A New 'Reality'?

How often do times of crisis prove to be a catalyst for technological innovation? In this post, Rich Pilling, Service Line Leader for Data Insights & Resident Futurologist at Cloudreach, considers how current global events could lead to augmented reality technology finding its time to shine!

Since the first time I tried on Google Glass, in 2013, I have been intrigued by AR. I’ll admit, seeing information floating in my vision was initially disconcerting, but then I found it compelling. To have it presented to me as and when I needed it was a revelation.

My interest in the technology advanced even further when, a couple of years ago, I visited an innovative company in West London. Their CEO showed me what they had been doing using Microsoft’s Hololens to model their hybrid engines in 3D. It blew me away! I just knew that this technology would soon have it’s time to shine.

I believe that this time is fast approaching, due to the combination of several technologies coming to market, and one almighty world event.

Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality & Mixed Reality

But first, let’s take a step back to explain what AR, VR, and even MR, for that matter, actually is. There lots of subtleties here, but the sake of brevity, here’s a summary:

  • Virtual Reality is complete immersion in a digitally rendered reality, using a headset that reacts to your movements and replicates these movements in the digital space. It’s becoming increasingly popular in the gaming world, and VR is great for games where you don’t have to walk around since you can’t see (the real world) outside of the headset at all.
  • Augmented Reality is digitally rendered content overlaid onto your normal vision. You can see where you are walking and what you are doing but with information added to your field of view, enhancing your knowledge of a situation. It’s your own personal HUD.

There is a third term: Mixed Reality. However, this is more of a subset of AR, where the digital and real-world objects interact with each other. In this, you might hear of Digital Twins. These are mathematical simulations of a real-world object, that accurately model how it reacts in real-time whilst receiving inputs from the real world. They are used to help with designing or understanding complex systems. The idea initially came from NASA’s need to model the behavior of space capsules. They created digital twins to mirror and diagnose problems occurring in orbit.

The future is remote

Ok, school is done, let's start talking about changing the world. In a 451 Research survey conducted in March 2020, 38% of enterprise businesses stated that working from home will be a permanent policy once the pandemic has passed. Similarly, a Gartner survey of CFO’s showed 74% will be keeping portions of their workforce as remote employees long-term or permanently. 

When you abstract ‘work’ from a specific geographic location, it has a huge impact on society. The 2020 pandemic is forcing this change quicker, and pushing it over a tipping point - as more and more people become used to, and then require, remote working to be the standard modus operandi.

Imagine then, the impact on commercial real estate in cities. Many businesses will no longer need big, expensive offices in city centers, and this reduced cost burden will become a competitive advantage in their market, driving others to do the same. For face-to-face meetings, they will hire meeting rooms on an ad-hoc basis, closer to where the attendees are based.  With demand dropping for central offices, property prices will fall in those areas, and transport demand will too. In fact, 22% of the CFO’s in the Gartner survey already have, or are about to, cut real-estate expenses - and that's just the beginning! Business districts will eventually be very different, and possibly a thing of the past. This will then affect the people whose jobs cannot be done remotely.

This also has an impact on large events. Remote conferences, for example, will become increasingly de rigueur. O'Reilly has already moved permanently to an online-only conference business, and Facebook has said that all of its large events are online only until at least the middle of 2021.

Once people are freed up from living in places simply because of proximity to jobs, they can move to somewhere more desirable. If more people move to the countryside, the coast, or somewhere sunny, property prices will change there too. This will also impact on tourism, as people are freed to live or work anywhere - why not work when you’re traveling? (This is something we already do, and encourage at Cloudreach).

As this idea becomes mainstream, it could make for some complicated legal and tax headaches. People could move to countries with more friendly tax regimes, or companies employ people in lower-cost parts of the world, with the only real limitations on location being the time-zone you’re in (since it dictates the cadence of your workday) and how good the broadband is. Is Globalisation 2.0 nigh upon us? Food for thought there.

AR in a post-office world

But, I digress... back to how AR fits into all of this. As well as all the existing uses for AR, such as assisted maintenance, mapping (GIS), etc, there will be emergent uses for it in the ‘post-office’ business world.

Good communication is a mixture of words, tone, and body language. All three are needed to get the full message and context across. With remote working, there is an increasing need to communicate with clarity more than ever, since text alone doesn’t cut it, and video calls lack the depth and vibrancy of reality. This is driving the need for compelling “in the room” experiences, both in work and personal lives.

