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AR use cases gain ground due to COVID-19, maturing tech

AR technology is growing beyond technical instruction, helped by work-from-home mandates and maturing technology.

From face filters to Pokémon Go, consumers are becoming more familiar with augmented reality technology and its value -- but a growing portfolio of AR use cases is also gaining traction in the enterprise.

AR is an interface that overlays digital information such as text or images onto the physical environment. In the enterprise, AR use cases in manufacturing and engineering to repair parts on expensive machinery gained ground during the COVID-19 pandemic. But other enterprise AR use cases such as for HR training or for customer engagement are also making headway.

Tech giants like Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple are pushing their way into the market, looking to build the next generation of AR tools and programs, according to Gartner senior principal analyst Tuong Nguyen. In March, for example, Microsoft released a preview of its Microsoft Mesh, a collaboration platform for employees that mixes AR and virtual reality together.

In this Q&A, Nguyen said as AR use cases grow and as the technology to enable AR matures, companies will see the gap between the physical and digital worlds shrink.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic driven the rise of AR?

Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst, GartnerTuong Nguyen

Tuong Nguyen: I would say the pandemic has been another enormous boon for this industry. It's put the value proposition for AR front and center for users and IT buyers. Before, when you were trying to sell AR, you had to make that business proposition: 'Look, here's the benefit, you can do things remotely, you can see the unseen, you can do things digitally without touching it physically.' And the buyer would be like, 'Why, when we can do all those things [physically]?' But, in a time when we can't, it becomes a little bit clearer, and that value proposition will carry on beyond the pandemic. You can help someone repair a piece of equipment when normally you would call and they would say, 'I'm on this jobsite, I won't be able to fly out there for another three days,' and my task gets put off for three days. Now, they can remotely dial you in, you can draw on my screen, show me how to do things and we're off and running.

Facebook announced it is working on AR glasses and Apple is working on an AR headset. They're new entrants to the market, so what does this say to you about how AR use cases are maturing?

Nguyen: These are all steppingstones, and I think that announcements and introductions from companies like Facebook and Apple will be important milestones in moving us toward our goal -- spreading, evangelizing the benefits of this solution. Similar to smartphones and computing, someone had to go out there and say, 'This is why you want a tiny computer in your pocket or purse.' Apple did that really well with the introduction of the iPhone. That's what I expect to see from Apple and Facebook and whoever else is doing this -- to start introducing this to the consumer and the enterprise market and saying, 'Look, this is why this is the next era of interfaces and computing.'

Should CIOs and IT professionals be seriously looking at AR use cases in 2021?

Nguyen: It depends on the application. Within the enterprise, which is where we see more of the adoption and maturity happening, there are certain industries that are benefiting from it more than others. I will delineate it in the following way: frontline workers versus information workers. I am an information worker; I spend about 10 hours a day at my desk hammering away. Whereas frontline workers, they're not in front of a desk, and they're using one or both hands to do something, fix something, assemble something, pack something, etc. AR is benefiting frontline workers more, and it's typically [benefiting] ... capital asset-intensive industries -- oil and gas, energy and utilities, manufacturing, those types of industries where you have really expensive machinery. In the past, companies were willing to fly you around the world because you're one of the two people who can fix this [expensive machine]. They'll put that bill up [against] $10,000 to $20,000 [for AR] because that's a drop in the bucket in terms of the investment they made or the productivity loss due to that. In short, IT leaders are adopting [AR], but within those certain parameters.

Where are you finding the most exciting AR use cases in the enterprise?

Nguyen: Exciting to me is something that is applicable and shows value. So, exciting to me are procedural tasks and situational videos. It's exciting because this is what we see enterprises adopting it for.

A procedural task means task itemization. Let's say I have a [packing order] because I work in a warehouse, AR delivers me that information. I'll give you a hypothetical situation. I have on a headset, and my job is to go around the warehouse to pick certain things and put them in a box. Now I get the information delivered to me on demand. Or maybe it's a procedure for you to repair something; [AR] gives you the instructions. Whether you are a veteran at it or newer, it doesn't hurt to have that little reminder on your screen to say, OK, step one, two, oh, did you forget step three because you've been working a 12-hour shift?' That's procedural tasks.

Situational video is 'see what I see.' I'm on site, I call you, it's either wait three weeks for you to come out or you can look through my video. It's kind of like a FaceTime but with perks because it's augmented reality. Now you're looking at the same thing I am, and you start to draw on my screen from 3,000 miles away. They say, 'This is a thing you should be looking at, I just circled it in red. Rotate it 180 degrees clockwise and then replace it with the following.'

Those are the two use cases and you're seeing it being used for many things -- guidance, maintenance, repairs, collaboration, inventory management, etc. That's what organizations are deploying, and that's what I'm excited to see more of. It's still new, so everyone is still toe in the water. I'm excited to see more organizations recognize the benefit, but also recognize that this is the future. This is how people will interact with the world.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington Star-News and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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