Enterprise Augmented Reality - An augmented marketing ploy or substantive reality?

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By now we've heard most of the hype and the substance about Augmented Reality.  Not a day goes by without the announcement of a new smartphone application or advertisement that captures our imagination creatively but leaves us wondering what the long term usefulness could be once the instant gratification wears off.  In many instances, Augmented Reality does achieve its short-term objectives for marketers and consumers: it draws people in to experience how a product works and feels, gives people hyper-local, navigational information and listings, and engages them in interactive games with their outside world.  
But an important  question remains: is user affinity to these types of experiences sustainable, and furthermore, how can it benefit enterprises, particularly given their focus on increased revenue, process optimizations, and improved employee morale?

Unsurprisingly, people have already been asking this question since mobile Augmented Reality applications first arrived.  Alan Patrick, in his excellent post on AR in the Enterprise, stated that "Early applications of similar types of technology have in the past been deployed first among staff away from the office - salesmen, drivers/deliverymen and field service staff. Next up has typically been staff requiring data but not at a desk - shop floor, warehouse, front of house etc". Several companies have made strides in dreaming up of these new augmented reality experience for the enterprise:

  • SAP has been actively working on a mobile browser based application which gives salespeople superimposed company information retrieved from BusinessObjects on their screens as they point their smartphone camera at a particular office building.  
  • BMW has developed a prototype where mechanics can receive visual tactical assistance when repairing a car.  
  • Startups such as Layar are publishing facility location data on their mobile augmented reality browsers.

While these scenarios can generally be effective in helping sales people improve customer relationships, assisting mechanics with auto repair turnaround, and helping workers find what they need, one wonders if there are more scenarios like this out there and when will they be commercially available. 

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    These are the wrong questions to ask. Why? One reason is that we may be trying to force fit a technology that fits a style of common consumer interaction but not a common employee one.  Another reason is that many AR applications create the "wow effect" but cannot create useful, scalable, and highly available technology stacks that are trusted to run mission critical systems. The real question is what kind of new ancillary technologies is this consumer augmented reality wave creating and how can enterprises leverage this momentum to create new systems that can better fit their own styles of interaction.

    This ancillary technology goodness from our eager, friendly, and oversharing consumer cousins comes from the evolution of tiny mobile sensors and the constant improvements in sensor recognition technologies. Sensors include cameras, microphones, GPS, compasses, gyroscopes, and a wide variety of RFID devices. Sensors have been around for a long time and are nothing new. But as a result of the recent Location and Augmented Reality consumer craze, their accuracy is perfected, their recognition algorithms are improving, and or the first time, they are being packaged together in a single smartphone device.  The new Apple iPhone 4 and the latest pack of Androids are great examples of that.
The unified packaging has a great significance:

  • a simple unified API such as HTML5
  • access to advanced recognition tools,

Developers can now build applications to make all these sensors work in unison - all while being driven by real time enterprise data. Telcos have a significant role to play by building out mobile and sensor enabled networks to support multi-protocol interactions all while ensuring peak QoS and synchronized data delivery for enterprise applications.  Telcos are also the primary responsible entity ensuring consistency and interoperability between sensor, device, and network planes.
 

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    As far as enterprise workers are concerned, their style of interaction has generally been much different than those of consumers.  Mobile devices have given employees, particularly Field Service workers, freedom to perform seamless interactions with ERP, CRM, and Procurement systems irrespective of location.  These devices have also allowed workers to receive notifications of others' activities moving business processes at a faster rate.  Mobile sensors and recognition technologies aim to take these interactions even further.  They can continuously send workflow status based on what our smartphones see, hear, and sense.  They have the ability to dynamically control assets and objects within certain proximity.  They can send notifications with sensory, contextual, and actionable enterprise data.  The possibilities for creating new enterprise scenarios are truly endless, and the new mobile devices already owned by many workers are here to deliver these benefits to enterprises today, all thanks in part to the Augmented Reality movement.

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To summarize, with new smart devices, every employee and every physical object can either be a sensor reader, sensor receiver, or a sensor transmitter, all continuously connected to the internet.  Every worker can have their immediate reality associated with them at all times and use it for global communication.  And while the evolution of our eyes, ears, and voices has allowed humans to efficiently communicate and collaborate with each other in near proximity, our much better informed, sensory aware, and in some cases better looking smartphone buddies have yet to acquire these abilities on their own.
 
So let's ride this sensory wave of innovation that consumer Augmented Reality is bringing to fruition, not get tied down on consumer interaction styles, and focus on what makes the most sense for us as enterprises -  to perform work better, cheaper, and faster.

Nicolas Jacquey
Adam Odessky

I am a Product Manager at Orange Silicon Valley and the creative force behind Sens.ly. I have a passion for creating game-changing products and I created one of the first enterprise voice portals, a speech-based outbound IVR platform and a location-based social network. I also holds several provisional patents in the areas of healthcare, security, telecommunications and augmented reality.