This is where AR starts to shine. You can bring the meeting room to you with all of the rich context and tone of a real-world meeting, and none of the drawbacks. AR meeting rooms, with your colleagues all talking around the table, with shared AR whiteboards, even AR screens to conference-in those who are stuck in the old, 2D world.

Our partners are already bringing the technology needed for this to market. Microsoft’s Hololens is providing ways of working that were mere pipe-dreams until recently. AWS’s Sumerian is enabling businesses to easily create virtual applications for AR and VR (shop fronts for e-commerce, for example). And of course, Google Glass is moving more into the enterprise space as time moves on.

Once AR becomes widely adopted in one aspect of people’s lives, the ubiquity and usefulness will enable it to flourish in all other aspects of life.

A technological step-change

Step changes happen when several emerging or existing technologies are brought together, in a new way, to form something greater than the sum of their parts. Let’s look at three such technologies: 5G, ML/AI advisory systems, and Lidar, and their impact on AR.

The first two are probably familiar terms, but the third, less-so: Lidar is routinely used on autonomous cars to sense objects around the vehicle, and now Apple has added Lidar to its latest iPad. This is telling, since Apple often tests out new technology in one product line, before bringing it to all of them, and frequently it’s a precursor for new product lines. In this case, I believe it’s ultimately destined for their rumored AR glasses.

So let’s have a look at what happens when you bring these together in AR:

  • Lidar, for sensing the world around you, gives the AR system 3D depth perception.
  • ML for processing inputs, prioritizing and providing recommendations, and limiting information overload to an AR wearer.
  • 5G for enabling untethered bandwidth in a data-anywhere world.

Always connected, always with you, always helping.

As an example, imagine its use in retail. We would see the rise of the AR showroom, rather than a physical store or just a flat webpage. See how that new sofa looks in your living room as you walk around it. Or see how those new clothes look on you in the mirror in your own home. Or that new sports car you’ve been wanting.  You could watch it drive up to your house and park in your garage, and then take a look inside. As a way of heightening desire in prospective customers, it’s a seller's dream, and for the AR user, it provides personalization and the ability to ‘try before you buy’. There are plenty of uses in all fields - from assisting in surgery to helping hone your sports skills - the world is your digital oyster.

But for all this to work, what has to happen behind the curtain? The visual data being collected and transmitted needs to be processed, enriched, and analyzed - often in near real-time; the lidar information also needs to be processed and mapped out; The ML recommender systems need to use all of this, combined with other data sources such as GPS, to give you timely feedback in your AR rig - all through a streamlined application UI (that is not distracting or overwhelming). All of these are problems that Cloudreach already solves for customers. We can get you prepared for this oncoming new world of amazing AR experiences - and all of this done at large scale, with varying demand, and on low latency, high bandwidth networks (sounds like you need to reach for the Cloud to me!)

AR is also the gateway to future technologies, such as authentication using iris patterns to unlock physical devices, as well as online objects or payments. Also, why have a big screen TV cluttering up your room when you have a display as big or small as you want in your vision? And, when combined with a Lidar sensed and AR visualized virtual keyboard, why do you need a tablet or a laptop? Other than for lugging a strong processor, a wifi/5G data link, and battery around. But you already have a device in your pocket that can do all of that - and they are getting more efficient and more powerful year on year.

Another step forward?

For fun, let's get the crystal ball out, and try to see what’s a bit further down the road, since AR is merely a stepping stone towards something more distant, and yet more interesting. For example, when combining AR with thought-sensing technology for input, and retina projection contact lenses for a display, we find that brain/computer interaction is getting ever closer, perhaps to a point where there will one day be a direct connection, and AR is now the operating system which connects us all together. Though we’re now straying into the world of neural-laces - a world of cyborgs and sci-fi. Perhaps that is best left for a future blog post, once I've finished Half-Life: Alyx

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post, and it’s opened your mind to the possibilities coming down the road towards us. Look out for a follow-up article from Hatim Abdalla, with a deeper dive into the world of AR digital experiences.

Be seeing you… in the post-pandemic augmented world!

Rich leads our Data Insights practice at Cloudreach. For more information on how Cloudreach can help you prepare your business to capitalize on future advances in Data & Analytics, Machine Learning, and Augmented Reality, click here.

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