundamental disconnect between the wealth of digital data available to us and the physical world in which we apply it. While reality is three-dimensional, the rich data available to us today to inform our decisions and actions remains trapped on two-dimensional pages and screens. This gap between the real and digital worlds limits our ability to tap into the torrent of information and knowledge produced by billions of smart and connected products around the world.
Augmented reality, a set of technologies that superimpose digital data and images on the physical world, promises to bridge this gap and unleash untapped, uniquely human capabilities. Although still in its infancy, augmented reality is poised to become mainstream; one estimate suggests that spending on augmented reality technology will reach $60 billion by 2021. AR will affect businesses in all sectors and many other types of organisations, from universities to social enterprises. In the coming months and years, it will transform the way we learn, make decisions and interact with the physical world. It will also change the way companies serve their customers, train their employees, design and create products, manage their value chains and, ultimately, the way they compete.
In this article, we describe what AR is, how its technology and applications have evolved, and why it is so important. Its importance will grow exponentially as the consumption of connected products proliferates, as it amplifies their power to create value and reshape competition. AR will become the new interface between humans and machines, bridging the digital and physical worlds. Although challenges remain in deploying it, pioneering organisations such as Amazon, Facebook, General Electric and the U.S. Navy in the U.S., and French companies such as Renault, Naval Groupe, Airbus, Monoprix, Alstom or PSA are already implementing AR and seeing a major impact on quality and productivity. Here we provide a roadmap on how companies should deploy AR and explain the critical choices they will face in integrating it into their strategy and operations.
Isolated applications of AR have existed for decades, but it is only recently that the technologies necessary to exploit its potential have become available. At its core, AR transforms volumes of data and analysis into images or animations that are superimposed on the real world. Today, most AR applications are delivered via mobile devices, but increasingly, delivery will be via hands-free wearable devices, such as head-mounted displays or smart glasses. While many people are familiar with simple and entertaining AR applications, such as Snapchat filters and the game Pokémon Go, AR is being applied much more consistently in consumer and professional environments. For example, AR "heads-up" displays that place navigation, collision warnings and other information directly in the driver's field of vision are now available in dozens of car models. Wearable AR devices for factory workers that overlay production, assembly or service instructions are being tested in thousands of companies. AR is supplementing or replacing traditional manuals and training methods at an ever increasing rate.
More broadly, AR enables a new paradigm of information dissemination that we believe will have a profound impact on the way data is structured, managed and disseminated on the internet. Although the web has transformed the way information is collected, transmitted and accessed, its model of data storage and dissemination - pages on flat screens - has major limitations: It requires people to mentally translate two-dimensional information for use in a three-dimensional world. This is not always easy, as anyone who has used a manual to fix an office photocopier knows. By superimposing digital information directly onto real objects or environments, AR allows people to process the physical and the digital simultaneously, eliminating the need to mentally connect the two. This improves our ability to quickly and accurately absorb information, make decisions, and perform required tasks quickly and efficiently.
AR displays in cars are a living example of this. Until recently, drivers using GPS navigation had to look at a map on a flat screen and then work out how to apply it in the real world. To take the correct exit from a busy roundabout, for example, the driver had to shift his or her gaze between the road and the screen and mentally link the map image to the correct exit. AR heads-up displays overlay navigation images directly onto what the driver sees through the windscreen. This reduces the mental effort required to apply the information, avoids distraction and minimises driving errors, allowing drivers to concentrate on the road.
Augmented reality is making headway in consumer markets, but its emerging impact on human performance is even greater in industrial environments. Consider how Newport News Shipbuilding, which designs and builds the US Navy's aircraft carriers, uses AR near the end of its manufacturing process to inspect a ship and mark for removal steel construction structures that are not part of the finished carrier. In the past, engineers had to constantly compare the actual ship with complex 2D drawings. But with AR, they can now see the final design superimposed on the ship, reducing inspection time by 96%, from 36 hours to just 90 minutes. Overall, time savings of 25% or more are typical of manufacturing tasks using AR.
The connected products that are becoming commonplace in our homes, workplaces and factories allow users to monitor product operations and conditions in real time, control and customise product operations remotely, and optimise product performance using real-time data. And in some cases, intelligence and connectivity allow them to be completely autonomous.
