Augmented Reality Growth in the Enterprise: What Will 5G Bring?

K. Weldon
K. Weldon

Summary Bullets:

  • Use of augmented reality (AR) is growing in the enterprise, but 5G is expected to light a fire under the still-nascent technology.
  • A recent AT&T hackathon on AR coupled with 5G highlights some novel approaches and use cases we hope to see grow over the next few years.

Augmented reality is the use of technology that superimposes a computer-generated image (generally a 3D one) on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view. AR in the enterprise is already growing, but not as fast as might be expected. It is often showcased by companies such as PTC, which has an end-to-end design and development suite based on its Vuforia acquisition. PTC highlights the ability to remotely train technicians, enliven marketing demos with the ability to show prospects new products in granular detail, and provide off-site instructions along with 3D visual overlays for on-site maintenance engineers as they fix machine components. Since 5G does not yet play a role in these kinds of use cases (i.e., 4G LTE seems to be fast enough to demonstrate and use them), it makes one wonder what faster access, ultra low latency, and network slicing will add.

AR and virtual reality (VR) are certainly compute-intensive technologies which require acquisition, processing, and management of very large amounts of data, so 5G’s higher throughput and low latency, in conjunction with edge processing, machine learning for image augmentation, and sophisticated but non-intrusive headsets, should provide technical improvements to bring down the costs of AR software, connectivity, and headsets and drive up usage. Other limitations of AR have to do with the inability of multiple users to interact simultaneously with the same AR object. 5G could theoretically allow several devices/headsets to collaborate and interact with an AR experience.

Every operator launching 5G mentions AR, not only for consumer gaming experiences, but for business or B2C applications as well. For example, Verizon believes 5G and AR together will transform the retail industry, because one can superimpose detailed nutritional or other information about products as shoppers walk by them or allow buyers to do product comparisons quickly. And the ubiquitous (but often scorned) use-case example of AR-enabled remote surgery has been used by nearly every supplier in the 5G ecosystem. Then again, it’s not likely to be the operators themselves that invent the underlying technologies that can take advantage of 5G. Evercoast, for example, is a partner of Verizon’s which provides an integrated software and cloud rendering platform for real-time and captured holographic content; Verizon explains that 5G speed and capacity will be vital for handling the vast amounts of data that volumetric capture requires. Evercoast fundamentally believes we are going from a world of 2-D content and communications to a world of 3-D.

A recent ‘hackathon’ hosted by AT&T in its ‘Foundry’ in Plano, Texas invited 20 developers to come up with new applications. Offering $10,000 in prizes as an incentive, AT&T allowed developers to use its mmWave 5G network and the new Magic Leap One AR headset in the hackathon. In a recent blog about the event, AT&T explained that the new headset is a game-changer because it is really a spatial computer that enables users to see and interact with digital content in the world around them while also seeing their actual physical surroundings at the same time. AT&T also noted that the AR applications that were developed at the event spanned healthcare, retail, finance, and manufacturing verticals. The $5,000 grand prize went to a group called PharmaLeap, which created an application to help pharmacies deliver the right medicine to the right patients. Wearing the Magic Leap One, pharmacy technicians could easily and quickly find the right medication among the hundreds available on their shelves. So, where does 5G come in? AT&T notes that by using the high speeds and lower latency of 5G technology, the application would be able to help quickly identify markers on the pills to further ensure that the correct medication is being provided.

Are we convinced yet that 5G will finally make AR a major business tool? Companies such as Goldman Sachs have forecasted the AR market to reach $80 billion by 2025, although much of this is likely to be for consumer applications, including online and retail shopping experiences in addition to mobile device gaming applications. With the power of startups and hungry app developers behind them, the operators may eventually cash in as well, as companies and brands realize that AR can change the way they interact with customers or the way they train their employees and fix their equipment.

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