5 Reasons Your Business Needs Augmented Reality...Today

Monday Aug 30th 2010 by Jeff Vance
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From smartphone apps for augmented reality to major enterprise applications, this emerging technology is quickly gaining adoption.

Augmented reality is all the rage in the smartphone world, but is this something IT professionals should actually be planning for or yet another over-hyped science project? My bet is on the former.

With behemoths like Cisco believing augmented reality (AR) is the “future of shopping” and BMW considering it the “future of car repair,” your organization runs the risk of being left behind if you sit this trend out.

Meanwhile, a slew of smaller companies and startups, such as Total Immersion, Layar and metaio, are already capitalizing on AR, inking deals with major companies like Audi, GM, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Paramount Studios.

If you haven’t started planning for AR, here are five reasons you should start – today:

1. You’re probably already using AR

Defining AR can be a bit tricky, with anyone wanting to capitalize on the trend calling their solution an AR one. We’ve seen this before with any number of tech trends, with terms like “cloud,” “mobile” and “social networking” slapped on anything and everything.

Often, this is marketing b.s. Sometimes, though, the adoption of terminology related to a hot trend signals an important shift. I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that this is the case with AR.

“One of the earliest uses of augmented reality that masses of people encountered was with NFL games,” said Mike Schaiman, Managing Partner and co-founder of Helios Interactive Technology, an AR and interactive display company. “The yellow line indicating the first-down marker is augmented reality.”

Schaiman defines AR as any intersection of the digital, or virtual, world with the real one. By defining AR this broadly, many previous technology trends, such as location-based services and gesture recognition, would be lumped in as AR.

I agree with the definition to a point, sort of like how australopithecus africanus can be defined as early humans, but, well, it’s not really accurate to call them “human.” Schaiman’s broad definition makes an argument, though. AR is here; it’s been around in some form or other for quite some time, and each time it evolves end users benefit.

Think of a wildly popular example, yet one not typically thought of as AR: the Wii. The Wii changed gaming and lured entirely new consumer segments into the gaming world.

2. At least one of your competitors is cashing in on AR

Pick a vertical, any vertical, and some company in it is using AR. Education, marketing, entertainment, government, retail, transportation, manufacturing . . . and on and on and on. Companies in each and every one of these verticals have adopted AR.

Today, the military, retail, entertainment, marketing and mobile sectors are at the leading edge. Tomorrow, who knows?

Helios Interactive was contracted by GMR Marketing to create interactive displays and contests for Best Buy. The “Best Buy Live” tour, going on now, shadows the NASCAR circuit and features an AR instant-win game.

“The Best Buy Live sweepstakes takes user participation to a new level by using augmented reality to engage participants in an interactive experience,” said Paul Zindrick, senior event manager for Best Buy. “The game begins with an augmented reality card and can end with a Best Buy gift card. Wherever the tour stops, visitors to the display are lining up for a chance to play.”

Here’s how it works: a visitor approaching the display is given a free card. When held in front of the display, an image of the Best Buy-sponsored car appears in the center of a screen, with various Best Buy ads and logos surrounding the car. Consumers are able to move and spin the 3D image of the vehicle to get a 360-degree view, and they also are informed of whether or not they are winners of various Best Buy gift cards.

Best Buy isn’t the only biggie in on the AR game. SAP recently launched a pilot AR project at a Daimler Benz factory; Qualcomm has invested heavily in an AR research lab in Austria, and Mattel developed AR toys based on the movie Avatar.

3. Smartphones make AR even more compelling

While AR is taking hold on everything from toys to promotional displays to industrial applications, it’s gaining the most traction in mobile.

“In the next three years mobile will swallow the internet whole,” said Chris Grayson, a digital creative consultant and the co-organizer of ARNY (Augmented Reality New York). “By the end of this decade, AR will swallow mobile. Augmented Reality will become the standard interface for the semantic web.”

Capitalizing on the growing popularity of smartphones, IBM has developed AR apps for major tennis tournaments, including Wimbeldon and the U.S. Open.

The IBM Seer Application acts as a real-time guide and interactive map of the tournaments. Available on Android, the app lets users point their phones at various things around them to get such information as match scores and statistics, information from scouts at the tournament, video streams from matches on other courts and information about nearby concessions and facilities.

4. AR extends beyond the visual

Smartphones are getting all of the AR attention these days, but AR isn’t reliant on any one technology or platform or even any one sense. Sure, conceptually, AR is making the most waves visually, but it doesn’t have to be visual.

“We’re working on an app that uses audio to guide people through geo-location activities,” said whurley (yes, that’s the name he goes by, with no capitalization preferred), a former IBM Master Inventor, open source heavy hitter and current CTO of mobile-app development firm Chaotic Moon Studios.

You could be jogging over rough terrain, where you obviously couldn’t hold your phone in front of you, yet your phone would know your location and give you appropriate audio direction to navigate by.

At this stage of development, AR is pretty much anything people can conceive and utilize.

“AR can be as simple as geo-tagging, or as complex as an architectural design application that lets you point your smartphone at a vacant lot where you plan to build a building to show you what it will look like,” whurley said.

5. There are still many AR trails left to blaze

Even if you haven’t yet leveraged AR, you shouldn’t feel like the space has passed you by. When I asked whurley what holds AR back, he said that AR holds itself back. Or, rather, AR-focused companies and developers are holding AR back for all of the typical political, bull-headed reasons. There are too many one-off proprietary solutions and not enough standards or interoperability.

“I think of AR as TCP/IP for the future,” he said. “No one made of money off of TCP/IP. It’s an enabling technology. I believe the same is true of AR.”

While there is little by way of standardization or open-source momentum related to AR – yet – whurley believes it will come quickly, possibly within the next year or so.

Until that time, AR’s evolution is being influenced by anyone and everyone who decides to leverage it. Best Buy, IBM, SAP and Microsoft all have visions of the AR future.

What’s yours?

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