Augmented Reality – The Future of Work (And Everything Else)

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Earlier this week I attended an interesting talk entitled Augmented Reality (AR) and the Future of Work. Held at the Nasdaq Entrepreneur Center in San Francisco, authors Robert Scoble and Shel Israel of the futurist book, The Fourth Transformation, shared their thoughts and perspective on where this exciting technology is heading.

For readers who aren’t familiar with AR, here are a few two–dimensional demos that will give you an ideal of what it can do and provide a glimpse into its potential:

I am reminded of an episode of HBO’s Westworld, where one of the technicians was working on a “host” while wearing AR glasses. Her glasses were physically no different than those many of us wear today. While both speakers agreed that we are several years away from eyewear as sleek and attractive as portrayed in Hollywood, they were upbeat about companies that are leading us in this direction.

If the advancements in technology during the past 30 years is any indication of the future, then I believe we’re 5 to 10 years away from seeing for early adopters. This is based on my experience working on defense–related R&D projects and measuring how long it took for the technology to find its way into commercial products. Robert said he thought we were about 8 years into a 15–year technology transformation. If he’s right, then useful AR products are not that far over the horizon.

Robert and Shel spent 2 years speaking with technology leaders around the world, and they are clearly excited. Shel said that “this is the “start of the largest phenomenon ever seen!” I agree. I’m excited by the promising potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and AR. The convergence of these technologies will form the foundation for new products and services, many of which have only existed in the world of science fiction. But, as is so often the case, reality has a habit of catching science fiction!

So, what’s the hold up? If this is so exciting and promising, why aren’t companies ready to lead the charge and take us there now? Two big reasons are: price and usability. For example, I was excited when Google Glass was first announced. But at a price point of $1000, I felt that it was beyond the reach of everyone but the most dedicated hobbyists, researchers, and developers. However, we can now imagine a future where your “smart glasses” will replace your smart phones. In this future, you won’t need a computer monitor, because anything you need to see can be projected on your wearable lens or contacts. You don’t need a physical keyboard because you interact with your smart glasses using voice, gestures, or with a virtual keyboard projected in front of you. Of course, you won’t need your smart phone because everything exists in your smart glasses and earpiece.

Before smart glasses arrive, Robert believes that consumers must go through a journey. First they will move from phones to viewports on their phones and tablets, and eventually move to wearbles. This journey will accomplish two things. First, he believes it allows companies to make better products at more attractive price point and second, it gets consumers comfortable with the technology.

If you’re as excited about this technology as I am, then the next question is: what can I do with it? While I can’t pretend to know the answer to that question, one thing is for sure. Some of the potential consumer applications already exists in R&D and military labs around the world. Other applications are being developed that we’ll see in the next few years. Yet other ideas remain to be imagined.

While consumers can sit and wait for someone to develop that “killer AR app,” leading companies don’t have the luxury of waiting. As is the case with AI, companies need to be thinking about how to use AR for a competitive advantage. They need to be thinking about how to leverage AR to improve the customer experience, deepen customer relationships, improve employee training and quality, reduce risks, and manage costs.

While many businesses will focus their strategies on AR as a competitive tool, they must not overlook new risks and social implications. For example, imagine a company using a virtual AR customer service rep. Should its virtual human–like agents be diverse or homogenous? Does it matter? What if a customer doesn’t want to interact with a virtual agent of a specific gender, age, ethnicity, or race? While companies – at least in the US – cannot legally honor such requests, we must ask: do the same rules apply when dealing with virtual agents? A well–developed AR strategy will need to consider such implications. Fortunately, we will be able to leverage many of the lessons learned from the video gaming and entertainment industries.

Social implication aside, leading technology companies are ready to help developers take advantage of their latest AR platform. This summer, Apple released ARKit to help developers build AR products that will run on many current and future iPhones and iPads. Not to be left behind, this week Google announced their toolkit, ARCore that will run on the Android platform. Both offerings are good news for anyone looking to use AR and explore ways of leveraging of this exciting technology.

AR has the potential to change how we interact with technology. But more importantly, it has the potential to change the face of computing. Similar to the transformations that occurred with personal computers, the internet, and smartphones, Robert and Shel argue that AR is poised to be just as transformative. I agree and believe that the AI, ML and AR combination forms a powerful one–two–three punch that will radically transform computing, technology, and entertainment.

I’m looking forward to the seeing what’s next!

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Steve_aes-114Steven B. Bryant is a futurist, researcher, and author who investigates the innovative application and strategic implications of science and technology on society and business. He is the author of DISRUPTIVE: Rewriting the rules of physics, which is a thought–provoking book that shows where relativity fails and introduces Modern Mechanics, a unified model of motion that fundamentally changes how we view modern physics. DISRUPTIVE is available at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other booksellers!