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Augmented reality technology matures but deployment hurdles remain

For IT admins who are just getting the hang of managing smartphones and tablets in the enterprise, AR may not be a welcome tech.

Augmented reality technology, applications and management tools may already be on the market, but experts said enterprise adoption will likely be gradual.

Google recently made the second edition of its Glass headset, which was first released last year, more widely available. Per media reports, Microsoft was slated to make an announcement about its HoloLens 2 augmented reality hardware at the Mobile World Congress, which has since been canceled.

Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said he saw a positive trend for augmented reality technology in the business market. Augmented reality (AR) superimposes digital information over the real world.

Tuong NguyenTuong Nguyen

"The technology is definitely picking up speed," he said. "It's been on an upward trajectory for the last few years -- really, since version one of Google Glass came out."

J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, said there are still technical and organizational challenges for IT administrators rolling out an augmented reality program in a sensible manner.

"It's an exciting space, but it has taken longer than I originally thought to get to this point," he said. "Five years ago, we had a lot of hope that these kinds of technologies would become common [by now]."

AR in the enterprise

Augmented reality technology may still be relatively new, but there are already clear use cases for AR in the enterprise. Nguyen said the delivery of situational video, schematics, informational overlays and step-by-step instructions is a primary use of the tech.

J.P. GownderJ.P. Gownder

"Visualization is like HoloLens overlaying images on the object or equipment you're looking at," he said. "Say you're looking at an overlay of a [motor engine] filter. It can tell you that you need model ABC and how to change it out, directly overlaid on [the motor itself]."

Gownder said a few businesses have determined that their workers are well served by hands-free AR products. Workers who must frequently consult a schematic, he said, can benefit from having that piece of information in their immediate field of view.

Occupations that involve servicing, inspecting, assessing, installing or operating complex machinery are among those that would see the most benefit from AR, according to Gownder. He cited, as an example, a German elevator-repair business that uses AR to visualize service before going out on calls.

"They can know exactly what kind of tools they'll need to bring, and it saves time," he said. "They've brought their average visit time from two hours to 20 minutes, because they can plan out in advance."

Holger MuellerHolger Mueller

Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said the tech industry is just on the cusp of making AR more practical, and that he could see already-popular apps making use of the technology.

"[The recent] Google Maps update with Live View will be such an example," he said, referring to a feature that uses a device's camera to determine how far away, and in what direction, one's destination is. Such a feature could, for example, help package handlers find their destination.

YouTube, Mueller said, might be a particularly compelling use of the technology, as AR could make how-to guides and instructions even more "real" to users.

Managing AR devices

Industry observers agreed that there are tools available currently to help IT administrators manage and secure AR devices, although the lack of such products early on may have inhibited adoption of the technology.

Gownder noted that HoloLens 2 and Google Glass work within ecosystems that are already well understood by IT professionals. HoloLens 2, he said, is a Windows 10 device, while Google Glass runs on Android. The upshot is that existing software well-established in the enterprise can help IT admins secure and manage them.

"We're in a better place than we were even a couple of years ago," he said. "That doesn't mean it's always easy to deploy, because there are a lot of non-technology problems."

Nguyen said AR technology is being built and sold by a wide variety of vendors from those specifically dedicated to creating AR tools to traditional device-management vendors. Although those options are available, he said, rolling out new technologies in the enterprise always presents challenges.

"[Some companies] might have just barely started with mobile phones and tablets, and now… there's a new device for which you need to manage," he said. "You have connectivity around that and data to manage -- where it's coming from and where it's going."

Obstacles to growth

Many of the pieces are in place for enterprise use of AR, but there are some hurdles yet to be cleared.

Gownder noted that, with current AR usage, apps are generally tailored to a very specific use -- something that may have inhibited more general adoption.

"I think the application environment is still somewhat challenging," he said. "If you want to build a custom app, it can be expensive."

This, Gownder added, is not always the case; third-party, non-custom apps have been appearing in the marketplace, with vendors offering semi-customizable platforms. He said, for example, Microsoft had created a remote assistance application for HoloLens that functioned similarly to its Teams or Skype collaboration tools so that employees can consult with colleagues or experts who may not be on site.

Also, Gownder said, software companies like Upskill are offering semi-customizable platforms, enabling firms to author their own tools. A tractor company, for example, may require 812 steps to assemble a tractor; using one of these platforms, the company could create a step-by-step AR guide.

"For some scenarios, we're starting to find more general software, particularly with remote assist or training," he said. "In other cases, you either need heavy customization or a custom app."

Looking forward

Experts do not believe there is any one roadblock holding back widespread adoption, although they added that maturation of certain technologies may help push AR forward.

Nguyen said, as AR is itself a collection of technologies -- such as the displays and processors that make up headsets -- it could benefit from the advances of other tech. He noted, for instance, that additional adoption of IoT would provide the headsets with more data about the items with which they're interacting; improved computer vision could more readily identify what a user is seeing; and expanded 5G coverage would provide more bandwidth for things like remote assistance.

But Gownder said he did not believe any one technology advance will unlock AR's potential.

"You can always wait for the next thing," he said. "It's not as though the technology doesn't exist -- it's about getting an organization aligned toward solving a problem."

While the technology is largely in place, Gownder said, other factors influence whether organizations will use the technology.

"I think it's less of a technology problem and more about understanding what's possible, figuring out return on investment [and] getting a business case together," he said.  "It will certainly be a journey. Unlike those markets in which consumer products affect the enterprise … most of the real energy here is in the enterprise."

"This is a hardcore enterprise technology for now," he added. "Maybe someday a player like Apple will get into the market, and learn from this, rather than the other way around."

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