There is a fundamental disconnect between the wealth of digital data available to us and the physical world in which we apply it. While reality is three-dimensional, the rich data we now have to inform our decisions and actions remains trapped on two-dimensional pages and screens. This gulf between the real and digital worlds limits our ability to take advantage of the torrent of information and insights produced by billions of smart, connected products (SCPs) worldwide.
Augmented reality, a set of technologies that superimposes digital data and images on the physical world, promises to close this gap and release untapped and uniquely human capabilities. Though still in its infancy, AR is poised to enter the mainstream; according to one estimate, spending on AR technology will hit $60 billion in 2020. AR will affect companies in every industry and many other types of organizations, from universities to social enterprises. In the coming months and years, it will transform how we learn, make decisions, and interact with the physical world. It will also change how enterprises serve customers, train employees, design and create products, and manage their value chains, and, ultimately, how they compete.
In this article we describe what AR is, its evolving technology and applications, and why it is so important. Its significance will grow exponentially as SCPs proliferate, because it amplifies their power to create value and reshape competition. AR will become the new interface between humans and machines, bridging the digital and physical worlds. While challenges in deploying it remain, pioneering organizations, such as Amazon, Facebook, General Electric, Mayo Clinic, and the U.S. Navy, are already implementing AR and seeing a major impact on quality and productivity. Here we provide a road map for how companies should deploy AR and explain the critical choices they will face in integrating it into strategy and operations.
What Is Augmented Reality?
Isolated applications of AR have been around for decades, but only recently have the technologies required to unleash its potential become available. At the core, AR transforms volumes of data and analytics into images or animations that are overlaid on the real world. Today most AR applications are delivered through mobile devices, but increasingly delivery will shift to hands-free wearables such as head-mounted displays or smart glasses. Though many people are familiar with simple AR entertainment applications, such as Snapchat filters and the game Pokémon Go, AR is being applied in far more consequential ways in both consumer and business-to-business settings. For example, AR “heads-up” displays that put navigation, collision warning, and other information directly in drivers’ line of sight are now available in dozens of car models. Wearable AR devices for factory workers that superimpose production-assembly or service instructions are being piloted at thousands of companies. AR is supplementing or replacing traditional manuals and training methods at an ever-faster pace.
More broadly, AR enables a new information-delivery paradigm, which we believe will have a profound impact on how data is structured, managed, and delivered on the internet. Though the web transformed how information is collected, transmitted, and accessed, its model for data storage and delivery—pages on flat screens—has major limits: It requires people to mentally translate 2-D information for use in a 3-D world. That isn’t always easy, as anyone who has used a manual to fix an office copier knows. By superimposing digital information directly on real objects or environments, AR allows people to process the physical and digital simultaneously, eliminating the need to mentally bridge the two. That improves our ability to rapidly and accurately absorb information, make decisions, and execute required tasks quickly and efficiently.
Explore Augmented Reality
AR displays in cars are a vivid illustration of this. Until recently, drivers using GPS navigation had to look at a map on a flat screen and then figure out how to apply it in the real world. To take the correct exit from a busy rotary, for example, the driver needed to shift his or her gaze between the road and the screen and mentally connect the image on the map to the proper turnoff. AR heads-up displays lay navigational images directly over what the driver sees through the windshield. This reduces the mental effort of applying the information, prevents distraction, and minimizes driver error, freeing people to focus on the road.
AR is making advances in consumer markets, but its emerging impact on human performance is even greater in industrial settings. Consider how Newport News Shipbuilding, which designs and builds U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, uses AR near the end of its manufacturing process to inspect a ship, marking for removal steel construction structures that are not part of the finished carrier. Historically, engineers had to constantly compare the actual ship with complex 2-D blueprints. But with AR, they can now see the final design superimposed on the ship, which reduces inspection time by 96%—from 36 hours to just 90 minutes. Overall, time savings of 25% or more are typical for manufacturing tasks using AR.
AR’s Key Capabilities
As we’ve previously explained (see “How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition,” HBR, November 2014), the SCPs spreading through our homes, workplaces, and factories allow users to monitor product operations and conditions in real time, control and customize product operations remotely, and optimize product performance using real-time data. And in some cases, intelligence and connectivity allow SCPs to be fully autonomous.
AR powerfully magnifies the value created by those capabilities. Specifically, it improves how users visualize and therefore access all the new monitoring data, how they receive and follow instructions and guidance on product operations, and even how they interact with and control the products themselves.
AR applications provide a sort of X-ray vision, revealing internal features that would be difficult to see otherwise. At the medical device company AccuVein, for instance, AR technology converts the heat signature of a patient’s veins into an image that is superimposed on the skin, making the veins easier for clinicians to locate. This dramatically improves the success rate of blood draws and other vascular procedures. AR more than triples the likelihood of a successful needle stick on the first try and reduces the need for “escalations” (calling for assistance, for example) by 45%.
Bosch Rexroth, a global provider of power units and controls used in manufacturing, uses an AR-enhanced visualization to demonstrate the design and capabilities of its smart, connected CytroPac hydraulic power unit. The AR application allows customers to see 3-D representations of the unit’s internal pump and cooling options in multiple configurations and how subsystems fit together.
Instruct and guide.
AR is already redefining instruction, training, and coaching. These critical functions, which improve workforce productivity, are inherently costly and labor-intensive and often deliver uneven results. Written instructions for assembly tasks, for instance, are frequently hard and time-consuming to follow. Standard instructional videos aren’t interactive and can’t adapt to individual learning needs. In-person training is expensive and requires students and teachers to meet at a common site, sometimes repeatedly. And if the equipment about which students are being taught isn’t available, they may need extra training to transfer what they’ve learned to a real-world context.
AR addresses those issues by providing real-time, on-site, step-by-step visual guidance on tasks such as product assembly, machine operation, and warehouse picking. Complicated 2-D schematic representations of a procedure in a manual, for example, become interactive 3-D holograms that walk the user through the necessary processes. Little is left to the imagination or interpretation.
At Boeing, AR training has had a dramatic impact on the productivity and quality of complex aircraft manufacturing procedures. In one Boeing study, AR was used to guide trainees through the 50 steps required to assemble an aircraft wing section involving 30 parts. With the help of AR, trainees completed the work in 35% less time than trainees using traditional 2-D drawings and documentation. And the number of trainees with little or no experience who could perform the operation correctly the first time increased by 90%.