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AR's digital transformation is just beginning — and it will be unlike anything we have seen

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Ahmet Misirligul)

Augmented reality (AR) has long been heralded as a transformative technology, but so far, there has not been much evidence to support the hype. That might be changing now that the U.S. Army and its army-sized budget have entered the market.

The U.S. Army just signed a $480 million contract with Microsoft for as many as 100,000 HoloLens devices. Proponents of the deal think the AR technology will prove invaluable in training and combat missions, and the contract is just one part of a larger effort to create an Integrated Visual Augmentation System that the Army believes will make soldiers more effective on the battlefield. As an unintended side effect, Gartner researcher Annette Jump predicts that the deal will also improve the market for mixed reality (MR) products in the U.S. and elsewhere.

AR adoption might be increasing around the globe, but it is also reaching beyond it. Astronauts with NASA and the European Space Agency are using the Magic Leap One system to become acquainted with the International Space Station before they arrive, allowing them to begin conducting important missions in less time. While Magic Leap One headsets are available for consumer purchase, the timely arrival of the first 5G networks will help users achieve the internet speeds necessary for AR devices.

Magic Leap One is an exciting development, but sceptics might look at the AR versions of movies like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and apps such as “Luna: Moondust Garden” and mistakenly write the technology off as just fun and games. In reality, enterprises are already starting to unlock the innovations available when AR technology is applied to business.

How AR can augment business

Because the technology is still in its relative infancy, early AR adoption is about finding easy wins that demonstrate concrete value. For businesses like Boeing, that means putting it to work in manufacturing. Not surprisingly, the aerospace giant manufactures some complex products. By arming workers with a HoloLens headset, it becomes easier to train them to perform complex assembly tasks, and Boeing enjoys marked improvements in the speed and accuracy of assembly.

Augmented reality has an extensive history at Boeing. Engineers Tom Caudell and David Mizell first came up with the term in the '90s while trying to improve how wiring harnesses were manufactured for the Boeing 777. They imagined that a wearer of an AR device could lay out wires following a diagram laid over top of their visual field, eliminating the need for drawings and other references. Today, Boeing is using its substantial venture capital resources to invest in AR that might someday revolutionise its processes, but the field is not limited to big business.

Startup Mimesys aims to upgrade the video call with AR. Relying on the Magic Leap headset, Mimesys software can scan, stitch, and texture an environment in real time, allowing users to take on the form of realistic avatars and chat with one another. CEO Rémi Rousseau acknowledges that communication technology has come a long way but expresses the belief that AR can more accurately replicate in-person exchanges and bring an end to expensive and environmentally harmful business travel.

In order to take advantage of AR’s vast (and growing) business potential, companies must first develop the appropriate network infrastructure. Fortunately, digital transformations are increasingly common, and most businesses understand the advantages to be gained from implementing their own. Once AR solutions are a realistic option for an organisation, taking the following steps will help ensure a productive and painless adoption.

1. Enhance existing workflows.

AR is groundbreaking, but that does not mean businesses should necessarily use it to break ground. Instead of inventing entirely new processes that incorporate the technology, AR should be used to augment existing ones whenever possible. Determine which parts of a workflow could use improvement and which will directly impact business value. This intersection is where AR efforts should be aimed.

When General Electric Healthcare wanted to improve existing training practices for healthcare professionals, the company decided that virtual reality was the perfect tool. With the technology, training is more effective and immersive, and the tech-savvy Millennials being trained are especially apt to embrace it. By developing a new training solution around an existing workflow, GE Healthcare set up its technology for success.

2. Start small.

Because AR is new and powerful, it is tempting for business leaders to imagine an application that completely transforms a company and catapults it to the top of an entire industry. That is called a fantasy. Instead, start with the small opportunities that can benefit immediately from what AR has to offer. Small successes breed buy-in from employees and stakeholders, and both will be important when it is time to begin bigger initiatives later on.

Domino’s is a great example of easy AR implementation. With the Pizza Chef app, customers are given a visual representation of what ingredient combinations will look like, allowing them to see whatever combination they can dream up. The AR fits right in alongside the chain’s other tech solutions, and customers are now able to visualise, create, order, and track pizza without ever having to call their local restaurant.

3. Iterate into the future.

AR technology is still young, which means current solutions will be displaced by better ones over time. The companies that use AR the most effectively will be the ones that iterate on baseline technologies and then embrace new approaches. By making incremental changes, businesses can avoid unnecessary risk and produce more elegant solutions.

Iterating also allows businesses with fewer resources to invest in AR technology. Instead of going all-in on enterprise-grade software, small businesses can adopt simple solutions that directly impact their bottom line. As employees become more comfortable with integrating AR into workflows, adoption can expand, and the tech will have an even bigger impact.

AR has been the subject of considerable hype, but it has so far lacked certain ingredients to become truly viable. As deals like the one between the U.S. Army and Microsoft start to become more common, commercial AR solutions will mature and forward-thinking businesses will reap the benefits. To prepare for AR’s grand entrance in your industry, follow the above steps and create an environment where the technology can thrive.

Saagar Govil, chairman and CEO, Cemtrex
Image source: Shutterstock/Ahmet Misirligul