The Trivialization of Augmented Reality

By Joe Francica

The best way to describe augmented reality (AR) is "x-ray vision" for the masses. Hopefully, some of you remember Superman's x-ray vision? He was able to "see through" walls and into buildings to see what others couldn't: the trapped fair maiden, the gun-toting thug, the ticking bomb. Wikipedia defines AR as "live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery."

However, the trivialization of AR bothers me as much as the sophomoric use of social networking. Let's take stock. The few demonstrations of augmented reality that I've seen so far will show me (once again) where all of my favorite Starbucks coffee shops are. Whoopee! Yet another time-wasting application to download to my iPhone; oops don't have one...sorry.

What AR looks to become is a window on the unseen world, or at least the obscured world of things. Now, location technology enters the fray. Indeed, using that small lens on the flip side of your mobile device or cell phone will, along with software and data, transform the device display into a view of the immediate vicinity's local attractions, retail establishments, etc. to reveal their proximity, juxtaposition and general bearing. It could be a tourist's answer to the paper map and well it should be.

But I'm troubled by the hype to consumers and the never-ending bleating by the location-based advertising flock that retailers will pay for all of this wonderful technology just to get their logo splashed across the tiny screen. In truth, it may come to pass and we'll all become as enamored with the information at street level as we've become with the streetviews of Bing and Google. But at what price do software developers hype the consumer app in lieu of the business apps, which, to me, offer so much more potential?

AR for Business
I recently came across an application from Masternaut that I think warrants further consideration. Masternaut Three X is a solution for field service technicians best described by the company:

In the context of the field service technician, Masternaut Augmented Reality provides a range of benefits. From delivering the precise GPS position and a satellite image of the job site to guide the technician, instantly updating work schedules, right down to being able to track deliveries of parts to the site, this innovation is designed to help improve efficiencies and boost customer service. For example, by combining a live picture capability with GPS and service data means that Augmented Reality can be used to locate the precise position of underground pipes and valves, switch gear hidden behind bulkheads and so on, using maps and live images with accurate job details. The mobile phone of course provides communications and doubles up as a convenient data capture / data entry device, further enhancing mobility and eliminating paper documentation.

In summary, the Three X solution is:

  1. A navigation tool
  2. An asset tracking device
  3. An inventory manager
  4. A field data capture instrument
  5. A mapping application
  6. Oh, yeah... and a phone

This describes just some of the potential of AR in the context of just one industry application. The cost savings? Masternaut expects the company deploying this solution will receive a payback in terms of better personnel management (time, routing costs) and ultimately, better customer service.

But Masternaut took the application to another level with an application called Asset Track. Using RFID tags placed on parts and other assets, the application can guide the technician. Again, according to Masternaut:

We can link these assets to the vehicles carrying them and use the Augmented Reality application to guide the service engineer to the appropriately equipped van or truck. This means less time is spent sourcing tools and service parts from the stores and the electronic manifests can be presented visually with missing items flagged.

X-ray vision. The technician merely points the mobile device at a truck and is presented with a list of parts uploaded from an extensive asset database coded by a unique ID. Think about it. No more wondering what truck has the right equipment for the right job. No more wondering about whether you are at the right job site. No more wondering what's below your feet or what kind of HVAC unit is inside the south wall of the building. Supply chain management on 'roids.

The Internet of Things
In the March 29th issue of Barron's, tech writer Eric Savitz discussed some of the presentations he saw at the CTIA Wireless 2010 Conference and what's called the "Internet of Things." Basically, the popular notion currently being circulated is that many electronic devices will be connected to the Internet sooner rather than later. Not a new idea, as Savitz explained, since it's already been suggested that your household appliances could be switched on or off by a mobile device (some certainly can be now). In particular, Savitz sat in on a presentation by AT&T's CEO, Glen Lurie, who is banking on the idea. Savitz lamented the company's recent problems with handling the data traffic just from iPhones. Can you imagine the impact on network speed and connectivity that would beset AT&T and other carriers when data traffic from and to other devices and appliances hit the network?

Extrapolate this notion to AR. If more "things" are connected to the Internet, you'll want to know their location. That's a given. You'll want an asset inventory of your "stuff." You'll want to know where it is and be able to interact with it. Whether it will be from RFID-equipped devices or other positioning technology, at some point along the way you'll want AR to enter the picture. (Can you imagine equipping your home with a passive RFID reader to keep track of your stuff? At least you'll always know where your keys are!) So, the eventual application is a combination of AR and Internet: Search for it, sense it, find it and act on it.

Imagine the vice president of real estate for a major retail franchise. He's tasked with managing the network of stores in a region and he's on one of his many required drive-by visits. He's holding in his hand his personal AR device for his company. With a wave of this AR device he can see everything - from how many people are working at the store at that hour, to the health of his refrigeration units, to the inventory of his products... all in real-time. How valuable might this be and how many other industries could use a device that has the potential for delivering information tagged with a location? This is where the value of AR transcends "consumerization" and enters the realm of business, where the real money is likely to be made.

It's likely that we'll see both consumer and business applications for AR released in the coming months and I look forward to evaluating their potential. I hope there will be an equal number of both. But my fear is that the mainstream media will hype the former and ignore the latter. I, for one, will be looking for the business advantages presented by AR.

Published Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Written by Joe Francica

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