AR powerfully amplifies the value created by these capabilities. Specifically, it improves the way users view and thus access all the new monitoring data, the way they receive and follow instructions and guidance on how products work, and even the way they interact with and control the products themselves.
AR applications provide a kind of X-ray vision, revealing internal features that would otherwise be difficult to see. At medical device company AccuVein, for example, AR technology converts the heat signature of a patient's veins into an image superimposed on the skin, making it easier for clinicians to locate veins. This dramatically improves the success rate of blood draws and other vascular procedures. AR more than triples the likelihood of a successful needle stick on the first try and reduces the need for 'escalation' (e.g. calling for help) by 45%.
Bosch Rexroth, a global supplier of power units and controls used in the manufacturing industry, is using AR-enhanced visualisation to demonstrate the design and capabilities of its intelligent and connected CytroPac hydraulic power unit. The AR application allows customers to see 3D representations of the unit's internal pump and cooling options in multiple configurations and to see how the subsystems fit together.
An augmented reality showroom demonstration developed by Microsoft and Volvo offers an X-ray view of a car's engine and chassis.
AR is already redefining instruction, training and coaching. These essential functions, which improve workforce productivity, are inherently costly and time-consuming, and often produce uneven results. Written instructions for assembly tasks, for example, are often difficult and time-consuming to follow. Standard instructional videos are not interactive and cannot be adapted to individual learning needs. In-person training is expensive and requires students and teachers to meet at a common site, sometimes several times. And if the equipment on which students are trained is not available, they may need additional training to transfer what they have learned to a real-world setting.
AR solves these problems by providing real-time, on-site, step-by-step visual guidance for tasks such as product assembly, machine operation and warehouse picking. Complicated 2D schematic representations of a procedure in a manual, for example, become interactive 3D holograms that guide the user through the necessary processes. Little is left to the imagination or interpretation.
An employee of Agco, a company specialising in agricultural equipment, consults the RA's instructions for working on the hydraulic valve of a tractor.
At Boeing, AR training has had a significant impact on the productivity and quality of complex aircraft manufacturing procedures. In one Boeing study, AR was used to guide trainees through the 50 steps required to assemble a 30-piece aircraft wing section. With the help of AR, trainees completed the job in 35% less time than trainees using traditional 2D drawings and documentation. And the number of trainees with little or no experience who were able to do the job right the first time increased by 90%.
Basically, the power of augmented reality comes from the way humans process information. We access information through each of our five senses, but at different rates. Vision provides us with by far the most information: It is estimated that 80-90% of the information humans obtain is accessed through vision.
Our ability to absorb and process information is limited by our mental capacity. The pressure on this capacity is called "cognitive load". Each mental task we undertake reduces the capacity available for other simultaneous tasks.
Cognitive load depends on the mental effort required to process a given type of information. For example, reading instructions on a computer screen and acting on them creates a higher cognitive load than hearing the same instructions, because the letters have to be translated into words and the words interpreted. Cognitive load also depends on 'cognitive distance', i.e. the gap between the form in which information is presented and the context in which it is applied. Consider what happens when a person consults a smartphone for directions while driving. The driver must consume the information from the screen, store it in working memory, translate the instructions into the physical environment in front of them, and then act on those instructions, while driving the vehicle. There is a significant cognitive distance between the digital information on the screen and the physical context in which the information is applied. Managing this distance creates a cognitive load.
The combination of the speed at which information is transmitted and absorbed and the cognitive distance required to apply it is the source of the oft-repeated phrase "A picture is worth a thousand words". When we observe the physical world, we absorb an enormous amount and variety of information almost instantaneously. Similarly, an image or picture that superimposes information on the physical world, placing it in context for us, reduces cognitive distance and minimises cognitive load.
This explains why AR is so powerful. There is no better graphical user interface than the physical world around us, when enriched with a digital overlay of relevant data and advice where and when it is needed. AR eliminates the reliance on two-dimensional, out-of-context information that is difficult to process on pages and screens, while dramatically improving our ability to understand and apply information in the real world.
