AR makes sci-fi a reality, but it still has a long way to go
For some, Iron Man was the first exposure to the possibilities of augmented reality (AR). Now, less than a decade later, AR has begun to dominate headlines, not as science fiction, but as reality. With Apple, Google, and Microsoft all backing AR, it’s clear the technology has a ton of potential. Apple has ARKit for developers, Google has ARCore and Microsoft has its HoloLens wearable. Apple is also rumored to be developing its own AR headset.
But how far has this new technology actually progressed and what real changes has it brought? Much of what the public has seen isn’t exactly new, but variations of one thing or another. Apps like Pokémon Go and IKEA Place introduced us to the basics of AR, which allow users to anchor virtual objects in the real world, but barely scratch the surface of what’s possible.
The real potential of AR will be for it to solve some of the biggest problems we face in our daily lives, from inefficiencies in medicine to visualizing urban planning. AR will be an essential tool we use for shaping our future.
AR can revolutionize medicine
AR has the potential to drastically improve medical training. Dr. Albert Chan, chief of the digital patient experience at Sutter Health, and more than 100 of his colleagues are using AR to improve patient care and increase efficiency. According to Dr. Chan, physicians wear AR glasses during visits, which stream the interaction in real time to a scribe who can take notes. Having an extra pair of eyes enables doctors to stay more engaged during the visit and helps eliminate up to two hours spent on note-taking.
Recently, Professor Shafi Ahmed, a colorectal surgeon in the UK, used Microsoft’s HoloLens headset to broadcast a surgery so that he could collaborate with other surgeons during a live operation. One participating surgeon noted how amazing it was to see the patient’s scans and results right in front of him in AR.
Progress is being made, and while Professor Ahmed’s use of AR isn’t yet as accessible nor as optimized as it could be, Dr. Chan’s daily use of the technology paints a clearer picture of where AR’s medical applications are headed—and it’s enough to get others excited. In fact, virtual and augmented reality in the global healthcare market is expected to reach $5.1 billion by 2025.
AR can improve urban planning and transportation
Whether you drive or take an Uber to work, you’re inevitably going to be slowed down by traffic. In fact, the average U.S. commuter spends 42 hours in traffic per year. AR can help solve our traffic woes by simulating infrastructure changes on a virtual map before investing money in construction.
According to city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck, the biggest problem is that American cities were built to accommodate cars first, but that’s created a ripple effect leading to new streets and highways needing to be built that have ultimately led to increased congestion. MIT, for example, is using AR for urban modeling to visualize changes in traffic density and movements of elements among other things that can influence our decision of where and how we build.
AR’s potential impact can go far beyond urban planning and can change transportation altogether. Back in 2014, Jaguar introduced a concept car that featured screens in the A-pillars that could show drivers objects and people that would otherwise have been obscured.
Headway has also been made in the head-up display space with Navdy and Roav, which use AR to show drivers information like navigation instructions, ETA, currently playing music, phone calls, and more. All of this information is displayed on a transparent screen so drivers can keep their eyes on the road while still getting the information they want.
AR in manufacturing
Manufacturing in the United States is critical, but also highly demanding of its workers. They either require a lot of training or are constantly lifting heavy equipment around. The introduction of AR in manufacturing can help workers perform tasks more efficiently—so much so that one in three manufacturers plans on adopting VR and AR technologies by 2018 or has already done so.
Lockheed Martin, for example, is using augmented reality glasses to overlay any necessary data onto a technician’s workspace to help make assessments and perform tasks. According to Industry Week, Lockheed Martin is using AR to render images of cables, bolts, part numbers, and instructions to assemble various components. More impressively, workers’ level of accuracy has improved to 96% while working 30% faster.
Last year, ThyssenKrupp, an elevator manufacturer worth $45 billion, announced its elevator field repair workers would begin using Microsoft’s HoloLens, according to Business Insider. AR would allow field service technicians to look up pieces of an internet-connected elevator to diagnose and fix problems.
More than gimmicks
Pokémon Go may have brought augmented reality into the mainstream, but the technology is more than just a gimmick for placing virtual monsters or furniture in the real world. AR has the ability to change our world, and its effects can already be seen. It will usher in a new era of how we create, plan, learn, and interact.
We’re already seeing the positive effects of AR in the medical, manufacturing, and urban planning fields, but the true potential of AR won’t reach critical mass until technology is cheap enough to reach consumers and not just businesses—and when head-mounted displays are socially acceptable. It’s no longer a matter of if AR can change our lives, but when.