AR technology is a rising star in business and consumer tech. Here’s what businesses need to know to successfully use augmented reality.

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From the high-tech, information-laden sight of The Terminator to Ironman’s augmented view of the world from inside his suit, digital information overlaid on the real world is a long-established trope in the world of science fiction. We don’t need to wait for movies or video games to give us an augmented view of reality anymore–modern computing hardware is more than capable of replicating the high-tech worlds of fiction. 

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Augmented reality (AR) can be used with devices as simple as a camera-enabled smartphone or with advanced hardware like Microsoft HoloLens. AR is likely to change the way we interact with computers in the near future, and in many ways it already has. Find out how, and why, augmented reality matters to modern businesses.

What is augmented reality?

Like the heads-up displays seen everywhere in science fiction, augmented reality is any technology that allows its users to see digital information projected onto the real world. That’s where AR differentiates itself from virtual reality (VR): AR doesn’t block out the real world or replace it with a completely digital one–it lets the real world show through, only with digital objects or information on top of it.

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There are plenty of well-known examples of AR in the real world. Games like Pokemon Go project digital critters onto the world around them; Google Maps has added AR features that show directions on the real world; and other smartphone apps have made novel use of AR through embedded cameras. 

Advanced hardware, like Microsoft HoloLens or Google Glass, make AR far more practical than smartphone apps: They provide immersive, hands-free AR that can be used for a variety of business, commercial, and educational uses.

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Augmented reality is still new, and many of its uses have yet to be discovered. Right now the sky’s the limit for AR: There are countless ways in which digital information overlaid on the real world could be practical and lucrative.

SEE: Microsoft HoloLens 2: An insider’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

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How can businesses use augmented reality?

The AR market is predicted to be worth $60.55 billion USD by 2023, and it’s likely to be led by some of the biggest names in tech: Google, Samsung, HTC, and Microsoft. 

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Companies that want to stay on the cutting edge should, at the very least, consider where augmented reality could fit in their organizations. It’s not going away anytime soon, and if the predictions are correct, it’s only going to be more important as time goes on. 

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

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There are two main areas that businesses should think about when deciding if AR is for them: Its potential for internal use to help workers and its commercial applicability for consumers. 

A warehousing company, for example, may not have much need for a smartphone app, but a heads-up display for forklift operators or other warehouse workers could eliminate time spent looking for stock and reduce accident risks. 

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If that same warehouse is stocked full of home furnishings and decor, the leaders at that company may want to think about a second application for AR: Smartphone apps that allow customers to see what their purchase would look like at home before they buy it. Furniture company IKEA has already lept on that AR applications: Its IKEA Place app has been very popular.

Here are some other ways that companies might use augmented reality. 

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Remote support: AR apps that allow technicians and users to communicate with experts in real time have been on the rise. In some cases these apps allow tech support to highlight objects in the user’s field of view so they can assist in repair without ever having to leave their seats. AR headsets connect to Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and other diagnostic information to help technicians assess repair needs more quickly and reduce downtime. The HoloLens even comes with a built-in remote assist app.

Training and education: The educational applications of AR are well known, and they can be experienced by users with hardware as simple as a smartphone. There are also advanced AR education apps for augmented reality headsets like the HoloLens that can go further in-depth and provide an even better educational experience. Seeing 3D representations of objects, zooming in and getting an exploded view, and seeing complex machines working from the inside are all ways in which AR can be used in the educational realm. AR can also be used for virtual collaboration, making it easier for students and teachers working separately to solve problems together. 

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SEE: 5 top use cases for AR/VR in business, and how you can get started (TechRepublic)

3D modeling: Whether building a house or designing a new car, AR can be used to aid in the modeling and design process. Apps exist that can import and display CAD files in real space, see 3D models of houses, and more. 

Training: New employees often need time to learn how systems work, but they don’t necessarily need to do it in the real world. AR training apps are already being used by companies like Walmart, Verizon, Honeywell, and Chipotle. By giving employees access to virtual training, they’re allowed to make mistakes in a virtual environment without real-world consequences.  

