How is augmented reality improving customer experience?

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Ears pricked up when Apple CEO Tim Cook told analysts during a fourth-quarter earnings call: “AR is going to change everything.”    

It is becoming apparent that Cook’s assessment was no exaggeration. In fact, augmented reality (AR) is creating an entirely new paradigm for mass technology use. After all, we have quickly evolved from typing on our PC keyboards, to the smartphone’s tap or swipe, to simply asking Alexa or Siri to do things for us. Now AR brings us to the age of holographic computing. Along with animojies and Pokémon and face filters, a fresh and futuristic user-interface is emerging. 

It is now through our phone screens instead of lasers that holographic computing comes to us. As a result, we’re witnessing a definite surge in the use of hologram-like 3D that will completely change how we interact with the world — and one another. 

New AR applications are springing up all the time 

The evidence can be seen all around us. The release of Apple’s iOS11 puts AR into the hands of more than 400 million consumers and the new iPhoneX is designed to deliver enhanced AR experiences with 3D cameras and “Bionic” processors.   

In his speech, Cook pointed out that there are already more than 1,000 apps with powerful AR features in the App Store, with developers creating new experiences in virtually every category. AR apps are aimed at consumers, students and business users alike, transforming the way everyone works, plays, connects, and learns.   

Cook said users can interact with virtual yet realistic models of everything from the human body to the solar system, making education a much more compelling experience as every subject comes to life in 3D.  Take, for example, a live sporting event. With the power of AR, spectators could see a visual overlay of the player’s stats as they run up and down the field, enriching the experience in a totally new way. The conjunction of technologies such as machine learning with AR would also make for a new and more immersive experience, he added. 

You would expect Apple’s leader to be bullish about technologies his company is using or exploring, but others are in the game as well. For instance, Google has launched the Poly platform for finding and distributing virtual and augmented reality objects, while Amazon has released Sumerian for creating realistic virtual environments in the cloud that can be populated with animated characters and other 3D objects. An AR-native content-creation movement is also underway and a steady stream of AR features is coming from Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a host of other tech players. There is no shortage of developments. 

Captivating 3D user experiences are obviously attractive for gaming and entertainment, but as the tech giants realise, they are capable of so much more. Their use is only set to increase and broaden as games and filters spread the holographic experience and more of us become familiar with the technology.

Training and customer experience are huge areas of development 

AR is already, making inroads in training and customer experience. Holography is useful in training for virtual hands-on guidance to explain a process, complete a form or orient a user. It also can simulate real-life scenarios such as emergency response, sales interactions and so on. Interfaces using holographic computing complement traditional instruction with added dimensionality. AR enhancements can be overlaid for greater depth and variety in information presentation, such as floating text bubbles to provide detail about a particular physical object, chronological procedure mapping for performing a task, or virtual arrows pointing to the correct button to push on a console. 

There are countless opportunities for adding more digital information to almost anything within range of a phone camera. There is, for example, less need to travel to a classroom if you can launch interactive, immersive 3D presentations on any desk, wall, or floor and “experience” them through the screen in your hand. And unlike passively watching video, holographic interfaces add an extra experiential element to the training process. As a result, users can more readily contextualise what they are learning. 

Customer experience applications are allowing consumers to use AR and holographic computing for self-selection, self-service, and self-help. Yet it is only a matter of time before they use it for even more. For example, IKEA’s AR app lets customers point their phones at their dining room to see how a new table will look in the space. Why not just point your phone at the shipping box to be holographically guided through the assembly process when it’s delivered?   

Service agent interaction and other use cases 

Holographic computing will also emerge as the preferred means of obtaining product information and interacting with service agents. Walk-throughs of hotel rooms and holiday accommodation with a 3D virtual tour guide, travel planner or salesperson are not far away. 

There are other appealing use cases, of course. And as adoption and implementation spread, there will be many instances where this new user-interface is preferable and will quickly become second nature. 

The sheer amount of money being thrown at speedy development shows that the ultimate nature of the holographic user-interface is still being fought over. The Venture Reality Fund, a global venture capital firm, reported in November 2017 that $2.3bn was invested in AR and VR companies that year. Entertainment applications featured heavily, but enterprise investments were up 69 per cent.   

Along with the Apples, Googles and Facebooks of the world, there are a number of new entrants to the AR contest. Will the technology remain phone-based or involve glasses? Will it shift to desktop applications or evolve beyond the current hardware with on-eye projection technology? It could be all of the above, but who can say with any certainty at present? 

One thing we do know for sure is that significant intellectual energy is being invested by companies of all types to capitalise on this emerging technology. The increased dispersal of AR experiences in all their various guises, combined with the mounting accessibility afforded by our smartphones, will drive mass-adoption and nurture affinity for the holographic interface.     

Simon Wright, Director of AR & VR at Genesys 

Image Credit: Ahmet Misirligul / Shutterstock