What is Augmented Reality and how will this much-hyped technology impact the telecommunications sector? First of, the telecommunications sector is rebranding itself as the digital services sector, because telecom operators are not just transporting voice and text, they are providing connectivity to the internet, to digital content and are providing services such as cloud services, mobile money, mobile wallet, mobile TV, mobile music, mobile advertisements, smarthome services, connected car services, mhealth and have also started broadcasting (via eMBMS LTE Broadcast technology). Within this massively expanded portfolio, anything that requires wireless and fiber connectivity and a secure data center accords telecom operators an edge as they can quickly and cost effectively load up the database in these data centers, link these servers with their own subscriber management systems and charging/billing functionalities, inform their subscribers and get ready to start signing them up. What has all this got to do with Augmented Reality anyway?
Augmented Reality(AR) is a technology that is waiting to explode. Anyone who has navigated a huge hyperstore knows the pain of finding that exact box of cereal or that exact pack of batteries - a customer walks almost 500 metres scanning each aisle and shelf for the product only to find the price tag missing and walks another distance to the price scanner, and back again to find a cheaper product. Not satisfied with the information provided on the packaging, the customer takes out his smartphone, starts browsing the product's online store for more information and finds that the exact product in not included in the long list of products published online. Frustrated, the shopper picks up the package, walks another 200 metres looking for a sales assistant and to his dismay hears that no other off-hand information is available on that product.
AR is made to address this type of situation. Augmented Reality combines the real-life situation (environment) with digital content (text, image, video, voice etc) to provide a rich layer of information in real-time. What it means is that, the moment the customer enters the store, he picks up an Augmented Reality - enabled device (examples include a wireless connected smartglass that projects information to its lenses, a Wi-Fi connected custom in-store tablet or his own smart phone installed with the store AR Application) and starts typing out the word 'cereal'. The information of the entire store map, the aisles, the navigation path and the fastest way to get there is displayed to the customer (on his smartglasses or any digital screen he is holding) and as the customer walks up to the aisle or shelf, more information pops up on the display screen showing the best offers he has just walked past, the reward points he can collect if he picks up the 'XYZ' products heaped on a side display, and finally, when he reaches the destination, on a tap of a button, the full information of the product he is looking at is pushed to him.
The above scenario is how Augmented Reality works. October last year, du, a leading telecommunications provider for businesses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in partnership with APX Labs, announced its plan to make enterprise smart glass technology available to more than 70,000 of its clients. du's solution leverages APX Labs' Skylight software platform which enables du's clients, especially enterprises with deskless workers and remote field staff to access information via smartglasses that project the information from the cloud. Examples of scenarios where du's AR solution will be deployed are real-time tracking (example by airline staff in charge of transferring flights); and emergency retrieval of maps and building blueprints (example by fire and rescue workers during a fire).
The AR service a very interesting vertical for telecom operators, especially mobile network operators(MNOs). For one, MNOs are already creating a huge presence in the IoT/M2M segment with solutions that combine connectivity, cloud storage, remote computing and cloud-based applications. Similar infrastructure and platforms will be deployed for the AR technology - only that this time, the end devices are smart gadgets such as smart glasses and custom made tablets which can join the line up of smart wearables/devices most MNOs are already selling across their stores. MNOs will therefore be involved in the end-to-end supply chain and enablement of the AR service. According to Telco2.0Research in the release of its report on AR, a number of operator initiatives are already underway including France Bouygues Telecom's in-house operator-developed mobile AR look up service, Telefonica's R&D effort on visual search technology and NTT DoCoMo intuitive navigation services “chokkan nabi” developed under contract for DoCoMo devices.
The AR technology has matured in recent years and is expected to boast better search and recognition capabilities which will fuel the creation of thousands of new use cases across various industrial and consumer applications (some cool examples include Ikea's Catalogue, pharmacy chain Walgreens in-store navigation, American Apparel colour changing application and Lego 3D Vizualization). SoftKinetic, a leading provider of 3D vision technology recently announced its new Robotics implementation which allows users to interact in 3D with devices in both short range and long range environments - in our earlier example, the customer can simulate his kitchen corner by 'arranging' his cereal boxes virtually and seeing how the kitchen will feel like by 'walking' in and out of that corner via the projections that appear on his smartglasses or the custom tablet.
As the AR technology progresses further and more solutions arrive in the marketplace, Operators' inroads to AR services will also intensify with Operators leveraging their enhanced cloud-based platforms (for example AR for Mobile Platforms) and also their M2M connections and capabilities to pull and push in real-time information to their data platforms which in turn will power all the third party applications accessed on end-user screens.