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AR headsets: 5 tips to get you started

Still in their adolescence, augmented reality headsets are poised for a growth spurt. Will you be ready? Here are some tips for a successful deployment.

Augmented reality headsets are cool, for sure -- but they are far more than that. Many companies are finding them to be key productivity enablers, especially for technical and remote staff.

"I can support workers in a Middle East country remotely for training. It will be like we are standing right there with them," said Jason Lalli, vice president of Encotech, a Pittsburgh-based group of companies focusing on environmental remediation. Encotech is giving Epson AR headsets to its field specialists, who must install and repair a variety of machinery at far-flung customer facilities such as wastewater treatment plants.

Jason LalliJason Lalli

In contrast to a virtual reality (VR) headset, which completely replaces a user's field of vision with an immersive display, an AR headset adds virtual elements to what the user is seeing in real time. When in need of guidance, workers like Encotech's receive valuable information such as parts illustrations and repair directions as they work. Otherwise, they would have to pore over a printed manual or eyeball a tablet or smartphone screen while attempting to perform work at a remote site.

Michael PorterMichael Porter

"Today's interfaces separate the physical from the digital worlds. We need interfaces that are in tune with the physical world," said Michael Porter, professor at Harvard Business School, who spoke at the 2019 MIT CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. By burdening users with the task of shifting back and forth between 2D interfaces and the 3D world, users suffer from what he called "cognitive distance," which taxes the brain and tends to decrease workers' capability and accuracy. In contrast, AR interfaces bring 2D and 3D into harmony. "It's having an enormous and growing impact on work. It's the most natural way to deliver information to front-line worker," Porter explained, adding, "It will make factory work cool again."

Tuong NguyenTuong Nguyen

Even so, AR technology is far from mature. "We're in the adolescence of the technology. The potential hasn't been realized yet," said Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at Gartner. "We see a lot of hype around it. Industries should understand that it will take five to 10 years before it reaches the mass market," he added. Indeed, the market is too small for Gartner to chart a Magic Quadrant in which vendors are ranked according to completeness of vision and ability to execute. Meanwhile, market research firm IDC estimates quarterly commercial (non-consumer) shipments in the low thousands.

Global shipments for commercial AR/VR chart
Global shipments for commercial AR/VR

Nonetheless, in its report, "Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2019: Immersive Experience," Gartner predicts that "AR will surpass VR as the key driver of head-mounted display (HMD) usage. User demand for AR will shift from smartphones to HMDs, driven by better experiences." To get to that point, however, AR solution providers will have to overcome a disconnect between the potential of AR and the real-world capabilities of the technology. "Vendors have made lots of promises -- a lot of it is proof of concept (POC). There are mismatched expectations that have caused barriers to adoption," Nguyen said.

Today's interfaces separate the physical from the digital worlds. We need interfaces that are in tune with the physical world.
Michael PorterProfessor, Harvard Business School

Faced with these challenges, here are five tips to help you bridge the gap between expectations and results.

1. Where to begin: Find the right application and give it a try.

The coolness factor is real, but it is no reason to deploy AR headsets. Instead, companies are likely to find the most effective implementations emerge organically from current workflow and training procedures. The best approach is not to create new tasks, but to supplement or replace traditional business processes, according to Gartner's Nguyen. "Hands-busy tasks benefit the most from hands-free devices," he said.

Jitesh UbraniJitesh Ubrani

"Many are already using phones and tablets. If that works out, they graduate to headsets," said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager at IDC.  Despite the cognitive load noted by Porter, "Both phones and tablets play an important role," Ubrani stressed. 

When you have found a task that's well-adapted to assistance through AR, launch a POC project. "You need to get user feedback. Testing is important," Nguyen said. Lalli recommends performing the test in a corporate laboratory environment. "Innovation labs provide a safe haven. If [projects] fail, they fail, but in a safe way."

2. Get buy-in.

As with any IT endeavor, convincing corporate management you are undertaking a project that delivers real value is essential. You'll need funding, but also a defense against those who don't see the value of AR beyond the purported coolness.

D.P. PrakashD.P. Prakash

"Point solutions can easily get lost. You need to get buy-in at the highest level -- the CIO and the CEO," said D.P. Prakash, global head of innovation at GlobalFoundries, a semiconductor maker with locations worldwide. "You also need people on the factory floor, especially a champion who can get people to come together," he added. Prakash is overseeing an implementation of AR headsets that utilize Vuforia technology from PTC.

3. Measure and demonstrate productivity gains.

Showing measurable ROI is key to turning your pilot program into a permanent deployment. "Measure how long it took to do the job before and how many mistakes you made," Nguyen said. Then, compare the time saved and errors reduced using AR technology, he added. Armed with that information, you can determine whether the gains reach a tipping point that warrants wider deployment. However, in some implementations, a gut feel of the ROI is all it takes. "The monthly subscription cost is nothing compared to the time saved," Lalli said. The savings of one AR-assisted visit per month covers the cost, he asserted. At Global Foundries, Prakash said his pilot program has demonstrated savings of 50%.

4. Put human and psychological factors to work.

In addition to the right hardware and software technology, user psychology is a critical success factor. "You have to inform people about what it is. Preconceived notions can be a mental block… They think it is fun and games," Prakash said. 

But capturing expertise and playing it back through an AR headset addresses a real pain point: the need to create and document standard operating procedures (SOPs). Showing how much time it saves can bowl users over, creating corporate momentum. "You can create SOPs quickly. Then there is fan mail that goes up to the highest corporate level," Prakash said. And the fun factor doesn't have to go away. "One worker watched movies on it on a flight," Lalli said.

5. Get ready for what's next.

As your pilot program progresses, think of applications to integrate with. Gartner predicts that today's rudimentary AR headsets will evolve from simple, so-called "conversational interactions" with workers to incorporate input from many environmental sources, including IoT sensors. An "intelligent digital mesh" will feed information to the headsets. In one such instance, a warehouse will be able to recognize the presence of workers, help them understand the state of equipment and point out parts requiring replacement, according to Gartner's report.

Getting to the next level requires a corporate mindset that is open to new technology, according to Prakash. "Culture is important. "You need to take risks, fail fast and learn quickly."

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