Where augmented reality is going—and why you should care
Augmented reality apps and services are already transforming the way we live and work. With 5G, that transformation may accelerate and touch even more parts of our lives.
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Utter the words augmented reality and most people conjure up images of cute Snapchat filters and Pokémon Go creatures. The ability to overlay and superimpose artificial images, animations and information over actual people and things is amusing and at times intriguing.
But there’s a serious side to augmented reality (AR). It’s being used, and has the potential to be used, in tools that handle more complex tasks, such as real-time navigation in airports, measuring body size and shape for custom clothing, designing and engineering buildings, and even detecting and battling wildfires.
In fact, AR adoption is growing at a furious rate. Market research firm Grand View Research reports that the global augmented reality market hit $25.3 billion USD in 2021 and projects that it will grow by a compound annual growth rate of more than 40% from 2022 to 2030.
“We are beginning to see AR apps and glasses expand to numerous industries and sectors of the economy,” says Liz Hyman, CEO of the XR Association, an industry group focused on the responsible development and adoption of XR technologies, which include virtual reality, mixed reality and others. “The technology is meant to enhance the everyday experience.”
5G is at the center of this technology revolution. Immersive and augmented experiences like AR require substantial bandwidth to work well. In order to deliver a rich and satisfying experience, low latency and high speed are essential. Previously, the best experiences often required a wired connection, but 5G could help change that.
Reducing complexity in a complex world
In recent years, augmented reality has crept into our lives in ways you might not always consider. For example, head-up displays in cars can show us how fast we’re driving and provide navigation aids. Using a smartphone display, it’s possible to view an AR image of a sofa or table in a physical space before buying it. In work environments, technicians use AR glasses for assembling complicated machines and components.
What makes the technology so powerful in these situations, Hyman says, is the ability to “add information to a real-world setting through overlays.” Although early attempts at smart glasses weren’t exactly successful, the technology continues to advance. What’s more, as the Internet of Things (IoT) takes shape, augmented reality is incorporating new and intriguing possibilities that potentially touch every industry.
There’s a growing desire to deploy AR in ways that greatly simplify complex processes. For example, construction firms are using the technology to overlay building information modeling (BIM) onto the construction site. This helps teams handle electrical and plumbing installations more quickly.
At the same time, the healthcare industry is turning to AR and MR in an effort to improve the quality of patient care. Physicians and other practitioners wearing smart glasses could eventually view critical data in real-time and harness artificial intelligence (AI) to guide decision-making.
And for everyday consumers? In the not-too-distant future, it might be possible to simply point a phone at food in grocery stores and see nutritional information and even details about possible allergens (like peanuts) for those with sensitivities.
AR as a tool for business
A Harvard Business Review article argues that AR generates business value in two ways: by becoming part of products, and by enhancing value chains in areas such as product development, manufacturing, marketing, customer service and technical support. AR can also aid in product differentiation, cost reduction and ongoing innovation, the report notes.
Image credit: XR Association
For businesses looking to explore or expand the use of AR, it’s essential to focus on a seamless user experience—whether that’s for customers or for employees using the tools. Hyman says that 5G can add value here as tight integration between images and data is crucial, and 5G can support faster transmission rates and higher bandwidth on the go, which can offer flexibility. This is especially useful for enhanced features and capabilities, such as indoor navigation.
In fact, when tied to multi-access edge computing, a framework that brings cloud computing resources closer to the edge of the network (and closer to the end users), 5G can help enable faster, closer-to-real-time responses. It’s far better equipped to manage that kind of performance than previous cellular technologies—which opens the door for new kinds of AR experiences.
The bottom line? Business leaders and IT strategists must begin to build out the framework to support AR, VR and MR, Hyman says. Over the next few years, AR and 5G are expected to affect all corners of the enterprise, in applications for training, quality control and process management. Building AR functions and options into consumer apps will be more and more essential.
“CIOs, CTOS and HR professionals within various sectors should already be thinking about how this technology can help train new employees and better utilize the knowledge of existing employees,” Hyman says. “It’s increasingly important to consider how it can be integrated into existing systems to maximize the speed and productivity in your line of business.”
“There is so much potential for AR—and extended reality overall—to change the way we work and live,” Hyman continues, with impacts ranging from education and training to entertainment, medicine and science. “We are sure to see more and more of our everyday experience augmented with virtual information.”