Traditionally, people have used physical controls such as buttons, knobs and, more recently, integrated touch screens to interact with products. With the rise of connected consumer products, applications on mobile devices have increasingly replaced physical controls and allowed users to operate products remotely.
AR takes the user interface to a whole new level. A virtual control panel can be superimposed directly on the product and operated using an AR headset, hand gestures and voice commands. Soon, users wearing smart glasses will be able to simply look at or point at a product to activate a virtual user interface and operate it. A worker wearing smart glasses, for example, will be able to walk through a line of factory machines, see their performance parameters and adjust each machine without physically touching it.
The interactive capability of AR is still in its infancy in commercial products, but it is revolutionary. URBASEE, an augmented reality catalogue application developed by Artefacto, provides a glimpse of how it is rapidly evolving. URBASEE makes it easy to add an interactive AR experience to any product. Using the app, people can project a product into a real environment from a smartphone or tablet, configure it and view it in real time.
Virtual reality (VR), the well-known cousin of AR, is a complementary but distinct technology. While AR superimposes digital information on the physical world, VR replaces physical reality with a computer-generated environment. Although VR is mainly used for entertainment applications, it can also reproduce physical environments for training purposes. It is particularly useful when the environments involved are dangerous or remote. Or, if the machines needed for training are not available, VR can immerse technicians in a virtual environment using holograms of the equipment. Thus, where necessary, VR adds a fourth capability - simulation - to the core capabilities of AR, namely visualisation, instruction and interaction.
AR will be much more widely applied in business than VR. But in some circumstances, the combination of AR and VR will allow users to transcend distance (by simulating distant locations), transcend time (by reproducing historical contexts or simulating possible future situations) and transcend scale (by allowing users to engage in environments that are either too small or too large to be experienced directly). In addition, bringing people together in shared virtual environments can improve understanding, teamwork, communication and decision making.
Ford, for example, is using VR to create a virtual workshop where geographically dispersed engineers can collaborate in real time on holograms of prototype vehicles. Participants can walk around and enter these life-size 3D holograms to refine design details such as steering wheel position, dashboard angle and the location of instruments and controls, without having to build an expensive physical prototype and get everyone in the same place to review it.
Some companies are going a step further by combining AR instruction with VR simulations to train staff to respond to emergency situations such as explosions. This reduces costs and, in cases where training in a real environment would be dangerous, risks. Multinational energy company BP overlays AR training procedures with VR simulations that replicate specific drilling conditions, such as temperature, pressure, topography and ocean currents, and educate crews on operations and help them train for coordinated emergency responses in the event of a disaster, without high costs or risks.
AR creates business value in two ways: firstly, by integrating with the products themselves, and secondly, by improving performance throughout the value chain - product development, manufacturing, marketing, service and many other areas.
AR capabilities are part of a growing design focus on creating better user interfaces and ergonomics. How products convey important operational and safety information to users is increasingly a point of differentiation (consider how mobile apps have complemented or replaced the built-in displays in products like Sonos audio players). AR is poised to rapidly improve these interfaces.
Dedicated AR head-up displays, which have only recently been integrated into automobiles, have been a key feature of elite military products such as fighter jets for years and have also been adopted in commercial aircraft. These types of displays are too expensive and bulky to be integrated into most products, but smart glasses provide a revolutionary interface that has broad implications for all manufacturers. With smart glasses, a user can see an AR display on any product that can communicate with them.
If you look at a kitchen oven through smart glasses, for example, you can see a virtual display that shows the cooking temperature, the minutes left on the timer and the recipe you are following. If you walk up to your car, an augmented reality display might show you that it is locked, the fuel tank is almost full and the left rear tyre pressure is low.
As the AR user interface is purely software and provided via the cloud, it can be customised and continually evolve. The incremental cost of providing such an interface is low, and manufacturers can also save considerable sums when traditional buttons, switches and dials are removed. Every product manufacturer needs to carefully consider the disruptive impact that this next generation interface may have on their offering and competitive positioning.
The effects of AR are already visible throughout the value chain, but are more advanced in some areas than in others. In general, visualisation and instruction/guidance applications are now having the greatest impact on business operations, while interaction capability is still emerging and in pilot testing.
