For our dev team, it all started with a product configurator for one of the largest steel companies in the country. They designed a tool on the company’s website that builders can use to create 3-D models of the steel-frame buildings they’re constructing. As the builders manipulate their designs with the tool, they choose and arrange all the steel parts they’ll need for the real-life construction project. So they can see how all the pieces will eventually fit together, and they can get a price for all the parts.
The configurator already gets rave reviews, both from our client and their customers. But the developers immediately started coming up with ideas for how to take it ever further. They wondered, why stop at a web configurator? What could we do with more advanced technology? What, for instance, could we do with something like HoloLens, the holographic lenses created by Microsoft?
We wouldn’t be the first to use augmented reality in a manufacturing setting, and the list of possible use cases for AR reaches into nearly every aspect of our lives. But since our main focus as a company is finding ways to help businesses connect with their customers using technology, we’ve been doing a little research—and a lot of tinkering.
A 3-D interactive model of a building on a website is one thing—but imagine walking over the actual construction site and seeing what the building will look like once it’s built. If your business sells the steel framing, or any other construction materials, being able to provide your customers with an experience like this could virtually (pun intended) guarantee you a leg up on your competitors. You’d be in effect making your customers’ jobs easier, possibly even making them better at their jobs.
Builders come for the AR modeling tool, and they stay to purchase building materials. That’s the idea. Another example, this one in the realm of direct-to-consumer sales, is L’Oréal’s Makeup Genius app. It works a little like SnapChat lenses; you download the app on your mobile device and then you can use it to test out different makeup styles and combinations on your own face. You can then share the pictures with friends or use the app to make purchases.
Again with Makeup Genius, it’s easy to see how being the first to market with this type of technology can mean making huge gains over your competition that will be tough for them to make up. Do you want to buy from the vendor who lets you try on, test out, or specially design the product? Or do you want to buy from the one who merely shows you some pictures?
This approach to connecting with customers is basically an extension of the web configurator strategy. But the possible use cases for AR are infinite. You could use it for training or long-distance collaboration. In combination with IoT technology, AR could make it possible for knowledgeable technicians to see at glance how well factory machines are working. Or it could help less knowledgeable technicians do routine maintenance. The list goes on and on.
There are just two problems.
Let me begin here with a question: are hands-free mobile devices safer for drivers? I mean, voice-command texting means you can keep your eyes on the road, so it has to be safer than looking away, right? Well, it turns out in test situations hands-free devices are not any safer at all. (Of course, if you’re like almost everybody else confronted with these results, you’ll come up with some clever reasoning for why they don’t apply to you.) But how can this be?
The answer is that regardless of where your eyes are pointed, the important factor is where you’re directing your attention. We humans have a bad habit of discounting the role mental resources like attention play in our perceptual experiences. Researchers have found that people can be looking right at something—even something as conspicuous as a guy in a gorilla costume—and still not notice it if they’re busy with another task.
It’s a phenomenon called inattentional blindness; basically, the lights are on, but nobody’s home. One of the corollaries of this phenomenon is a limit to the number of things humans can attend to at any given moment, and a limit to the number of things you can do. Multitasking simply isn’t something we do very well; many researchers go so far as to call it a myth.
What does this mean for AR? After tech reviewer Will Oremus tested out Google Glass—yeah, remember that?—he wrote in Slate that the information available through the device was interesting,
“Yet as I gazed upward and to my right, upward and to my right, to read a sentence or two at a time on the tiny screen, I found myself wishing that I could just read the article on my smartphone’s Field Trip app instead. I was no less distracted reading it on Glass, but the process was slower and less comfortable and I looked twice as silly.”
If you can only do one thing at a time anyway—reading instructions or following instructions, for example—what’s the advantage of having those instructions beamed through glasses?
This point was really brought home for me when I shared a video demo of ThyssenKrupp’s AR tool for elevator maintenance with an actual elevator mechanic (my brother). He was far less enthusiastic about the device than I expected, writing back,
“I’ve seen that. Sure it’s safe to work in a dark hoistway with a bright a[leck] computer screen strapped to my face. It’s a big he[ck] no here in the US and Canada. Our union put a stop to it.”
If you’re going to get part of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, you’re going to want the rest of it too—especially if you’re working at altitude.
If you just hurry and whip up any old AR app for your customers, just for the sake of having an AR app for your customers, the tool is probably going to strike everybody as gimmicky. They’ll use it long enough to get a laugh. Then they’ll forget it.
Likewise, if your AR tool simply throws up a bunch of information at random as your technicians walk the factory floor, it won’t be long before they’re either failing to notice much of it or deliberately ignoring it. As marketing researcher Ana Javornik wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review,
“Based on research I have been conducting on consumer responses to AR over the past four years, I have found that designing and implementing valuable AR apps requires the following: a better idea of how consumers would use such technology; more collaboration among computer scientists, designers, and marketers; and a strategy for integrating the applications into the existing consumer journey.”
I labeled contextualization an easier challenge because it still takes some work. But really these requirements apply to pretty much every web tool or mobile app you build to help you connect with customers. You need:
L’Oréal’s Makeup Genius is a good example of an app that meets all of these requirements. It also meets a fourth requirement that’s probably unique to augmented reality: contextual specificity. Javornik argues the reason Google Glass flopped was that no one wants to live their whole life looking through an added layer of digital images. AR works best when it’s tied to specific products, locations, or events.
By sticking to a narrower context for your AR use cases, you’ll also be going some way toward addressing the challenge of the limited attentional load us humans can bear. The trick is to avoid distracting your customers from what they’re trying to do. (Keeping them from falling down elevator shafts is also an excellent idea.) As Jovornik suggests, your goal is to enhance your customers’ experience, provide them with a tool that takes whatever they’re doing and “makes it easier, more fun, and more convenient.”
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