Augmented Reality – use cases for small (and all) businesses

17 March 2021

Augmented reality (AR) glasses provided by a museum to get information at an exhibition in Hangzhou, China. Source: AFP

Augmented reality (or AR) involves the projection of digital data onto the real world. Aside from being a hybrid form showcasing both the practical and the virtual side-by-side, augmented reality is proving to be a big boost for business processes at a time when enduring physical experiences is severely limited.

Unlike the immersive artifice of Virtual Reality, AR lets our physical reality shine through, embellished and emboldened by digital information and direction. It offers an interactive experience, a bridge between real-life and virtual worlds. This extends to the world of Mixed Reality (the result of ‘putting AR and VR in a mixing pot’). While these have resulted in some enticing immersive applications from mega-corporations, is AR something that can benefit smaller businesses too?

From science fiction to the real world

With each passing year, we shift from the era of eyebrow-raising AR in science fiction to more real-world use cases. Modern computing hardware is now more than capable of replicating (or catching up to) futuristic high-tech worlds. AR as a concept is increasingly familiar – think Pokémon Go, Snapchat filters, the iOS ‘Measure’ app, Google Maps projecting directions onto the world beyond the dashboard. Chances are you’ve seen it or engaged with it somewhere.

As a practical possibility in the world of business – and in our private lives – AR remains relatively nascent, requiring big budgets or bold business strategies to make headway. The market is predicted to be worth $60.55 billion USD by 2023, and it will continue to be shaped by tech heavyweights like Google, Amazon, Samsung, HTC, and Microsoft. The most advanced business applications of augmented reality might still require extensive hardware, but this doesn’t prevent its use amongst smaller businesses.

How can smaller businesses turn to AR?

AR technology is becoming more accessible all the time. It can be as simple as having a camera-enabled smartphone, with numerous AR apps now peddling business use cases. Small and medium-sized enterprises can develop and use AR in ways that are exciting, pragmatic, and lucrative. Here’s how:

  1. Consider its use in great detail. How will AR, however rudimentary, help workers and drive efficiencies? Otherwise, how commercially viable is it to add elements of AR to the consumer/client offering? It’s all about finding the right tools that can work to fulfill your business needs, on your budget.
  2. Choose your tools. AR development kits include software such as Apple’s ARKit, Reality Composer, and RealityKit; Google’s ARCore, those designed specifically for AR on common hardware, like a smartphone. Other AR tools (like Microsoft’s HoloLens) have heaps more functionality, but that comes with a complexity that many SMEs may not fancy, or be able to afford. HoloLens AR is definitely creeping into the realm of ‘mixed reality’. For smaller businesses looking to ramp up their offering and processes, development kits may be the way to go.
  3. These kits require skilled programming. Whether it’s for smartphones, headsets, or language integrations, your developer team will be central to successfully deploying AR.
  4. Even after taking the steps above, having a holistic view of AR’s role will help increase its success across the business. Identify the structures that need to be involved in embedding AR, and to optimizing it for the individual firm. From developers to sales and UX, and from marketing teams to the boardroom, AR shouldn’t be viewed as just a gimmick, but instead should be treated as a great opportunity.

Use cases across sectors

So it’s evident that businesses big and small can make use of AR innovations by taking the key steps above. In the coming years, fields as diverse as medicine, manufacturing, training, customer service, and transportation will change as the technology becomes more widely adopted. As infrastructure grows and solutions become more compact, use cases will spring up in nigh-on every industry. Here, we’ve outlined some applications that span most businesses:

Remote customer support: AR apps can expedite the practical communication between end-users and experts. Such cases may see tech support able to point out issues or faults in the user’s field of view so they can assist in repair without having to hop in a vehicle and attend the premises. AR headsets connect to Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and other diagnostic information to help technicians assess repair needs more quickly and reduce downtime.

Training and education: AR has vast educational potential. At times, this requires little more than a smartphone. Advanced headsets and tools can provide an even better educational experience, presenting 3D objects, cross-sections, breakdowns. In professional settings, this can not only speed up learning but enhance safety too. Mistakes or accidents that occur in this environment are virtual, uncritical, and a platform for improvement without real-world consequences (especially handy for soldiers, drivers, and workers in high-risk environments).  Google Classroom is a quintessential display of what AR technologies can do in education, from 360-degree videos to virtual walkthroughs.

3D design, modeling, testing: Across almost all industries, AR can be used to aid the ‘eyes on’ element of design and modeling processes. From importing and viewing CAD files in real space to enhancing architecture through 3D housing models, AR can save money and resources by offering virtual prototypes. Virtual design tests can show up (potentially expensive) flaws that might otherwise go undetected.

Product installation: SMEs are chomping at the bit for ways to speed up product rollouts without compromising on quality. Using AR, businesses can speed up their time to market in a thorough way. Whilst it won’t fully replace custom processes straight away, it’s a great way of broadening your reach, and doing so quickly.

Improved sales: Relevant across pretty much every industry, from real estate to retail. AR helps to connect brands with their customers, all the way from identifying a problem to offering a solution. 3D models are much more attractive than conventional web configurations or images. This is especially invaluable for SMEs looking at product pipelines, engagement and interest, and how to best harness AR’s power to improve sales.

In terms of retail, Google and Ikea are among the pioneers in retail AR, bringing the in-store experience to life in a virtual sense, allowing consumers to experience your products and services in their homes before making a purchase. In pitching a commercial proposition, to augment is to provide interactivity and immersion, to add value. What buyer isn’t about that?

The truth is: regardless of what business you’re in, there’s reasonable scope for the use of AR.  The key is to identify where in your business it will add the most value. Through collaboration and integration, the ability to scale up will come – with it, further rewards, efficiencies, and innovations for your enterprise.