Augmented Reality: 8 Key Uses

Wednesday May 4th 2016 by Andy Patrizio
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Augmented reality use is trending upward with virtual reality, yet augmented reality use cases are very different.

Two things are clear: augmented reality uses are growing. And augmented reality itself is gaining ground.

Virtual reality is making the headlines these days now that the headsets are finally shipping, but VR's cousin, augmented reality, is riding a similar wave. That's thanks to the fact that the same hardware powering VR can also make AR a reality as well.

The difference between the two is clear cut: virtual reality creates a totally artificial environment that you experience with a headset that shuts out everything else. Augmented reality works with the existing environment and overlays new 2D or 3D information on top of it.

The term was coined at Boeing in 1990, when it was used to describe how the head-mounted displays that electricians used when assembling complicated wiring in airliners worked. Football fans know augmented reality by the yellow line that appears on the field indicating how far the team with possession of the ball must travel to get the first down.

Today, most any kind of computer-generated image overlaid on something solid or non-virtual can be considered augmented reality. It's used in everything from heads-up displays in airplane cockpits to coloring books for kids. Here are eight business-oriented uses for augmented reality.

Key Augmented Reality Uses

  • Remote Guidance

Using devices like Google Glass and other eyewear, remote workers can get instruction from an office where people see what the worker sees. One such example is from Japan Airlines, which teamed with the Nomura Research Institute to create apps for the glasses to help perform inspections of planes.

The glasses are worn by cargo and maintenance personnel working around the plane on the tarmac. They make visual inspections of the plane, and what they see is sent back to JAL headquarters staff, who will take a close look at the plane. The maintenance staff receives information and instruction from staff at headquarters and have information and images displayed on the screen of Glass, such as the checklist of baggage loading/unloading work.

HelpLightning uses iOS and Android devices for a multitude of remote guidance uses, such as a doctor doing a checkup of a patient without coming in to the office or aiming the device at something that needs repair, and a remote repairman can guide the fix by drawing instructions on the screen.

  • Construction Instructions

If you've ever taken part in a construction project you know there's a lot of looking at maps/blueprints, then where the work will take place, then back at the drawings. It's annoying and your eyes can deceive you. However, Bentley Systems has a solution for the construction industry.

Using a smartphone, Bentley puts a 3D rendering of architecture over the existing building, so you can see how the new addition will fit. It allows for interactive blueprints to show how things come together and interact, something a printed blueprint can't do. It also allows for displaying existing infrastructure, like underground cables and pipes, so when the digging begins, the construction crew can avoid hitting the pipes or wires, a common problem.

  • Teaching/instructions

You can't really watch a lesson while engaging in an activity because it requires eyes on two targets: the lesson and where you are working. Augmented reality vision will give you your instructions while you are looking at whatever it is you are working on.

One of the more clever examples comes from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which is developing a system that could be integrated into stoves to help people learn to cook.

An overlay screen on top of a pan simulates everything from food to utensils. The pan can actually simulate the weight of the food as well as interactions, such as flipping or stirring food. It also simulates temperatures and the effect on food as it is "cooked." This allows for doing a dry run without having to waste food or mess up the cooking items.

  • Head's Up displays

If you have a GPS, you know what that means: constantly glancing away to look at the screen to check where you are going, even if it does have voice assist instructions. The ideal situation would be to display the GPS turns on your windshield in an unobtrusive way.

The first company to do that is Way Ray, with its Navion holographic projector. Navion projects holographic arrows that follow the road in front of you and indicates when to make turns. It also has voice control so you can keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Another, from Continental Automotive, offers features like speed limit warnings and lane change alerts from other cars.

Then there's Elbit Systems wearable head-up display called Skylens. It's a lightweight headset that lets pilots keep their eyes on the runway at night or in bad weather rather than their instruments, if they have any. Skylens provides the pilot with Enhanced Flight Vision System (EFVS) applications used in newer, more advanced planes for navigation, but may not be in older or low-end planes.

  • Advertising and Local Information

Taking advantage of the powerful cameras in smartphones, the Layar Reality Browser for iPhone and Android displays real-time digital information layered over your view. Using the GPS location feature in your mobile device, the Layer browser retrieves data based on where you are shows things like local specials or promotions. There's another app called Localscope which does the same thing.

A UK company called Skignz uses augmented reality to allow users to create signposts in the sky for smartphone users. While most AR companies are drawing from other sources to create notes or markers of places of interest, Skignz puts the pin creation in the hands of the user. Put one in your car when parking so you can find your way back, for example. Or mark a store you might want to visit later. You can even mark people to keep track of them.

Finally, Yelp's mobile app doesn't come with augmented reality, but a feature called Monocle does give Yelp that element, which allows you to find nearby establishments and restaurants using your phone's camera as an AR viewer.

6) Reference & Guidance

Most AR reference guides are designed around viewing your surroundings, the app recognizes it, and pulls in information. For example, GeoTravel is a worldwide travel guide with a huge reference library. It packs 3.6 million articles in over 20 languages from all over the world, the equivalent of 20,000 printed travel guide books. Simply point and it recognizes where you are and shows you points of interest and places within the city you want to visit.

Several car makers, including BMW and Volkswagen, had created their own AR apps to help assist mechanics in performing car repairs. However, the vendor that made the app used to provide the AR overlay, Meta.io, was acquired by Apple in 2015 and has stopped selling products. It remains to be seen what Apple's plans are for Meta.io.

In the meantime, there is a joint effort between the US Army and Columbia University's Computer Graphics and User Interface Lab to create a system that guides you as you make repairs. Augmented Reality for Maintenance and Repair, or ARMAR, is a head-mounted display unit that provides graphic overlays to provide instruction while making repairs. A recent test found ARMAR can cut maintenance times in half. It has yet to be commercialized, though.

7) Health Care

Few professions have a larger library of reference material than medicine, and even the best doctors can't keep it all in their head. So augmented reality is providing in various forms of reference and guidance to the medical profession.

London-based doctor Shafi Ahmed has used Google Glass to perform live operations streamed to roughly 14,000 students in 32 countries and is now using specialized cameras through his company Medical Realities to provide 360-degree videos on YouTube from the operating room.

ARnatomy is an app that uses the camera to identify replicas of human bones, and when the user places a bone in front of the camera, it identifies which bone it is and adds visuals pointing to all of the parts of the bone, such as where muscles attach.

Finally, AccuVein is a handheld scanner that projects over skin and shows a nurses or other technician where veins are in the patient's body, so they can get an accurate needle stick if giving a shot or drawing blood.

8) Retail

It's the age-old nuisance of clothing shopping: trying things on. So some vendors are trying to spare you that ritual. American Apparel, known for its brightly colored clothing, has a scanner app that lets customers scan various products with their smartphone and see how it looks in different colors.

Then there are the specialized apps. Sandwich shop Quiznos teamed with Winvolve to build something similar in 2010, featuring a store locater, 3D animations, coupons based on the user's location and videos.

Block maker Lego introduced AR kiosks called Lego X back in 2010 where a customer holds the box of a model they intend to purchase in front of the AR monitor and it shows what the model will look like when completed. Lego X also works for tablets by rendering whatever creation someone builds with Legos as a 3D model.

For women struggling to find the right makeup that works for them, Shisedo has an augmented reality makeup mirror from which takes an image of a shopper’s face and tries on various cosmetics, so the buyer will see how they would look with the makeup on. However, it's only available in Japan.

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