Augmented Reality: Enabling Learning Through Rich Context

By John Hagel and John Seely Brown,

In his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” Neal Stephenson envisioned the Metaverse: a three-dimensional manifestation of the Internet in which people interact and collaborate via digitally-constructed avatars. In the decades since, technology has advanced to the point where such a place no longer seems like science fiction.

Stephenson’s Metaverse is a virtual reality space, a completely immersive computer-generated experience whose users have minimal ability to interact with the real world. In contrast to this fictional vision is today’s burgeoning field of augmented reality (AR), a technology that superimposes visual information or other data in front of one’s view of the real world.

One of the most well-known AR technologies, Google Glass, projects data onto the upper right corner of the wearer’s glasses lens, creating a relatively seamless interaction between that information and reality. Today, such technologies tend to get noticed for either their novelty value or their role in privacy concerns. In the longer term, they can have tremendous potential to change the way we interact with our technology and with each other.

When Google Glass was first released, many analysts focused on its potential to change the way media was created and consumed, viewing it essentially as a head-mounted smart phone. Since then, some people have reacted negatively to use of a device that can constantly film one’s surroundings or relay social media to the wearer in the middle of a conversation. When the devices were used in ways deemed intrusive, users sometimes received negative reactions from others. While the circumstances surrounding these instances of intrusive use may be considered controversial, they seem to have contributed to limiting AR’s potential as an integrated social media tool, at least for the time being.

Perhaps in reaction, the focus on AR has shifted to its role in business—its ability to supplement workers’ perceptive abilities, enhancing efficiency. AR-enabled headsets have shown promise as real-time data translation tools, which can reduce the need for offsite data recording and tabulation. DAQRI Industrial 4D, for example, has developed an AR-integrated hard hat that can superimpose data across the wearer’s field of view for a variety of industrial applications. (DAQRI presented their technology at Techonomy 2014.) Workers can view instructions or maintenance/performance records for a particular piece of equipment, without having to process or reference the information on a separate device. By presenting data in context and in real time, AR has helped make data use less an actuarial process and more a source of immediately actionable information—a kind of conversation.

Generally, the conversational aspect of AR is a fairly recent focus. Many of the use cases exploring the technology’s potential value have to do with streamlining repetitive actions. Improving supply chain processes, reducing waste, and increasing operational efficiency are priorities for most organizations, and AR can help give some companies a substantial edge. From real-time inventory management to maintenance records, AR technologies provide greater detail and more supporting data, which can improve both efficiency and accuracy.