Augmented Reality in Business

Our ability to take advantage of information age technologies has always been limited by our means of interacting with programs, computers, and networks. For most of the high tech era, we’ve largely been chained to our desks by our need to interact with computers and databases, but mobility is changing all that. The advances we’ve made in mobile computing have unchained us, but at the price of inferior modes of interaction such as tiny screens and inconsistent keyboards. Augmented reality is changing all that.

User Interfaces Before Augmented Reality

Computer screens – and the associated computers, networks, and user interfaces – revolutionized the way that the world does business. We had computers since the 1940s, but their terminals were noisy, slow teletypes, essentially mechanical typewriters. Teletypes didn’t have graphics capabilities, so information retrieval and communication were limited to text, and usually Roman alphabet text at that.

Early CRT terminals, such as the Datapoint 3300, were quieter and cheaper replacements for hard copy terminals such as the Teletype Model 33. The first generation of terminals were called “dumb terminals” because they didn’t have general purpose computing capabilities, couldn’t store information, and couldn’t display graphics. They were replaced by “intelligent terminals” such as the Texas Instruments Series 700 that could so at least some of these computer-like tricks.

Intelligent terminals paved the way to personal computers. In fact, PCs are simply faster intelligent terminals that were often designed by the same engineers that had endowed terminals with the ability to run programs. Rod Canion, my old boss and the founder of Compaq, was in charge of the Series 700 products at TI before he took the plunge with his own company. And you know the story of the creation of the iPhone.

Augmented Reality Interaction

While the journey from the Teletype 33 to the iPhone was dramatic, in some ways it didn’t change anything fundamental about the way humans interact with information processing systems: We type some text, wait, and get a response. In between typing the text and getting the response, an awful of of new things happen, but the basic mode of interaction was laid down by the 19th century telegraph system.

Information processing is great because we have access to such marvelous databases, movies, books, and collections of people. But it’s also frustrating because IT systems know so little about who we are, what we’re doing, and what we need to know at any given time. Augmented reality aims to relieve these constraints. Because AR represents the first real change in the way information age people interact with their information infrastructure, it is revolutionary by definition.

Augmented Reality Enters the Business World

There’s a marvelous little article in the Monday Wall Street Journal, “Augmented Reality, Hologram-like Images Enter the Workplace”, about AR in business. The article uses the example of AGCO, an agricultural equipment company, to illustrate how AR is used in manufacturing. Today, quality control inspectors use AR glasses to guide them through a series of complex checks, and tomorrow the company will use holograms.

Ag gear is expensive – a combine harvester can cost a half million bucks or more – so customers have little tolerance for error in this field (pun intentional). But the high price of ag gear makes its manufacturing and repair processes perfect labs for experimentation while AR prices are high.

Holograms are Central to Augmented Reality

In addition to its substantial footprint in agriculture, AR is making inroads in aviation. GE is transitioning to AR technology in the manufacture of turbine engines:

By January 2017, workers at a General Electric Co.’s Oil & Gas turbomachinery facility in Florence, Italy, will be using AR that superimposes visuals needed to collect more than 100 precise measurements in the manufacturing of gas turbine nozzles. The AR is expected to be applied in factories at GE’s Power and Aviation businesses later next year.

And Boeing uses AR to guide manufacturing technicians through the process of wiring jetliners, which are among the most complex machines in the world. Boeing says this “assisted reality” system has reduced production time by 25% and errors to zero in comparison to its old paper- and laptop-based system.

AR companies such as Daqri are developing headsets that can project the holograms used by GE and Boeing in bright daylight.

Networked Holograms

When gigabit networks captured the imagination of policymakers a few years ago, I investigated application needs for network capacity to determine where these networks could make a difference. Commonly-floated arguments touted movies, telemedicine, and distance learning, but those are applications that work comfortably on the common 50 Mbps networks available in most parts of the US from two vendors or more.

To really stress a gigabit network you need holograms. Typically, a hologram is composed of a video streams captured by a number of cameras at the same time. Subjects are surrounded by 15 – 20 cameras arranged on a virtual sphere around them to capture the hologram. It is then projected as a 3D image depending on the viewer’s frame of reference.  If these streams are shot in 4K video, 20 streams is 400 Mbps. Allowing for network load variation, transporting this much data means you better have 1000 Mbps of peak capacity, AKA a gigabit.

Creating Holographic Content

Holographic teleconferencing is an easy application because it creates its own content. Using holograms in any other application means they need to be created by artists in a studio, however. This is true even for the fairly constrained industrial examples previously cited.

Hence, the use of holograms for data visualization for decision support in general business, education, and medicine will require some newly-trained artists, newly-developed tools, newly developed equipment, and newly turbocharged networks. If you build or use any of these things, the opportunities are phenomenal.

AR Communications Infrastructure

All of these developments taken together will combine to form a new communications infrastructure, and that’s also exciting. This new communications infrastructure will be smarter and more capable than the one developed for telegrams and extended to the Internet. Its regulatory boundaries won’t be in the same place, and its players won’t necessarily fit into traditional categories.

My guess is that AR applications and content and AR networks will be fairly indistinguishable from each other. In the AR world, we interact dynamically with content that’s customized to our level of skill and vantage point. It’s contextualized by where we are, what we’re doing, and who we are. Some of the content is deliberately created by hand, but other content is captured in real time by camera and sensors. The content follows an activity arc, directed by the tasks and missions we’re carrying out.

We Live in Interesting Times

That means that the content that can be stored will be stored close to the point of consumption and combined in real time with dynamic content. Thus, networks themselves will assign capacity as and where it’s needed. That’s a very different paradigm than the one we’ve inherited.

A few industries are going to disrupted in the process. With any luck, yours will be among them.