Augmented Reality

ARs history, its development and future potential

A few years ago the game development company Niantic published a smartphone game called “Ingress”. The games main goal was to join a faction, explore the world and acquire / defend portals spread all over the place. This game might sound like yet another strategy game with a “Capture the flag” flavor and no real innovation. It was not an innovation, but a revolution of its own.

You might think that you’ve never heard of or came in touch with this game, but I assure you that you have. At least to some extend. While Ingress might sound unfamiliar, “Pokémon GO” might be something you’ve heard of…
Pokèmon GO which uses the data and several parts of the Ingress game engine took the world by storm in 2016. People went crazy over this Smartphone game. Certain places in German cities were blocked, while others introduced special Pokémon GO streetcar services to enable gamers a more convenient way to “catch em all”.

Pokémon GO made it possible for kids to finally “play outside” again. Furthermore it reached another milestone in a technical sense. It introduced Augmented Reality (AR) to the masses and gave a glimpse at how mature AR is and what’s nowadays possible with it.

This post will provide more insights into the status quo of Augmented Reality. We’ll take a look at the last technological developments and figure out what ARs capabilities are. We’ll also take a look at different applications to see how customers and enterprises can benefit from the upcoming revolution this technology will introduce.

ARs past and present

The first iteration of Augmented Reality was invented in 1992 by the U.S. Air Force’s Armstrong Labs. The so-called “Virtual Fixture” system added sensory information as an overlay to the users perception of the real world. Since Virtual Fixtures made it possible to enhance the view on the world with additional, contextual information it greatly helped and improved the users attention and performance when working on different tasks during e.g. a surgery.

However Virtual Fixtures turned out to be very compute intense and therefore really expensive to operate. ARs main issue was the need for a high-resolution camera or other peripheral devices to capture information about the world which was in turn processed, and re-applied to the users point-of-view.

Early digital cameras were really expensive, had a pretty poor performance in terms of image quality and were therefore useless for Augmented Reality use cases. It took a while until the release of the first iPhone in 2007 finally disrupted the smartphone and mobile computing world. Slowly everyone who had used mobile phones in the past switched over and replaced their old devices with smartphones.

Apple was not the only company who greatly invested in smartphones and mobile technology. In 2005 Google bought the Android mobile operating system and made it publicly available in 2007 (the SDK release which allowed other developers to build applications for the Android platform followed in 2008). More and more manufacturers saw the huge potential of smartphones and entered the battleground. Such companies were always trying to beat the competition by introducing yet another design, speed or hardware improvement. Different businesses such as App development, display or system-on-a-chip companies heavily benefitted from such an arms race. Smartphones transitioned from clunky handheld devices to powerful mini-sized computers with astonishing computing power and cameras so good, that one can leave the dedicated digital camera at home (at least for the most part).

Nowadays smartphones are so powerful and ubiquitous that Augmented Reality applications are cheap to implement and distribute. Mobile hardware improvements made the mainstream adoption of Augmented Reality (lately in the form of the Pokémon GO game) possible.
Newest Smartphones such as the iPhone 8 and iPhone X include Bionic chips and other dedicated hardware, making it possible to finally produce photorealistic objects which can be mapped into the real world in realtime. Photorealisticity is one of the last missing pieces to accelerate mainstream adoption of Augmented Reality since it greatly improves the overall user experience.

All those hard- and software improvements are great, but what industries will be transformed by Augmented Reality? What use-cases can be covered and how would an AR-driven world look like?

Showcases

The following are some example showcases to illustrate how Augmented Reality has evolved over the last couple of years to become a serious threat to established businesses. Some of these ideas are already underway, while others are still in a Research & Development phase.

Virual Fitting

Thanks to the wide adoption of the internet, e-commerce found its way into the mainstream. Customers slowly transitioned to a “try to buy it online first” approach, saving them time and headaches usually associated with shopping in local stores.

Unfortunately shopping online comes with a few shortcomings:

“Would that shirt suit me?”
“Am I too pale to wear those pants?”
“Is M the right size for my athletic shape?”

Many e-commerce shops introduced generous return policies to convince online-shoppers to order different sizes, keep the ones which fit best and return the ones which doesn’t work out. While this is a very convenient way for customers it introduces huge downsides for the online shops.

