Whether or not you were caught up in the phenomenon of 2016 that was Pokémon Go, you were surely aware of the craze. The game, developed by Google spin-off Niantic, popularized location-based and augmented reality (AR) technology. It became one of the most used and profitable mobile apps in 2016, having been downloaded more than 500 million times worldwide.
This phenomenon helped to register in public consciousness the existence and potential of AR technologies, even though their use in training and commercial applications goes back to the late 1990s. Like many disruptive technologies, AR has followed the profile of the Gartner Hype Cycle, passing through the “peak of inflated expectations” and the “trough of disillusionment” before emerging onto the “slope of enlightenment.”
Often, however, AR requires a shift of public perception on a massive scale to kick-start—not just the acceleration of application development, but also the confidence of the major investors to support the technology. In 2012 AR, along with virtual reality (VR), was being hailed as the next generation technology to watch, with markets estimated at £600 billion (approximately $776 billion) by 2016. Today those estimates have been revised (reflecting passage along the Gartner Hype Cycle) to a more conservative $90 billion annually by 2020. Surprisingly, given the relative amount of buzz, AR is already a much larger market than VR, with hundreds of commercial, industrial, and military applications provided by literally dozens of hardware and software vendors.
So, what does the potential hold for AR in the field of learning & training, and what needs to happen to realize this potential?
Here are just some of the applications that have been developed over recent years:
- Nurse training at UK teaching hospitals involves AR to overlay filmed patient responses on mannequin training to develop the empathy so crucial in critical care situations.
- The Museum of London has developed an app that superimposes historic views of London streets when the viewer holds their smartphone up to a present-day street scene. This approach has also been used to view the site of the World Trade Center and the location of the Berlin Wall.
- Businesses have already started to take advantage of AR and are using it in customer product support. In order to help their users easily change ink cartridges, HP Support launched a mobile app that shows customers how to change ink cartridges in their printers. Volkswagen introduced a similar app for service mechanics that recognises engine components and overlays animations of maintenance techniques.
- Defence company Lockheed Martin is collaborating in an AR project using smart glasses to speed up maintenance procedures for F-22 and F-35 fighter jets. When engineers look at the aircraft using the smart glasses, they see digitally displayed plans projected over the physical plane. They can then use a tablet to enter any damage or defects.
- Infrastructure is inherently 3D. Yet, the only design document that is legally approved for construction is the 2D drawing. A team at Bentley Systems has developed an AR application where the blueprints are overlaid on the construction site through AR glasses.
So, what are the key training trends where AR can be seen to add value in the future? Industry analysts seem to agree on three areas:
Training at the point of need – AR has the capability to provide on-the-job training without the need for employees to consult a manual or even look away from the task.
The ultimate test bed – AR can create practice environments in the real world. It’s already being used in this way to help teach surgeons and other medical professionals, and as the technology becomes more accessible, it’s likely to be used in other sectors where there is a requirement for safe practice.
Collaboration – You can have people working in groups or teams to complete tasks. They have the tools for communication in their hands, without you having to create a huge communications infrastructure.
One of the strongest points in favor of the continued embedding of AR technologies within mainstream training is the accessibility of the platform. Unlike VR, mobile devices are already owned by employees. The next generation of smartphones (such as the Lenovo Phab2) already have AR capabilities embedded within the operating system. This is a technology that is here to stay, so it is now up to the L&D community to consider how best to apply the learning opportunities it offers.
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