Although engineers have been using computer-aided design (CAD) capabilities to create 3-D models for 30 years, they are limited to interacting with these models through 2-D windows on their computer screens, making it more difficult to fully conceptualise designs. AR allows 3-D models to be superimposed on the physical world in the form of holograms, which improves the ability of engineers to evaluate and improve designs. For example, a life-size 3D hologram of a construction machine can be placed on the ground, and engineers can walk around it, look underneath and above it, and even step inside it to fully appreciate the sightlines and ergonomics of its full-scale design in the intended setting.
AR also allows engineers to overlay CAD models on physical prototypes to compare their fit. Volkswagen uses this technique - which makes any differences between the latest model and the prototype visually obvious - to check alignment during digital design reviews. This improves the accuracy of the quality assurance process, in which engineers previously had to carefully compare 2D drawings with prototypes, and makes it five to ten times faster.
We expect that in the near future AR devices such as smart phones and glasses, with their built-in cameras, accelerometers, GPS and other sensors, will increasingly contribute to product design by showing when, where and how users actually interact with the product - how often a certain repair sequence is initiated, for example. In this way, the augmented reality interface will become an important source of data.
In manufacturing, processes are often complex, requiring hundreds or even thousands of steps, and errors are costly. As we have learned, AR can provide the right information at the right time to assembly line workers, reducing errors and improving efficiency and productivity.
In factories, AR can also capture information from automation and control systems, secondary sensors, and asset management systems, and make visible important monitoring and diagnostic data about each machine or process. Seeing information such as efficiency and failure rates in context helps maintenance technicians understand problems and encourages workers to perform proactive maintenance that can avoid costly downtime.
Iconics, which specialises in automation software for factories and buildings, has started to integrate AR into the user interfaces of its products. By linking relevant information to the physical location where it will be best observed and understood, AR interfaces enable more effective monitoring of machines and processes.
It is estimated that warehousing operations account for about 20% of all logistics costs, while picking items from the shelves accounts for up to 65% of warehouse costs. In most warehouses, workers still perform this task by consulting a paper list of items to be collected and then searching for them. This method is slow and error-prone.
Logistics giant DHL and a growing number of other companies are using AR to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the picking process. AR instructions direct workers to the location of each product to be picked and then suggest the best route to the next product. At DHL, this approach has reduced errors, increased worker involvement and achieved productivity gains of 25%. The company is now rolling out AR-guided picking globally and testing how AR can improve other types of warehouse operations, such as optimising the position of goods and machines in layouts.
Intel is also using AR in its warehouses and has achieved a 29% reduction in order picking time, with near zero error rates. In addition, the application of AR allows Intel's new employees to immediately achieve order-picking speeds 15% faster than those of employees who have only received traditional training.
AR is redefining the concept of showrooms and product demonstrations and transforming the customer experience. When customers can virtually see how a product looks or functions in a real-world environment before they buy, they have more accurate expectations, are more confident in their purchasing decisions and are more satisfied with the product. Ultimately, AR may even reduce the need for brick-and-mortar shops and showrooms.
When products can be configured with different features and options - which can make them difficult and expensive to stock - AR is a particularly valuable marketing tool. The French distributor of awnings, pergolas, gates and windows Mr Storefor example, uses AR in its augmented catalogues to enable its sales staff and dealers to enhance its product range and speed up the customer decision process. Salespeople can show consumers how products look in different colours and layouts. Customers can also see simulations in context: If you look at a house on a phone or tablet, the AR application can add a pergola. This experience reduces the uncertainty customers might feel about their choices and shortens the sales cycle.
In e-commerce, AR applications allow online shoppers to download holograms of products. Both Wayfair and IKEA offer libraries containing thousands of 3D product images and applications that integrate them into the view of a real room, allowing customers to see how the furniture and decor will look in their home. IKEA also uses its application to collect important data on product preferences in different regions.
This is a function where AR has enormous potential to unlock the value-creating capabilities of connected products. AR helps technicians serving customers in the field in the same way it helps workers in factories: by showing them predictive analytics data generated by the product, visually guiding them through repairs in real time, and connecting them to remote experts who can help them optimise procedures. For example, an AR dashboard can tell a field technician that a specific machine part is likely to fail in a month's time, allowing them to prevent a problem for the customer by replacing it now.