Every return costs real money. Distribution and especially logistics are a hard part to get right in the businesses value chain. Having generous return policies negatively accelerates problems in such domains.

What if one could virtually try on the clothes and see if the colors match the style. What if the fitting of the clothes can be checked without actually trying them on?

Augmented Reality is the solution for those problems. Thanks to photorealistic imaging, AR technology can show how clothes would look like when wearing them just like they do when seeing them in front of the mirror. The smartphones powerful hardware makes it even possible to calculate which size would be ideal for the given body shape.

However clothes are not the only use-case for “Virtual Fitting”. Imagine the furniture market. Wouldn’t it be great to see how the new sideboard would look like next to the Box-spring bed? AR got you covered and lets you browse and test through the whole catalogue of different furniture your retailer offers.

A vibrant city

Nowadays strangers discover most cities through tools such as Facebook, Google Maps or Yelp. New restaurants or bars open up a Facebook page which shows where they are located, what food / services they offer and what other users have to say about their experience visiting such places.

The only downside is that discovery is still cumbersome. Even with map technology it’s sometime too hard to locate the restaurant in the city and make a decision where to eat lunch or drink a cup of coffee.

What if one can pull out the phone, open up the camera and see all the different restaurants with all its ratings and service offerings nearby. Locations could be virtually discovered and decisions where the best “in-reach” Almond-Latte could be found would be low-effort. Furthermore navigation to those places could be even more streamlined, thanks to mixing of real-world imaging with navigational data.

Wikitude was one of the first location-based Augmented Reality apps, which made it possible to discover the world through the smartphones camera. Unfortunately Wikitude was far ahead of its time in 2008 and pivoted to offer the Wikitude SDK. A framework to utilize image recognition and geolocation technologies.

The interactive menu

Ever sat at a restaurant not knowing which dish to pick?

We’ve all been there couple of times given the sheer amount of different food one can order. Augmented Reality is a great way to help us in that case. Imagine that you can use your phone, point it to the menu and simply swipe through all the different dishes, seeing what they’d look like if ordered.

Photorealistic imagery makes it a no-brainer to decide which food to order. Especially since one can see the “actual delivery”, rather than reading through some fancy prose, trying to figure out what’s going on.

Can’t imagine how this could look like? Here’s an example which shows such an AR-driven menu. This app called “Kabaq” for example was implemented with the help of iOS ARKit.

Kapaq - Augmented Reality Food

Real-world Tetris

The cargo industry is huge. Everyday tons of different goods are shipped across the globe via truck, train, ship or airplane.

Given the scale of this business it’s possible to save millions of dollars if only a small fraction in the processes of its value chain can be optimized.

One such optimization opportunity is the way airplanes are loaded.

Deloitte took this problem at heart and worked on a strategy to figure out the optimal packaging strategy when loading airplanes.
Their solution for this problem are Augmented Reality powered glasses, which take images of the real-world as an input and calculate how the given packages are optimally loaded onto the airplane. Those spots are then displayed in the glasses lenses so that the workers can see where the cargo should go. Streamlining the whole process greatly reduced the workers cognitive overhead, making the loading of airplanes super efficient, while heavily reducing error-rates.

Additional gamification elements kept the workers excited, while increasing the overall job satisfaction.

Here’s a link to the interview with Jay Samit, where he talks about this project and the enormous potential of Augmented Reality in general.

Conclusion

Augmented Reality is a technology which dates back to the early 90s where it was developed at the U.S. Air Force’s Armstrong Labs to enhance a users perception and therefore help with different tasks such as surgeries.

While AR used lots of processing power and could only produce a stationary, semi-realistic visual experience it’s the rapid development of todays mobile technology which makes it more and more attractive. Modern smartphones have great hardware such as high resolution cameras, ultra fast processors or dedicated Bionic chips, finally making it possible to have a fully equipped AR-ready device in our pocket.

The super hyped Pokémon Go smartphone game showed what’s already possible with todays Augmented Reality technologies. But there’s more than that. AR in it’s current state has the potential to be a trillion dollar market and disrupt several industries, whether it’s virtual fitting of clothes and shoes at home or the optimization of cargo loading thanks to AR powered “Real-world Tetris” games.


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