Augmented Reality (AR) has been around long enough now for it to no longer need an explanation. Yet, for the uninitiated – and for those who might still mix it up with virtual reality (VR) – AR is the addition of digital artefacts (3-Dimensional models, video, animation, text boxes, etc). An Intel introduction to these “digital realities” explains AR as an enhancement or supplement to the real world with a “layering new strata of perception.”
AR has been around for longer than most people realize, in fact. For instance, the pilot headsets of advanced fighter aircraft have had AR capabilities for a while now, tagging visible objects and sorting them into targets, friendlies and enemies. The average civilian, on the other hand, might have first come across the term with the launch of Pokemon Go. In any case, AR is no longer a concept to be found only in sci-fi movies and Iron Man’s
It is there in the palm of your hand. Literally.
We are now in an era where mobile phones have surpassed the power of laptops from a decade ago. Smartphones keep getting ‘smarter’ through AI-enabled assistants, better cameras, constant connectivity and a learning engine that monitors everything you do, where you go, who you talk to, and files it away just so that it can shave that microsecond off the next time you want to do something similar. For such systems, AR is no longer too taxing on the performance.
Let’s look at where AR has already made a mark in the past few months.
One of the most obvious uses of AR is in real estate. A 2D brochure leaves too many details to the salesman’s gift of the gab and the buyer’s gift to imagine. The developer can, at the most, showcase a model apartment – or, in the rarest of rare instances, two. Whether it’s in the West where building codes are tightly adhered to, or in the East where it’s getting stricter, builders no longer have the luxury of hiding behind vague descriptions. And buyers, on the other hand, are more demanding because of the choices they have.
Our own records indicate that the AR solutions basket for real estate firms is one of our most sought-after services. With RERA coming into effect in India, builders are now uber-careful about delivering projects on time and as promised, and that means the sales funnel has to perform even more effectively. Prospects have to be converted faster; by extension, this means that the time available to convince them is shorter. AR has been a game-changer in this context.
A typical scenario for a builder who uses AR is this: at the site, or at the prospect’s chosen location, the salesman pulls out a brochure and a tab. The first part of the discussion is on the highlights of the project – the location, amenities, scheduling. Then comes the clincher: the choice of the unit itself. The choices are filtered on the basis of direction, requirements, rooms, space. Out of, say, five available floor plans, two are shortlisted.
That’s when the salesman pulls his ‘tabbit’ out of his hat. The camera pans over the 2D map on the brochure. A 3D rendering of the same appears instantly on the app. Unlike the 2D map, this one can be manipulated. Zoom in closer, turn it this way and that, check out the colors… It’s a model apartment at hand, as good as the real thing.
A system, in other words, where AR is married to e-commerce.
It’s not as nebulous a concept as it used to seem years ago. In addition to selling homes, builders can sell interior packages just as easily by letting their home-owners see how various pieces of furniture can come together in their as yet unfinished, under-construction homes, not to mention the completed and handed-over properties as well. The buyer tries out various objects from the catalogue and the app automatically adjusts the dimensions on screen so that it is an authentic representation or reality. After choosing the variant they like, all the buyer has to do is add it to the cart, continue shopping and, at the end of it all, complete the process.
Bathroom Augmented Reality AR
Extend the concept further, and you will see for yourself how it can be applied in other scenarios.
The automotive industry has always used special slices of machinery to show off product features. BMW, for instance, has a video up on Youtube where it talks of its use of carbon fibre to make the structure lighter without compromising on safety. Another video talks of aerodynamic considerations in design.
A printed brochure, again, is limited by its very nature of being two-dimensional. On the other hand, imagine an AR module built for all BMW showrooms. It’s either an app or a wearable goggles. As the customer walks around the car, the camera sees what the customer sees – and then pops up a specific feature around whatever the customer is looking at. The customer looks at the tyres, and the AR module pops up a mix of content explaining why even the rubber sets a BMW car apart from the rest.
What this does is to free the salesperson’s mental bandwidth so that he/she can concentrate on the essentials: sizing up the customer’s needs and interests, identifying a model or variant that’s suitable, nudging them towards the sale and calculating the on-road price, down payments and mortgages or emi. It’s unfair to expect a salesperson to do this AND remember every point of precision design engineering that makes the BMW stand out otherwise. And, in an industry plagued by high attrition rates, you reduce the time it takes to get an effective seller out of a new hire.
That’s not, to stress the point, to say that people can’t be trained. In fact, just as a prospect can be convinced through an AR-driven information-delivery system, so can employees be trained – whether it’s to sell a car or even handle a complicated surgery.
According to this article on the JAMA network, the medical stream at Bond University in Queensland has already employed AR in its training programmes for students. These students can operate on virtual models of important organs, some of which can’t be done on live patients otherwise, and manipulate them in ways that would simply be impossible – or, if not impossible, certainly disastrous – in real life. Tincture.io has another piece on how Microsoft HoloLens has partnered with Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland clinic to “develop a digital anatomy curriculum where students can not only see, but manipulate a 3D human body, and segment it by system.”
Compared to this, using AR to train people on machinery might seem relatively tamer. But, as any financial comptroller of a manufacturing unit will tell you, no less important in their scheme of things. Where companies would end up paying hefty wages to retain the few people who knew which bolt to tighten and what rod to push back into its place, it’s now possible to train anyone on the floor on emergency maintenance of a machine without taking them off the production line or running expensive workshops after turning off the machine. An AR-based trainer module of the machine can do just as good a job, and at a fraction of the cost.
Such a trainer can “explode” a machine into its component parts, and through AR or VR, the employee can virtually learn how these parts come together, how they need to be serviced and replaced, what are the safety conditions to be followed, how to check for wear and tear, etc. Our World of AR application demonstrates just such a scenario.
Machinery Augmented Reality AR
Synonymous with this is the use of AR in education. Books often take a long time to move from commissioning to print, and state-sanctioned textbooks take notoriously longer. Many topics are often outdated by the time it reaches the student, leaving the latter to search for more current sources of information. The average student might stop his/her search at Youtube, satisfied with a five-minute clip on, say, aeroplanes or dinosaurs. But that’s not real learning anymore.
Just as in medicine, there are companies all over the world coming up with AR-enabled content for schooling and off-school learning. A pilot we did for Scholastic Publications a few weeks ago had us creating three-dimensional models of a biplane, tigers, the India Gate and a windmill. This is a pretty basic example of what can be done. Some of the more advanced schools – with deeper pockets, of course – have not hesitated at all in creating virtual laboratories for chemistry, geology, etc.
What it goes to prove, I guess, is that the use of AR is not limited in scope at all. The fundamental steps themselves are simple. On the user side, the camera – whether mounted on a phone, a headset or a pair of goggles – scans the environment for a trigger object. This trigger object can be another image, a physical object, a printed letter, etc. On finding a match, it loads the multimedia content which might be a 3D object, animated or not, or a small video clip, a text-box, a website, etc.
Programming this into and scaling up the application has gotten easier with the AR Kit (for iOS) and ARCore (for Android) packs, but even otherwise, a vendor with an excellent track-record for building models should have no problem setting it up for you.
Seeing how quickly use-cases for AR have been developed in a short while, I can’t help but feel that conservative attitudes to new technologies such as these have set us back a few years already. Certainly, companies that have already embraced such solutions are pulling ahead of the rest of the pack, a just result for daring to invest in something new. As this technology matures and others like VR, MR, AI-enabled MR, etc. emerge, it reminds me of a rising tide that lifts all boats.
The caveat, unfortunately, is that the ones too closely tied to the piers of today might just find themselves too damaged to eventually catch up.