At KPN, a European telecommunications service provider, field engineers performing remote or on-site repairs use augmented reality smart glasses to view product service history data, diagnostics and geo-location information dashboards. These AR displays help them make better decisions on how to resolve issues, resulting in an 11% reduction in overall costs for service teams, a 17% reduction in labor error rates and improved repair quality.
Xerox used AR to connect field engineers with experts instead of providing service manuals and telephone support. The initial repair rate increased by 67% and engineer efficiency jumped by 20%. At the same time, the average time required to resolve problems dropped by two hours, reducing staffing requirements. Today, Xerox uses AR to put remote technical experts in direct contact with customers. This has resulted in a 76% increase in the rate at which customers resolve technical issues without on-site help, reducing travel costs for Xerox and minimising downtime for customers. Not surprisingly, Xerox has seen its customer satisfaction rate rise to 95%.
Augmented reality offers a wide range of solutions to respond to old and new challenges in human resources: recruitment, training, retention and attractiveness of employees.
The social distancing made compulsory by the pandemic is disrupting employee management. Human resources departments were therefore forced to rethink their employee support and training model. Without the possibility of providing face-to-face training, PLR has emerged as one of the priority solutions.
AR users such as DHL and Airbus have already discovered the power of AR to deliver step-by-step visual training to workers on demand. AR can tailor instruction to a particular worker's experience or reflect the prevalence of certain errors. For example, if a person regularly makes the same type of mistake, they can be asked to use PLAR until the quality of their work improves. In some companies, AR has reduced training time for new employees for certain types of work to almost zero and lowered the skill requirements for new recruits.
AR will have a significant impact on the competitiveness of businesses. Indeed, connected products are changing the structure of almost every industry and the nature of competition within those industries, often pushing the boundaries of those industries. They give rise to new strategic choices for manufacturers, from what functionality to pursue and how to manage data rights and security, to the opportunity to expand a company's product range and compete in smart systems.
The increasing penetration of AR is raising new strategic questions. While the answers reflect the unique business and circumstances of each company, AR will increasingly become an integral part of every company's strategy.
The key issues facing companies are
1. What is the range of AR opportunities in the industry, and in what order should they be pursued?
Companies need to assess the potential impact of AR on customers, product capabilities and the value chain.
2. How will AR enhance a company's product differentiation?
AR opens up multiple avenues for differentiation. It can create complementary experiences that extend product capabilities, provide more information to customers and increase product loyalty. AR interfaces that improve the functionality or ease of use of products can be important differentiators, as can those that significantly improve product support, service and uptime. And the ability of AR to provide new kinds of feedback on how customers use products can help companies discover further opportunities for product differentiation. The right path to differentiation will depend on the company's existing strategy, what competitors are doing, and the pace of technological advances, particularly in hardware.
3. Where will AR have the greatest impact on cost reduction?
AR enables new efficiencies that every company should explore. As we have noted, it can significantly reduce costs in training, service, assembly, design and other elements of the value chain. It can also significantly reduce manufacturing costs by reducing the need for physical interfaces.
Each company will need to prioritise efforts to reduce AR costs in a way that is consistent with its strategic positioning. Companies with sophisticated products will need to take advantage of the superior, low-cost interface of AR, while many commodity producers will focus on operational efficiencies along the value chain. In the consumer and retail industries, marketing-related visualisation applications are the most likely starting point. In manufacturing, instructional applications achieve the most immediate results by addressing inefficiencies in engineering, production and service. And the interaction capability of AR, while still emerging, will be important in all sectors where products are customised and have complex control capabilities.
4. Should the company make AR design and deployment one of its core strengths, or will outsourcing or partnerships be sufficient?
Many companies are struggling to find the digital talent needed to develop AR, which is in short supply. One skill that is in high demand is user experience or interface (UX/UI) design. It is essential to present digital information in 3-D in a way that is easy to absorb and use; companies want to avoid creating a stunning but unnecessary AR experience that defeats its main purpose. Effective augmented reality experiences also require the right content, and people who know how to create and manage it - another new skill - are also crucial. Digital modelling capabilities and knowledge of how to apply them to AR applications are also essential.
