Augmenting Reality

There’s a lot of corporate productivity and convenience improvement potential in 'augmented reality' applications.
John ParkinsonFebruary 9, 2016
Augmenting Reality

Like it or not, we live in a world that’s increasingly drowning in data. Getting the right data to the right person at the right time — and in a form they can easily and rapidly absorb — is often a requirement for productive performance in a wide range of business critical tasks. Mobility — “untethered working” — has helped with the “anywhere, anytime aspects,” but delivery to a suitable “platform” in a relevant format is still challenging. Spreadsheets on a cell phone don’t really work all that well.

“Augmented reality” (AR) — a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world — can sometimes help.

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About a decade ago, I worked on a project to build a tablet application for a Fortune 500 CEO to use during Q&A sessions at major presentations, including quarterly results calls with financial analysts. (Tablets existed back then, but they were pretty clunky — this was pre iPad – and had only primitive touch capabilities and virtual keyboards). The app linked the CEO (and the questions he was being asked) to both a prepared set of responses and a team of analysts, who could create answers on the fly. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked OK and it was a lot better than “let me have someone get back to you on that” responses.

Most of the work was actually on the back-end systems — creating the tools and datasets that the analysts needed to create both the prepared answers and the real-time responses. We also built a profiling application for the people who asked the questions — helping to anticipate what they wanted to know and prepare better answers over time.

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Then a few years later I oversaw a project to build another tablet application (on the iPad this time) for a commercial insurance business. Underwriting commercial property is a data-intensive process. You need to know a lot about the property, its history, ownership, and use. Also about claims that the site (in particular) and the owners (in general) may have submitted and the general claims history of the neighborhood, similar types of property elsewhere, and so on. Then you have to assess what accepting the business would do to your overall risk profile for the area and for buildings of that type.

A single building can quickly accumulate several inches of paper or several gigabytes of digital archives. An assessor going out to look at a new building, or review a policy renewal request, won’t want to carry a copy of the paper file and may not have easy access to the digital archive. Underwriters spend a lot of time getting their field staff to fill in gaps in the available data because they just don’t have enough data to assess the policy risks or to set realistic premiums.

We built an application that used a combination of global positioning system data (the iPad usually knows where it is to within a few dozen feet) and the video image from the rear camera to identify the building the assessor was looking at, confirm it was the right target location, and then pull up all the available information on the building (and the neighborhood). He or she could then identify gaps that needed to be filled in from inspection, site interviews, or public records. The information was overlaid on the visual field of the camera, so that as the image changed, so did the information being displayed. We about doubled the productivity of the field force (fewer repeat visits, wasted data searches, and wrongly identified locations) and meaningfully increased the size of the underwriters’ book of business without increasing the value at risk.

That’s the potential for augmented reality. Better display devices (such as Microsoft’s HoloLens when it finally makes it to market) could help some deployment scenarios, but most of the necessary elements are available on devices we already have — wireless tablets and smartphones – provided that:

  • There is enough data bandwidth from the device’s location to the back-end systems that are need to support the required data provisioning and delivery (which is generally the case today in areas where 4G LTE wireless data services have been deployed); and
  • The back-end enterprise systems are able to see all the necessary data (from both internal and external sources) and quickly aggregate it into the required formats for secure transmission and effective display.

Here too, the hardest parts generally were in the back-end systems, although getting the field personnel to remember to (a) take care of their somewhat fragile iPads and (b) keep the devices charged was also a continuing issue.

There’s a lot of productivity and convenience improvement potential here, but implementing an effective augmented reality capability isn’t as straightforward as you might think. There are information security considerations; asset management considerations; device reliability considerations; cost (and availability) of bandwidth considerations; user training considerations; and (in every case I have looked at so far) back-end systems capability, accuracy, and timeliness considerations. All the governance and information hygiene issues that are too often pushed into the future (because they are genuinely hard to deal with) will rapidly surface and need to be addressed.

We did do one further experiment with the commercial insurance system. Once you have the basic infrastructure working, it’s feasible to take the video image and information overlay and make it available to the underwriters at their desks. We tried both regular displays (which need to be pretty large to be effective) and an early VR headset, which attempted to provide an “immersive” experience, equivalent to actually “being there” — showing the underwriter exactly what the assessor’s tablet was “seeing.” We had to abandon both experiments quickly. Wide area network bandwidth requirements were excessive (and it would have been far too expensive to provide what was needed) and the total lack of control over the viewpoint made several of our underwriters nauseous. Another example of “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

So although VR might be great for gamers, it wasn’t (and still isn’t in my view) quite ready for business. On the other hand, AR probably is — and it’s worth thinking about where it can help productivity and how to get ready to deploy it.

John Parkinson is an affiliate partner at Waterstone Management Group in Chicago. He has been a global business and technology executive and a strategist for more than 35 years.