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What is Augmented Reality? AR Benefits for Businesses

What is augmented reality featured image
What is augmented reality and how can it impact your business? Image credit: Manny Moreno.

AR is one of the most talked about new technologies in the world, but it’s also quite widely misunderstood. So what is augmented reality? More importantly, how can AR benefit businesses, especially small or local ones?

These are exactly the questions we’ll consider today.

Specifically, we’ll look at how AR works, as well as some of the most common ways businesses have used it to maximise their profits and provide awesome user experiences. But before we dive in too deep, let’s look at a broad overview of what AR is.

What is Augmented Reality?

Essentially, augmented reality allows users to enhance their surroundings (reality) visually using their phone or other device.

It does this by generating images over real life images, enhancing a person’s perception of their surroundings. This is sometimes mixed up with virtual reality (VR). The difference is that VR generates a whole new environment.

AR simply overlays new elements onto an existing environment.

Augmented reality allows users to see their surroundings with enhanced features, whereas virtual reality places the user to completely new surroundings.

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Augmented reality is an increasingly popular tool for mobile apps. Image credit: ProfileTree

History of Augmented Reality

AR is one of those technologies that feels like it has come straight out of science fiction. In fact, many people would assume that the processing power needed to overlay images onto your surroundings in real time is pretty hefty.

There is some truth to this, but in reality, things are a little bit more complicated.

Surprisingly, the first appearance of augmented reality was way back in 1968, but it wasn’t until 30 years later, in 1998, that it first made its way into the public eye, as it began being used in the entertainment industry.

The Birth of AR

In 1968 a Harvard Professor and one of his students invented the first instance of augmented reality. It was a head-mounted display device that hung from a ceiling and needed the user to wear a helmet-like device.

This generated computer graphics, and is also often seen as being one of the first instances of virtual reality (VR). It wasn’t until six years in 1974, that a larger system was made. The system was developed by Myron Krueger and was known as an ‘artificial reality’.

It used many different projectors and video cameras to emit silhouettes in an onscreen interactive environment.

In 1992 one of the earliest functioning AR systems was created for the US air force. It was used to allow personnel to operate remotely guided machinery.

Two years later in 1994 the first augmented reality theater production was produced. It used projections and video technology to show virtual objects on the stage. Dancers on the stage then seemed to dance around these objects.

The production was a great success. It was accurately called ‘Dancing in Cyberspace’, emphasising how AR seemed to be an ‘out of this world’ technology.

What is Augmented Reality? AR Benefits for Businesses 1
We hope you like our ProfileTree pet running riot on our home page! Courtesy of a Snapchat Filter…a form of AR. Image credit: ProfileTree

Modern Augmented Reality

Since the early 2000s, we’ve seen a real boom in Augmented Reality. The NFL have used it to insert virtual lines onto the field from its very popular and widely used Skycam. This has since been replicated by just about every major sports league in the world.

Volkswagen have also started to use the technology as a way to train mechanics and technicians. Their MARTA app gives technicians step by step guides to performing common fixes. This allows technicians to learn by themselves, cutting training costs.

Google also released the Google Glass. Which are designed to be a wearable AR device. These supplement the wearer’s real life environment with additional information from Google. For instance, Maps directions, or reviews from Google My Business.

Today, AR is one of the most valuable and fastest growing technologies in the world. In fact, the value of the industry has absolutely exploded in recent years:

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Augmented reality is growing in value all around the world. Image credit: Digi-Capital.com

Okay, so this all sounds very exciting. However, there’s a big difference between multinational companies like Volkswagen and Google and your average SME. How can AR benefit the little guy?

To begin answering this question, let’s dive a little deeper into how AR works.

How Does Augmented Reality Work?

Different devices use augmented reality in different ways from one another. Devices that users wear, such as the Google Glasses, bring AR to the user’s eyes directly. Other devices use cameras for apps within the device, for example Pokemon GO or Snapchat.

And finally, projectors and video equipment can be used for augmented reality. This is how the theater production of ‘Dancing in Cyberspace’ was produced.

Most often, these major AR applications are built from scratch. However, off-the-shelf AR tools are becoming more and more common.

This is important, as augmented reality experiences are difficult to build and deploy. The more convincing the experience you want to create, the more difficult this becomes. As such, you need more technical expertise and processing power.

This essentially comes down to how the overlaid AR elements respond to the real world environment. If you simply placed a static image in the user’s field of vision, this wouldn’t be particularly impressive.

When an AR element interacts with what’s real, this is where the magic starts happening.

Different Types of Augmented Reality

To explore this idea of interactivity more thoroughly, we need to look into the more technical side of how AR experiences are built and designed. Specifically, we’re going to look at the four main ways of building AR experiences. These are:

  • Marker-based AR,
  • Markerless AR,
  • Projection-based AR,
  • Superimposition-based AR.

