While the physical world is three-dimensional, most data is trapped on two-dimensional pages and screens. This gulf between the real and digital worlds prevents us from fully exploiting the volumes of information now available to us. Augmented reality, a set of technologies that superimposes digital data and images on physical objects and environments, is closing this gap. By putting information directly into the context in which we’ll apply it, AR increases our ability to absorb and act on it.
"AR will become the new interface between humans and machines", say Michael E. Porter of Harvard and James E. Heppelmann, the CEO of the industrial software maker PTC.
Many people are familiar with AR entertainment applications, such as Snapchat filters, but AR is being applied in far more consequential ways in business. Pioneering organizations are already implementing it in product development, manufacturing, logistics, marketing, service, and training—and are seeing major gains in quality and productivity.
AR improves how users visualize information, receive and follow instructions, and interact with products. AccuVein, for instance, uses AR technology that converts the heat signature of a patient’s veins into an image superimposed on the skin, making them much easier to locate. Boeing uses AR to show trainees how to assemble an aircraft wing—and has cut the time it takes them to do that task by 35%. At GE, factory workers have achieved a similar gain in efficiency by using voice commands in AR experiences to perform complex wiring.
AR will have a wide impact on how companies compete. This article walks readers through the questions firms need to ask when integrating it into their strategies and operations. The article also includes HBR’s first embedded AR experiences, which readers can launch by downloading a new HBR app on their mobile devices and then pointing them at targeted images in the magazine’s pages.
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.
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.