I believe that over the next decade, augmented reality (AR) will establish itself as the greatest productivity tool ever invented. This might sound counterintuitive at first — most AR demos available today on smartphone are gimmicky, with very little use cases or real world applications, and the few AR headsets on the market are bulky and impractical.
However, the industry is in its infancy; just as the first mobile weighed 2kg and had very little utility, it is just a matter of time before real consumer value is created in the AR market.
It's All About Friction
Value can be subjective, but there is something we can all agree on: to be hailed as real innovation, a product needs to remove friction in our lives. Time is our most precious commodity, and we all aspire to waste less time in tasks we dislike. From airplanes, to the radio, the internet or mobile phones, all of these products have drastically reduced friction in our lives, enabling us to travel, communicate and access information quicker than ever before.
A perfect example today are voice assistants like Amazon Echo or Google Home, which 17% of americans already own. Voice assistants help with mundane tasks, like shopping for commodities, playing music, or setting up the thermostat, all of which saves us time in the process.
AR is the next logical step. For the first time, we will get visual cues without a screen. That change of interface will increase our productivity by removing the attention switch between the device and real world. It is expected that in industries such as training, manufacturing, design and maintenance, removing the attention switch — and keeping our hands free — can increase productivity by up to 20%. Applied to the consumers market, AR will empower us to multitask in ways never before possible and be more productive overall.
The power of context
People sometimes fear that the ‘always on’ nature of the headset could end up being a distraction for users, being constantly bombarded with content or notifications. I believe this won’t be the case for a simple reason: AR headsets understand the context of the situation, to only display digital content at the most appropriate moment.
Through the camera, the headset sees what you see, and with computer vision algorithms, is able to understand what it is. Forget SLAM technology or depth cameras — it’s this understanding of the context that sets AR apart from any other device we’ve built in the past.
Understanding the situation, the headset will adapt its behavior to best serve you. A simple example is that the headset will block email notifications when it recognizes you are driving or in a meeting — something that your phone cannot do by itself. There will be an AR app to help you identify old contacts you forgot the name of just by seeing their face, another app to augment your vision by zooming in on something you can’t read far away, and yet another app to translate foreign signs just by looking at it.
A silver lining for brands
Context also powers the foundation of business models behind AR. In a medium where disruption won’t be tolerated, advertising as we know it, is dead. But I believe that, more than ever, brands have a key role to play in funding the ecosystem. Instead of disruptive advertising, AR gives brands the opportunity to become part of the conversation in a native way, at the right context — when the user needs something specific and is ready to buy.
Entering a Zara shop? The device can tell you that the men’s section is on the second floor and by the way, get 10% off if you buy three. Shopping in Walmart? If you buy the Barilla tomato sauce on the right shelf, you’ll have all the ingredients to make a bolognese. Just bumped into a friend? Here is a voucher for a free drink sponsored by Starbucks — expiring in 10 minutes.
Zara is experimenting with AR fashion models that come to life in-store and in shopping windows.
Brands will therefore target contextual data instead of personal data, a much needed change, at a time when people are becoming increasingly annoyed with the way their personal data is treated. By seamlessly integrating the conversation and solving genuine problems at the right time, brands will be able to build a much needed emotional attachment with their customers. Because it is so effective, access to that privilege won’t be cheap. In fact, the medium will provide a lot less advertising opportunities than the web does, to minimize disruption. More demand, less supply — spots will be expensive.
To stand out against the giants of their categories, and reduce the risk of getting bypassed, brands will need to differentiate the context they represent. Instead of competing with Starbucks in the context of ‘coffee’, a local coffee shop can use a more specific context, such as ‘coffee during lunch break when I’m on this side of the city’. Just like search engine marketing, long-tail contexts will allow smaller brands to become top of mind in AR headsets.
Above all, brands will be successful in the AR era if they contribute to make our lives simpler.
Instead of being seen as disruptors, they will become our personal assistants, our friends, helping us with our day to day, when the context is right. That is the future I am excited about. The race for productivity is on, and I can’t wait for Augmented Reality to reveal its full potential.