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Marker-Based Augmented Reality

Marker-based augmented reality is probably the most commonly used method for building AR experiences. This type of AR is made to work when a camera/app is scanned over a visual marker.

The classic example of a visual marker is a QR code:

What is augmented reality
QR codes are incredibly popular for AR apps. Image credit: Markus Winkler

This code will then show examples of a real-world object on a user’s device when they scan the code. For example Coca-Cola, in theory, could set up a QR code on each of their products.

Then, when a user scans this code they can see examples of every other product Coca-Cola makes. This is a perfect advertising opportunity for a business of the size of Coca-cola.

Marker-based augmented reality is a wonderful technology because you can use it anywhere.

You can apply it to advertising, teaching in schools and even for awareness campaigns. For example in learning, students could use iPads in the classroom to scan a code/marker and it can then play an AR video.

Markerless Augmented Reality

Markerless augmented reality is a type of AR which triggers experiences without the need for a specific marker, like a QR code.

The technology uses a wide range of other technologies including GPS and other location tracking technology, built within devices to do this. For example, an AR element may be overlaid when a user goes to a specific destination, or passes an NFC device.

When combined with Google Maps, for example, we could see this technology become a greater and greater part of life.

After all, it’s potential is very powerful. For example, in the future, users could potentially go onto maps with their device’s camera and see all the different businesses and shops surrounding them. You could then click on one of them and it could show you reviews about the shop or restaurant, opening times, even what it sells.

This could make life very easy when trying to find places to eat and shop close to you.

Projection-Based Augmented Reality

Projection-based augmented reality often seems quite unusual at first. You’d have guessed right if you thought the technology uses projection, because it does. The difference is that projection-based AR can detect users’ touch and movement, allowing the projected image to interact with the world around it.

Freaky, right?

This technology projects artificial light onto surfaces. Users can then interact with the light by touching ‘buttons’ which are just projected light. The application then recognises and senses the human touch by changes and interruptions in the light stream.

Laser plasma technology can also be used in this kind of AR technology, by projecting 3D images (holograms) into the air.

Superimposition -Based Augmented Reality

Superimposition-based augmented reality is one of the most fun types of AR. Many companies have used this type of AR to help their customers feel more connected to their brand.

This type of AR replaces images fully or partially on a device by overlaying objects. For instance Ikea is one of the companies to use this type of AR. Users can place objects within their screen (usually within a room), from the Ikea catalog.

In other words, users can see how a piece of furniture would look in their room, without needing to purchase and assemble it first.

This is a great way to improve sales of a product and a fun and interactive way customers can see if they like a product without buying it. They can even compare how a variety of items would look in their room.

However, this has much more important applications, beyond simply being used to improve sofa sales. For example, superimposition-based AR is increasingly used in fields as diverse as fine art restoration and structural engineering.

Familiar AR Examples

As we noted earlier, augmented reality has been around for a lot longer than you might expect. You might be wondering, if this is the case, how come you’ve never noticed it? Perhaps before the current industry buzz around AR, you didn’t realise how common it was.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few common everyday AR applications that might have slipped under your radar.

Car Brands – In-Car Experience

Turning again to the example of the car sales industry, car manufacturers were among the first to use AR by unlocking its abilities to promote new cars. Interested customers can use AR to get the feel for different interior configurations.

In Berlin, the German Democratic Republic Museum gives visitors the experience of driving around Communist East Germany, using a modified Trabant with a HD screen in place of the wind shield.

The next prediction for the motor trade is that car makers will find a way to use augmented reality in cars themselves. Imagine directions and warnings overlaid with your actual view as you drive, or guides in your wing mirrors to help you parallel park.

Ikea – Swedish Innovation

As noted already, in 2017 Ikea created an app allowing customers to see how a sofa or a table will look in their own home. By viewing a room through a device camera and using the Ikea app, the products can be seen in place. A superb ‘try before you buy’ feature.

The app is a much more impressive AR example than a previous Ikea attempt an incredible six years ago.

The timescales involved in Ikea’s time with AR shows proves that no business can say they didn’t see the AR trend coming!

TopShop – An Early Adopter

As early as 2011 – yes, 2011 – TopShop introduced virtual changing booths allowing customers to see how a digital version of an item of stock would look being worn.

All without changing room queues or carrying bundles of clothes around.

This blurring of the lines between the products on the shelves and, say, products still in the warehouse could be very big news in the future for some retailers. Customers will increasingly be able to have an in-store experience from the comfort of their own homes.

Using Augmented Reality in the 2020s

So far, so last decade!

These days, progress in AR is largely being driven by social media sites, most notably Facebook. Not only did Facebook push AR heavily for developers in 2017, the social giant is now trialling augmented reality ads right in your news feed.

They said: “We will begin testing AR ads with some additional advertisers, such as Sephora and others in fashion accessories, cosmetics, furniture, gaming and entertainment, and we plan to roll out AR ads more broadly to other industries over the course of the year.”

