One technology that holds tremendous promise for transforming the way we work is augmented reality (AR). By overlaying digital information on a user’s view of the real world, AR has the potential to enhance productivity, collaboration and efficiency in the workplace. AR blends the natural and digitally immersive worlds in one place, promising new pathways for connection and engagement.
AR works by overlaying computer-generated virtual elements onto the real world, enhancing our perception and interaction with the environment through devices equipped with cameras and display screens. Users can access AR with smartphones and tablets—unlike virtual and mixed reality (VR/MR), which require headsets. Many people are familiar with accessing AR experiences across apps, online games and televisions. This post will explore some of the possibilities AR brings to modern work.
Augmented training and onboarding
Employers in the U.S. alone spend $413 billion a year on informal on-the-job training. AR can revolutionize the way employees are trained and onboarded. By overlaying digital instructions, interactive simulations and real-time guidance, AR can provide immersive learning experiences at a much lower cost than human-driven training. In addition to reducing the need for human capital, AR training reduces travel costs associated with training employees.
From step-by-step instructions for complex tasks to virtual walk-throughs of machinery and equipment, AR empowers employees to learn faster and more effectively, reducing training time and improving knowledge retention. An interesting factor in this is gamification. Since people are most likely familiar with AR from a game—or perhaps a fun shopping experience—they are likelier to associate it with something pleasing. I imagine this equates to increased focus and willingness to participate, which should lead to better outcomes.
AR can bridge the gap between remote teams, enabling real-time virtual collaboration by bringing remote workers together through a shared virtual lens. Using AR-powered teleconferencing, employees can visualize and interact with 3-D models, share information and collaborate as if they were physically present. This fosters seamless teamwork, even across geographical boundaries, thereby increasing efficiency and innovation.
According to the IBM Institute of Business Value, companies using AR have reported an average productivity improvement of 32%, as well as a 46% reduction in time to complete tasks. In many cases, companies can accomplish this sort of improvement without needing additional hardware such as glasses or headsets. There are also, however, easy options for those willing to go the headset route. For example, Moor Insights & Strategy vice president and principal analyst for spatial computing, Anshel Sag, recently highlighted Morpheus XR. In addition to its virtual training and meeting platform, Morpheus provides a headset rental service, which comes complete with setup and support and allows users to access a wide range of VR apps easily. This eliminates one of the main barriers to adopting VR headsets for remote collaboration, training or workshops.
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I think there will be a massive adoption curve based on individual preferences when using AR versus VR. Many of these experiences use avatars to interact in the virtual space. Younger generations and some other subsets of users may feel that being represented by an avatar frees them to be themselves and make meaningful connections. Conversely, the avatar approach can feel too gamified for some people, as if the experience is not real, leading to less meaningful interactions. Companies like Campfire 3D are really innovating in this space, enabling what they call holographic collaboration across all types of devices, including the company’s own high-resolution wide field-of-view AR headset that you tether to a PC.
“Spatial computing platforms have followed the same path towards mass adoption as many other computing platforms,” Sag said. “Many companies start out with the intention of serving a consumer mass market and eventually pivot to the enterprise. Most of the profitable opportunities in AR, VR, MR, XR etc. are in the enterprise space, and we’ve seen companies like Magic Leap and Microsoft move in that direction after initially pursuing consumers.”
He added, “Microsoft’s Hololens was always an enterprise-focused device, but the company got distracted and tried to pitch it for consumer applications as well. Anyone who wants to be successful in AR today is going to want to cater to the enterprise market and that’ll probably be the case for the next few years until some of the big technological challenges are overcome.”
Building a safer future
Imagine engineers wearing AR glasses that overlay schematics and instructions directly onto the equipment they are working on, or warehouse workers guided by AR-powered pick-and-pack instructions that show them exactly where to find an item for shipment. These applications of AR eliminate the need for constant reference to manuals or digital devices, saving time and reducing errors.
In dangerous environments such as construction sites or where heavy equipment is in use, AR is a safer and less-expensive alternative that also limits the potential for making real-life mistakes. In these more dangerous environments, it is important to have lightweight but rugged AR glasses that have ample battery life, which is why companies like DigiLens have produced products such as ARGO standalone AR glasses. Anshel Sag also recently wrote about the numerous enterprise partnerships that DigiLens announced at AWE 2023—just ahead of Apple’s Vision Pro launch at WWDC 2023.
Remote support and maintenance
AR can enable remote support and maintenance services in real time. By leveraging AR, technicians can receive visual instructions and guidance from experts, who can virtually annotate the technician’s live view. This capability improves troubleshooting, reduces downtime and minimizes the need for costly on-site visits.
There are some technologies I would choose before an AR option in this case. For example, I love the “see what I see” capability offered by RingCentral and other providers that allows you to troubleshoot with a specialist from a call center. However, in a complicated scenario—like a real-life one in which I recently had to redesign a stone fireplace from afar—AR can be surprisingly efficient and accurate.
Privacy and space
Even though work-from-anywhere continues to become entrenched as a norm, some industries cannot adapt to a hybrid or remote setup. Recreating an office layout, especially one that involves specialized equipment, in a work-from-home environment is expensive and often physically impossible due to limited space in workers’ homes. It also isn’t practical to bring along multiple large-screen displays as workers move from place to place within or outside the home.
Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 smart glasses for the enterprise solve these challenges with ultraportable and comfortable AR glasses. Again, I looked to our XR and spatial computing lead, Anshel Sag, and his detailed paper about How Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 Accelerates Enterprise Augmented Reality Adoption to illustrate this trend. The glasses tether to a PC and can create a customized, expanded personal workspace anywhere, from a virtual monitor at home to guided schematics on the factory floor. The ThinkReality A3 also offers complete privacy for confidential work anywhere, with up to five 1080p virtual displays. Another company, Sightful, just announced the world’s first AR laptop called the Spacetop. Its sole purpose is to offer a private multi-monitor AR experience in a complete solution that pairs AR glasses with an Android-based PC.
The enterprise market for smart glasses is projected to reach $12.8 billion by 2025, primarily for training and remote assistance in sectors like healthcare, logistics and manufacturing. With smart glasses, the ROI needs to be justified, because the expense is usually relatively more significant than many forms of AR on a smartphone or tablet. However, I see many use cases where the investment is worth it. Apple also seems convinced of this value, even though the initial AR product that it announced at WWDC 2023, the Vision Pro, is a mixed reality headset aimed at developers and prosumers. The Vision Pro is Apple’s clear foundation for an AR strategy where it will bring spatial applications developed on the Vision Pro to a future device that is much more affordable and geared towards the mass market.
The future is real(ly augmented)
Tech companies are preparing for this new wave of connected experiences. Last week T-Mobile and Google announced that they are joining forces to bring T-Mobile’s 5G Advanced Network Solutions and Google Distributed Cloud Edge together to provide the low latency, high speeds and reliability needed for data-intensive computing processes such as AR or computer vision. Construction sites and other frontline environments are good examples of where these solutions are needed.
Augmented reality is set to play a significant role in transforming how we work, collaborate and interact with technology. The applications of AR are vast and promising, ranging from more effective training to productivity enhancements to better customer experiences. Embracing AR in the workplace opens up new avenues for innovation, efficiency and growth, ensuring that businesses remain at the forefront of the evolving work landscape. The future of work is augmented, and the possibilities are fascinating.
Anshel Sag, principal analyst for XR and spatial computing, contributed heavily to this analysis.