Over time, we expect companies to create dedicated AR teams, just as they set up such teams to create and manage websites in the 1990s and 2000s. Dedicated teams will be needed to set up the infrastructure for this new medium to flourish and to develop and maintain AR content. Many companies have started to develop AR skills in-house, but few have yet mastered them.
The question of whether to hire and train dedicated AR employees or to partner with software and service companies remains open for many. Some companies have no choice but to view AR skills as a strategic asset and invest in their acquisition and development, given the potentially significant impact of AR on competition in their industry. However, if AR is important but not critical to competitive advantage, companies can partner with software and services companies to leverage external talent and technology.
The challenges, time and cost of implementing the full range of AR technologies we have described are significant, and specialisation always emerges in each component. In the early stages of AR, the number of technology and service providers was limited and companies developed in-house capabilities. However, the best AR vendors with turnkey solutions are beginning to emerge and it will be increasingly difficult for in-house efforts to keep up.
5. How will AR change communication with stakeholders?
AR complements existing 2-D print and digital communication approaches and, in some cases, can replace them completely. However, we see AR as much more than just another communication channel. It is a fundamentally new way of connecting with people. Just think of the novel way it helps people to absorb and act on information and instructions. The web has gone from being a means of sharing technical reports to transforming business, education and social interaction. We believe that AR will do the same for communication, changing it far beyond what we can imagine today. Companies will need to be creative in their use of this emerging channel.
AR applications are already being piloted and deployed in products and across the value chain, and their number and scale will only increase.
Every company needs an implementation roadmap that outlines how the organisation will begin to reap the benefits of AR in its operations while developing the capabilities needed to expand its use. When determining the sequence and pace of adoption, companies need to consider both the technical challenges and the organisational skills involved, which vary from context to context. Specifically, organisations need to answer five key questions:
1. What development capabilities will be needed?
Some AR experiences are more complex than others. Experiences that allow people to view products in different configurations or settings - such as those created by IKEA, Wayfair and AZEK - are a relatively easy starting point for companies. Consumers simply need to be encouraged to download and launch AR applications, and a mobile device is all that is needed to use them. Instructional applications, such as those used by Boeing and GE in manufacturing, are more difficult to build and use. They require the ability to develop and maintain dynamic digital content in 3D and often benefit greatly from the use of head-mounted displays or smart glasses, which are still in the early stages of development.
Applications that produce interactive experiences, which create significant value for consumers and businesses, are the most difficult to develop. They also involve less mature technologies, such as voice or gesture recognition, and the need to integrate with the software that controls the connected products. Most companies will start with static visualisations of 3D models, but they should build the capacity to move quickly to dynamic educational experiences with greater strategic impact.
2. How should organisations create digital content?
Every AR experience, from the least sophisticated to the most sophisticated, requires content. In some cases it is possible to reuse existing digital content, such as product designs. However, over time, more complex dynamic contextual experiences need to be created from scratch, which requires specialist expertise.
Simple applications, such as an AR-enhanced furniture catalogue, may only require basic product representations. In contrast, more sophisticated business instruction applications, such as those used for machine repair, require accurate and highly detailed digital representations of products. Companies can create these representations by adapting CAD models used for product development or by using scanning techniques such as 3D scanning. The most sophisticated AR experiences must also tap into real-time data streams from enterprise systems, connected products or external data sources and integrate them with content. To prepare for an expanded AR portfolio, companies must take inventory of existing 3D digital assets in CAD and elsewhere and invest in digital modelling capabilities.
3. How will AR applications recognise the physical environment?
To accurately overlay digital information onto the physical world, AR technologies must recognise what they are looking at. The simplest approach is to determine the location of the AR device using, for example, GPS and display the relevant information for that location without anchoring it to a specific object. This is known as an "unrecorded" AR experience. Head-up navigation displays in vehicles typically work in this way.
