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Augmented reality deserves our attention

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Virtual reality (VR) is a hugely exciting technology with the potential to change the way people interact with one another and with services. We’re already starting to see what can be achieved, while films such as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One do a great job at whetting our appetite for what’s to come.

However, sister technology augmented reality (AR) could play a bigger role in our immediate future.

Whereas VR places users into a virtual world, AR changes, or adds to, the real world. And it’s this real-world advantage over VR that gives AR so many practical uses in our day-to-day lives.

AR isn’t exactly new technology, dating back to 1992 when the US Air Force’s Virtual Fixture was developed. Virtual Fixture relied on custom-built hardware, but skip forward a quarter of a century, and many of us have everything we need to experience AR in our pocket.

The huge success of smartphone game Pokemon Go familiarised much of the world with AR – the app has been downloaded more than 750 million times. Via your phone’s screen Pikachu, Squirtle and the game’s other fantastical monsters can be seen wandering your streets. The goal? To catch them all.

It’s not only monster hunters who’ve been exposed to AR, with Snapchat users likely to have taken many an AR selfie, even if they didn’t know it was AR that turned their pouting face into a cat.

Pokemon Go and Snapchat are great fun, but what about tools which will bring a real benefit to the user? A few years ago, a video titled Hyper Reality showcased a vision of an augmented future. You can see it for yourself below:

I’m sure you’d agree we don’t want to live in a world quite as chaotic as that portrayed, but pared back there are things which could prove useful.

Take the augmented guidance system and shopping experience. This is something which London-based Dent Reality has realised with Retail AR.

Dent Reality claims Retail AR “can improve the customer experience and boost sales by surfacing product details, displaying spatial information and navigating customers to relevant areas”.

A video posted by creator Andrew Hart quickly went viral, and it’s easy to see why.

Impressive stuff, which could be accessible to millions of smartphone users without needing to buy new hardware.

The IKEA Place app for iPhone and iPad is also a fantastic example of how AR can offer something VR can’t. With the app, users can place virtual IKEA products into their home, allowing them to see how something looks before dangerously overloading their car with flat pack furniture.

Earlier this year Direct Line turned to AR to target commuters at King’s Cross with its Emergency Plumber campaign. Commuters could see themselves in a bathroom suite which was virtually imposed on the station. The idea was to showcase how fast a water leak can damage a home.

There are many ways AR could be used in the insurance industry, benefiting the customer both directly and indirectly. From the business side, field agents equipped with a smartphone and app could assess damage using an augmented reality overlay of the car, enabling accurate measurements of the damage. A streamlined process could result in a faster turnaround for claims, thus improving the customer experience.

Taken one step further, customers could be given similar tools, potentially removing the need for field agents to assess the damage.

AR could also work as a great educational tool for customers. How about walking around your car with your phone to see augmented demonstrations on how to perform certain tasks. This could include all manner of general car maintenance, such as checking the oil and tyre pressure, to more advanced skills like charging a flat battery.

If you get a puncture and need to change a tyre, an AR breakdown app could provide the visual guidance you need to get it done yourself. For a breakdown business like Green Flag, this could reduce the number of callouts.

Similar educational tools would work in the home, highlighting potential dangers and also offering guides on how to carry out general home maintenance.

Moving away from using the mobile phone, augmented reality car windscreens have been in development for several years. Back in January 2017, Panasonic and Renault demonstrated an AR windscreen prototype. It was able to display information usually found on the dashboard, but also provide smarter functionality such as highlighting cars which are changing lanes - making potentially hazardous actions easier for the driver to spot.

Toyota has also patented an AR windscreen technology, able to perform advanced spatial awareness calculations, such as lane positioning.

Mass-market wearable AR also feels like it’s just around the corner. Google has already had one attempt with Google Glass. Widely labelled a failure when the project was shut down in 2015, it will most likely go on to be seen as an important stepping stone to the widespread use of AR.

Not only is Google Glass back, but a host of other wearable AR devices are arriving. At the high-end, there’s Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Magic Leap One, costing several thousand pounds. However, products such as Mira Prism promise the AR headset experience at a fraction of the cost – around £150.

Wearable AR would enable an “always-on” augmented life, without the need to hold a smartphone in front of your face. Imagine a time when everyone had augmented vision – say through a smart contact lens – opening up ways of solving problems which aren’t currently possible.

Take Direct Line’s Smart Crossing, a feat of real-world engineering which can change road markings by detecting differences between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. An LED road surface can adapt the crossing’s markings and signals to keep users safe.

Rolling out such a system of crossings nationwide would be extremely costly, but in a world where everyone had augmented vision, the dynamic crossing could appear as an augmentation.

We’re certainly years, possibly decades, away from reaching this point, but advancements in AR present many industries with exciting opportunities to solve everyday problems.

In the battle for dominance between VR and AR, perhaps it’s not Player One who’s ready, but Player Two.