Keeping customers in a store: AR apps can help keep customers around. Businesses have been finding ways to make money off of AR since Pokemon Go came out in 2016: People may not be at your store to shop, but games can keep them hanging around, which could lead to a sale. Cosmetics company Sephora has been at the cutting edge of customer-focused AR as well: It has a mobile app for virtually trying on makeup and in-store AR kiosks that keep people shopping.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of the business uses for AR, and as time goes on those uses will probably evolve into realms we haven’t thought of yet. Regardless of the type of business you’re in, there’s probably an AR use case–it’s just up to you and your development team to figure out what that is. 

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What technology is needed to use augmented reality?

It might seem daunting to start using AR in your organization. The most business-practical applications of augmented reality seem to require some extensive hardware, and internal use apps would require a lot of development before being usable. 

That doesn’t mean AR is out of reach for the average business, nor does it mean that expensive hardware like the HoloLens is required for making it a business tool. 

Using augmented reality is as simple as having a camera-enabled smartphone, and many AR apps for mobile devices have business applications or could be used in a business role.

Take for example the built-in iOS app Measure. It uses a device’s camera and spatial awareness to determine the size of objects, measure rooms, and act as a level. This can have a lot of business uses for professionals who need to measure spaces (e.g., IT pros setting up a new server rack). 

Simple apps like Measure are just a taste of practical uses for augmented reality. Other AR apps that could be used by businesses and their employees include Google Translate, which will auto-translate text captured by a device’s camera; Google Lens, which displays information about any object the camera sees; Google’s Just a Line, which allows users to draw in 3D space and lets others view the drawings in real-time (great for supporting computer users); and more. 

With the right team and the right goals, even small businesses could use AR apps–and we haven’t even touched on the external uses of AR for things like customer engagement, product trials, and other user-centered AR powered by smartphones.

Yes, if you want to use augmented reality to its fullest potential as an internal tool, you’ll need advanced hardware that can be operated hands-free and is designed for business AR uses. That doesn’t mean small businesses or those who don’t need HoloLens-style AR are out of the loop: It’s all about finding the right tools that can work to fulfill your business needs on your budget. 

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What are the most popular augmented reality platforms?

When thinking about AR platforms, it’s important to distinguish between AR development kits and programming languages most often used for developing AR software. 

AR development kits include software such as Apple’s ARKit, Reality Composer, and RealityKit; Google’s ARCore, and other dev kits designed specifically for AR on consumer-grade hardware that most users are likely to have, like a smartphone. 

Other AR tools, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, rely less on self-contained development kits and more on general Windows development skills. Hardware like the HoloLens has a lot more functionality, and as such developing apps for it is more complicated. Microsoft calls its HoloLens AR “mixed reality,” and developing for it uses the same SDK programmers use for other Windows software projects.

Regardless of the type of AR you plan to develop, there is one thing for sure: You need skilled programmers. Even self-contained kits like ARKit and ARCore require programming with popular languages. 

The list of the most popular AR programming languages doesn’t look that different from a list of those used for non-AR projects. C#, C/C++, Java, JavaScript, Python, Visual development tools, and Swift are the seven most popular for AR development, so if you’re planning a big AR project be sure to have programmers skilled in these languages on staff.

SEE: How to use Google Lens and Wescover to discover the creators of art and design (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

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How can my business start using augmented reality?

If you’ve identified a way in which AR can benefit your company, you completed an important step. 

The next hurdle to jump is to figure out what the best approach is: Should you go with hardware like the HoloLens or Google Glass, or is it better to stick with a more affordable option like smartphone-powered AR?

Once you know what kind of AR hardware you’ll need, you have to pick a platform. If you’re going with mobile devices, there’s a choice between Apple and Google, so choose which is most likely to appeal to customers or employees.

SEE: Top 5 reasons AR and VR are for business (TechRepublic)

For those investing in AR hardware, there are several products to choose from: The Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass, and Magic Leap among them. Before deciding which AR headset to invest in, be sure to weigh the costs, features, development kits, and other features to determine which is best for your needs. 

You’ll also need skilled developers who can build your AR apps, whether it’s for smartphones or headsets. Picking which platform and/or hardware to go with can be determined in large part by the skills of the people on your developer team, so be sure to consult them when considering an AR project. 

Remember: With AR, the sky’s the limit. There are countless uses for this new and exciting technology, and what you choose to do with it could be the big breakthrough your business needs to take things to the next level. 

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