Over the past couple of years, augmented reality (AR) has moved from science fiction into daily life. The most prominent example may be last year's Pokemon Go craze, but the potential uses of overlaying visual data in a real-world environment are showing up in a variety of ways. Microsoft's HoloLens, Google Glass and Apple (with its new plans for AR) all point to the speed with which the technology is advancing.
Although AR has until now been largely aimed at consumer applications and games, it has already shown promise in some business and enterprise settings: Doctors are overlaying clinical data during consultations and surgery; trainings are being offered for a remote audience; field service workers can access data and schematics while away from headquarters; and customers can get remote support to make repairs on their own, guided by an expert.
As AR becomes more prominent and widespread, it will become an increasingly valuable -- and ultimately necessary -- component of enterprise apps. So IT departments and enterprise developers need to start thinking now about how best to integrate AR and capitalize on its potential.
Apple doubles down
One major reason to get moving is that Apple has made a big commitment to incorporating AR into iOS 11, which will be released this fall. Unveiled at its worldwide developers conference in June, Apple's ARKit makes developing AR apps far simpler than other platforms. It also makes iOS the dominant AR solution, because AR will be embedded in millions of iOS devices once iOS 11 is released -- and doesn't require specialized hardware.
Not only will this make iOS the leading AR platform, but given the prominent role it already plays in the enterprise, it will make iOS the single best enterprise AR option. With ARKit easing the development process, AR will be a natural feature for many enterprise apps. Simply by telegraphing its plans, Apple has already significantly raised awareness of the technology.
Give workers access to information on the spot
One of the biggest advantages of the modern-day mobile ecosystem is that it allows instant access to information of all sorts, anywhere, at any time. AR extends this advantage by displaying key information in a highly contextual way. This has immense and broad potential. A surgeon, for instance, can see scan data, anatomical diagrams, vital signs and other critical information without looking away from a surgical field; plumbers, electricians, technology installers and general contractors can view architectural plans and other diagrams of a building, guiding their work while knowing exactly what's within the walls; repair technicians can get instant access to diagrams or photos of the equipment they're servicing, as well as remote advice in realtime; and architects, fashion designers, landscapers, interior designers, and event planners can more easily help clients visualize projects.
It's important to remember that for AR to be effective, it must deliver real and actionable value. AR should be added as an enterprise app component thoughtfully, not in a way that appears gimmicky.
Don't get cute
As with any new technology, there will be a rush to build AR into new and existing apps. That rush will almost certainly include apps that have AR simply because it's the latest thing, not because it delivers value or engagement. These apps make an initial splash, then often fall into disuse and/or get deleted quickly. Adding AR to an enterprise app strategy needs to be done thoughtfully and, like every app initiative, should be undertaken with input from all stakeholders, particularly targeted users, to ensure it delivers value and, equally important, fits into existing workflows.
Remember customer engagement
Beyond internal-only enterprise apps, AR offers new ways to engage current and potential customers or clients. Apple demonstrated this very effectively at WWDC by showcasing an app from IKEA that allows users to see exactly what pieces of furniture will look like in their homes. This may appear a simple or basic feature, but it will prove incredibly useful to IKEA customers and encourage them not just to pick a single piece of furniture but to explore additional pieces or products. This example can be applied to a wide variety of retail operations.
AR also opens up new customer support options, since representatives can now see the problems a user is having and display or even demonstrate the actions needed to resolve them. It's an extention of the approach used in technical support via remote access/desktop that brings such support into the real world and far beyond PC or other device troubleshooting. AR can also open new opportunities in customer education by delivering data -- including information and media -- directly into real-world contexts. This can include a new generation of digital marketing and ads, all of which can be delivered in a variety of public and private locations. Such engagement in public venues, particularly through the use of real-time notifications based on location services, can even deliver a highly engaging form of gamification.
Capitalize on popular AR games and apps
Pokemon Go highlighted a number of ways businesses could capitalize on the location-based nature of the game. As ARKit and other platforms proliferate, more AR games and apps such as social media, navigation and others will begin to integrate AR features. Many are likely to support links to outside apps via APIs. Even apps that don't encourage such broad integration can be used for business, à la Pokemon Go. AR apps can offer businesses various ways to capitalize on such apps, directly or indirectly. As a result, this type of app linking should be part of a company's app strateg,y as well as its social media and marketing strategy -- highlighting the need for IT to maintain a close working relationship with other parts of the organization.
Attract, and keep, new employees
Another value of AR -- or any exciting and emerging technology -- is that its use likely makes a company more attractive to employees because it demonstrates a forward-thinking approach. This should translate into increased employee satisfaction, leading to greater employee retention and making a company more attractive to prospective hires. Understanding the possibilities of AR and how it can disrupt business can go help reinforce that company leaders are thinking about the future.
Build political capital for IT
Every IT project requires some measure of political will or support from within the IT department, from executives, and from line-of-business managers. Demonstrating effective leadership and delivering notable value are key ways to build that capital. Demonstrating these capabilities using new technologies builds political capital significantly and it generates excitement about what IT can deliver. This in turn generates excitement and interest in what else IT is doing and can open doors to additional support, cooperation and funding.
Ultimately, AR has the potential to completely transform the way we see and interact with the world around us. Businesses that acknowledge this and move quickly to embrace the technology will be well-positioned to ride this wave and capitalize on this transformation whether it's implemented it on smartphones, tablets, wearables or headsets -- or all of the above.