Let’s keep in mind that Google has long since set out their stall with Google Lens – allowing you to read signs and identity real-world items. Meanwhile, Apple’s ARKIt for IOS, released to support the rise of AR, is well established.

Augmented Reality uses by Industry

A number of big claims are made about how AR will touch all aspects of life in the near future. You could reasonably be skeptical about this, especially as similar claims are made about so many other hot new technologies.

As a business, it’s hard to cut through this and know where it will actually make an impact.

Another way of thinking about this is that many of the examples we’ve given above relate to consumer-focused companies. These are great, but how applicable are they to B2B companies or even other organisations like NGOs?

With that in mind, let’s take a more sectoral approach to how AR can be used.

AR in Education

With the rise of technology in the classroom, it won’t be long till augmented reality finds its way into many classrooms. After all, primary schools and secondary schools in the UK have long used the likes of iPads and interactive white boards in the classroom.

Even the likes of McDonalds in the UK have brought iPads to their store for kids.

With so many schools now using technology to teach, this opens up a great space for the use of AR in the classroom. In the future, students could use applications to bring more fun into the classroom and learning.

Instead of notes being taken and shown on notes, students can now learn by themselves easier and save notes much easier with an introduction of AR in the classroom. In the COVID era, this trend is set to increase even further, as more students learn from home.

It also has the potential to bring fun into the home setting and motivate students more. When reading books, students could scan codes and other elements. This could then show facts about the topic, an educational video or even audio.

Obviously this is a much more enjoyable way to learn.

Use of AR in Retail

Retail is another sector in which there has been an AR boom. As we know, the likes of Topshop, American Apparel and Converse have benefited from using AR technology.

The use of AR in retail can be a great technique to boost sales. With more and more people using smartphones, more and more people now have access to the use of Augmented Reality.

There are many benefits to the use of AR in retail including breaking boundaries, especially with customers who speak a different language, engaging customers and many other benefits.

Tourism and AR

Similar to the ways AR can be used in education and retail, this technology can also be used in tourism. When travelling around the world finding out all the information from every destination and attraction can be hard.

That’s especially if you don’t have time to take every tour available.

With the help of AR people can learn about attractions quickly by scanning attractions. For example if a person was in Barcelona, you of course need to visit the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell.

Both attractions are filled with inspiration, having been designed by Antoni Gaudi. Tours within the Sagrada Familia and the museum within the park can easily sell out. This might even happen on the only day you’re able to visit.

This is where AR is helpful. Without a tour or getting close enough to find sign boards with information, AR can help you learn a great deal and quickly too. In other words, it is a quick and convenient way to learn about attractions.

Even before you get to a destination, AR can be helpful for researching and booking a holiday, as you are able to check out the key sites in advance, and explore everything they have to offer.

Saving Lives with AR in Healthcare

One of the most vital industries which can use this technology to its full potential is healthcare and medicine. Not only could it be helpful for professionals, it can also teach students easily.

For instance, if a student needs to learn the anatomy of a human body.

They could scan an anatomical model and the AR device could show videos of the human body, show facts or even play a quiz. All of which can be vital parts of learning.

It can also be used as part of surgeries and operations.

Surgeons and other professionals could wear a Google Glass-type device during the operation. The device could then show the professional the ideal places to perform certain tasks, which organs are where and much more.

As surgeries are taken with the help of screens and other staff.

AR could make surgeries safer by not taking the person away from the surgery to look at screens around the room. This could allow for the operation to be finished more safely by finishing the operation a little quicker, as well as reducing the risk of infections.

AR in Other Sectors

Manufacturing and real estate are two other markets where AR could improve services. Both sectors could use AR to present new products and designs to their customers or meetings. This can be used to increase early buy-in for in-depth projects.

This would be a great use of AR and it could save companies money as they wouldn’t need to make a model or a prototype for the meeting. If the product just isn’t right all that would need changed is the AR design and not the model or prototype.

Sport is another area with potential for AR. In many sports AR systems are already implemented, such as the Hawk-Eye system used in many sports especially tennis. In the future, you shouldn’t be surprised if it was brought into football and other sports.

AR can also keep people at home up to date with key information and even keep an eye on a certain player in real-time. A system that would be very similar to post-match analytics.

Augmented Reality for Businesses: Key Takeaways

Overall, there is an awful lot more to AR than simply hype. In fact, this new technology really does have the potential to touch countless different facets of business operations, sales, marketing and customer service.

The tricky thing for business owners is knowing how and where to spend their money on AR. As ever, it’s crucial to keep your bottom line in mind.

For example, a fully custom augmented reality project is probably not right for every business. Off-the-shelf solutions will typically offer considerably better ROI. As with many technical investments, your best option is generally to engage an agency for advice.

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