Augmented reality’s gradual progression

Most of the applications business users might run on their smartphones will be cut-down versions of existing apps. But there are applications that use the unique qualities of the devices to deliver functionality that would be impossible on other platforms.

Augmented reality, where pertinent information is layered over an image of the physical world, is one example for which smartphones with built-in cameras are the ideal platform. And while it is mostly a consumer technology, it does have some business uses, as Information Age explored in its October 2009 feature ‘Life enhanced’.

Maarten Lens-FitzGerald is general manager and co-founder of Layar, the Dutch company behind the augmented reality browser of the same name. The penetration of Layar’s particular technology is poised to explode: the company recently signed deals with various device makers, meaning that a third of all augmented reality-capable smartphones will ship with the browser pre-loaded.

Lens-FitzGerald says that new applications for the technology in a work environment are emerging every day.
Recently, for example, the fire department in Amsterdam used the Layar browser to build an app that allows firemen to see the risks associated with a given building just by pointing their mobile devices towards it. “If there’s a big explosion and they have go in, they quickly want to know if there is a lot of gas stored in there or if the structure is unsafe,” Lens-FitzGerald explains.

The technology is still developing, however, and there are some potential applications that it cannot yet support. An important example for businesses is locating objects within a store or warehouse.

This is because today’s augmented reality systems use global positioning system coordinates to pinpoint locations. They can therefore be used to locate buildings or cars with GPS systems, but not small objects and not to an accuracy of less than a metre.

In time this will change, however, Lens-FitzGerald says. “Indoor positioning is one of the holy grails for augmented reality, and lots of people are working on it.”

He compares the development of the technology to the evolution of the web, where an ecosystem of developers gradually built a sophisticated and powerful platform. “At the beginning of the web you couldn’t even centre a title on a web page, and yet together we built a great medium. It’s the same with augmented reality.”

As the managing director of a business himself, Lens-FitzGerald acknowledges that giving employees the very latest smartphones is not always an appropriate strategy. “They are expensive appliances,” he says.

But he nevertheless advises that organisations try to keep pace with the development of smartphone technology. “Companies should find a way to get employees to use all the modern tools, because that helps them innovate and grow with whatever is possible, instead of staying put,” he says.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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Augmented Reality