The more valuable 'recorded' experiences anchor information to specific objects. They can do this through markers, such as barcodes, logos or labels, which are placed on objects and scanned by the user with an AR device. A more powerful approach, however, uses technology that recognises objects by comparing their shape to a catalogue of 3D models. This allows a maintenance technician, for example, to instantly recognise and interact with any type of equipment he or she is responsible for maintaining from any angle. While markers are a good starting point, pattern recognition technologies are advancing rapidly and companies will need to be able to use them to exploit the many high-value AR applications.
4. What AR hardware is needed?
AR experiences aimed at the general public have generally been designed for smartphones, taking advantage of their simplicity and ubiquity. For more sophisticated experiences, companies are using tablets, which offer larger screens, better graphics and more processing power. Because tablet penetration is lower, companies often provide them to users. For some high-value applications, such as aircraft and automobiles, manufacturers are integrating dedicated AR heads-up displays into their products, an expensive approach.
Eventually, however, most AR applications for services, manufacturing, and even product interfaces will require heads-up displays that free up users' hands. This technology is currently both immature and expensive, but we believe that affordable smart glasses will become widely available in the next few years and will play a major role in unlocking the full power of AR. Microsoft, Google and Apple now offer AR technologies optimised for their own devices. However, most organisations should take a cross-platform approach to deploying AR experiences on multiple brands of phones and tablets and ensure they are ready for smart glasses when they arrive. (See "The battle for smart glasses").
5. Should you use a software development model or a content publishing model?
Many early AR experiences have been delivered through stand-alone software applications that are downloaded, along with their digital content, to a phone or tablet. This approach creates reliable, high-resolution experiences and allows organisations to create applications that do not require an internet connection. The problem with this model is that any changes to the AR experience require software developers to rewrite the application, which can create costly bottlenecks.
An emerging alternative uses commercial AR editing software to create AR content and host it in the cloud. The augmented reality experience can then be downloaded on demand using a versatile application running on an augmented reality device. Like website content, AR content can be updated or added to without modifying the software itself, which is an important advantage when large amounts of information and frequent content changes are involved. The content publishing model will become commonplace as more and more machines and products include real-time AR interaction and control. A content publishing capability is essential to extend AR throughout the enterprise.
The digital revolution, with its connected products and explosion of data, is unleashing productivity and unlocking value throughout the economy. Increasingly, the constraint is not the lack of data and knowledge, but how to assimilate it and act on it - in other words, the interface with humans. AR is emerging as a leading solution to this challenge. At the same time, the rapid evolution of machine learning and automation raises serious concerns about human opportunities. Will there be enough jobs for everyone, especially for those without advanced training or knowledge? In a world of artificial intelligence and robots, will humans become obsolete?
It is easy to conclude that new technologies reduce human opportunities. Yet new inventions have been replacing human labour for centuries, and they have led to employment growth, not decline. Technology has dramatically increased our productivity and our standard of living. It has given rise to new kinds of offerings that meet new needs and require new kinds of workers. Many of today's jobs are in products and services that did not even exist a hundred years ago. One lesson from history is that the current digital revolution will generate new waves of innovation and new types of work that we cannot yet imagine.
The role of humans in this future is poorly understood. Humans have unique strengths that machines and algorithms will not soon replicate. We have sophisticated motor skills - far beyond what robots are capable of today - that allow us to perform the subtle manipulations needed, for example, to replace a machine part or wire a turbine. Even relatively unskilled tasks, such as taking blood, pruning a garden or fixing a flat tyre, require human dexterity and defy automation. Human cognition adapts instantly to new situations; people readily adapt the way they interpret information, solve problems, exercise judgement and act according to circumstances. Humans have a flexibility, imagination, intuition and creative capacity that, for the foreseeable future, is beyond the reach of any machine.
While the advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are impressive, we believe that combining the capabilities of machines with the distinctive strengths of humans will lead to far greater productivity and value creation than either could generate alone. Seizing this opportunity requires a powerful human interface that bridges the gap between the digital and physical worlds. We see AR as a landmark innovation that offers this opportunity. It helps humans improve their own capabilities by taking full advantage of new digital knowledge and machine capabilities. It will profoundly change training and skills development, enabling people to do sophisticated work without resorting to time-consuming and costly conventional education - a model unattainable for many today. AR therefore enables people to better exploit the digital revolution and all it has to offer.