There is no doubt that the layering of interactive information over the physical world in real time — aka augmented reality (AR) — has a considerable “wow factor.” Nonetheless, IT decision makers need to take a cold hard look at augmented reality before jumping on this particular bandwagon. There are two key questions that need to be answered. First, can AR applications create real value for your customers, employees, and other stakeholders? Second, can your company overcome the significant challenges facing the relatively young AR community?
Over the past few years, the toy manufacturer Lego rolled out interactive augmented reality (AR) kiosks (a monitor and camera) in a number of retail outlets. (You can view one of the kiosks in action.) When customers hold up a Lego box set to the kiosk’s camera, a 3D image of a completed model built using the box set’s parts appears, anchored to the live video image of the customer holding the box. Rotating the box allows the customer to view the model from different angles.
Now this may seem a fairly trivial example, but it has serious implications. Back in the 1990s, when I first began teaching and writing about e-commerce interface design, I argued that one of the fundamental challenges for Web retail site designers was overcoming what I called the “sensory deprivation gap.” In a physical retail environment, we evaluate products with all our senses. On the Web, we are primarily limited to the visual, thus relying on extremely rich textual content to bridge the gap.
However, even the very simple example of the Lego kiosks alerts us to the fact that something significant is going on. While the Web offered us the ability to reach markets without geographic constraint, it came at the price of sensory reduction. AR technologies represent something new and important, the ability of digital tools to add to the sensory richness of the physical shopping experience in an unprecedented way. The kiosks let customers not just look inside the box butenvision the potential use of the product. Here’s the sixth sense: imagination.
The same principle can be applied to any product. Imagine using a mobile phone to scan the barcode on packaged chicken in a grocery store, getting back five recipes, choosing one, and automatically generating a shopping list for the remaining ingredients. Or, why shouldn’t a pair of pants in a clothing store use AR to help you choose a perfectly matching shirt? The same idea can be applied within your organizations. Imagine scanning a project room’s door to get a real-time update on project status, rather than disrupting the work going on inside by popping in and asking (or adding yet another message to the project manager’s inbox). Or imagine scanning a physical document to drill into the reference material behind it, generating a digital version of the document highlighting changes since the last revision, or calling up contact information and a real-time calendar for the document’s author.
There are many possibilities here, but the central idea remains the same: AR challenges us to think about the information content of objects — and the information relationships between objects — and enables us to leverage this information to create value in new ways.