AR in the enterprise: Tips for a better augmented reality app

Augmented reality apps have a lot to offer businesses, from supporting remote workers to increasing marketing engagement. Here are some tips on how to approach building an effective and successful AR app.

smartphone interface - virtual augmented display

Augmented reality is the next big thing — or one of the next big things, anyway. The technology, which overlays digital images on the real world, has a host of potential uses in the enterprise, from training tools to customer demos to collaborative design spaces.

Some AR applications rely on specialized hardware devices, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, while others work with everyday smartphones. The inclusion of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore development platforms in iOS and Android, respectively, has put AR-capable mobile devices in almost everybody’s hands.

But does that mean every enterprise should have an AR app? Probably not, says Tyler Wilson, a user experience designer with experience design studio Helios Interactive.

Wilson suggests that you start by asking, “How does your content work better in augmented reality?” If you’re thinking of using an AR app as a marketing tool, for example, he points out that websites, PowerPoint presentations, and other media have been around for a while and still work extremely well. “Is your content going to be easier to ingest or use in AR?” he asks.

augmented reality app helios Tyler Wilson

In this AR app that Helios Interactive created for Visa London, users can select cities on the globe to visualize data streams reflecting the transaction volume between the cities. The AR presentation lets multiple viewers access and view different streams simultaneously and rotate the globe to see the data from various vantage points.

If your organization does decide an AR app is the right tool for your needs, then, how do you go about making sure it’s a useful and engaging one that people will actually use? The technology is new enough that there aren’t a lot of examples to guide you.

“This is a brand-new medium,” says Erik Murphy-Chutorian, founder and CEO of 8th Wall, which makes AR developer tools. “If you were to build a traditional 2D application on iOS, for example, there’s exhaustive documentation on what all the different views do, what the design components are, and recommendations about the size of buttons and the actions they take. Then you can find examples of applications that do what you want. But you can’t point to lots of good existing examples of high-quality, polished AR applications that have succeeded in the market and say, ‘Okay, let’s go do that.’”

So it’s up to IT and corporate leaders, as well as designers and developers, to find the best approach. A good way to start is to ask some basic questions: who, how, what, why, where, and how (again).

Who’s the app for, and how will users access it?

To begin with, who will be using the app? Is it for your own workers to use on the job, or is it for external use — for marketing or sales purposes, for example?

“Whether it’s an internal group or an external group, whether it’s partners or customers,” says Tom Ortega, owner of Omega Ortega, a consultancy and application development firm, “you need an understanding of who you want to go after and what kind of experience you want to give them. We always ask our clients, ‘Who are you trying to serve?’”

augmented reality app ortega arvest Tom Ortega

Omega Ortega client Arvest Bank is experimenting with how AR can help its customers in Arvest’s new Experience Lab in downtown Bentonville, Ark. This app lets users view a building photo — for instance, from a mailer announcing the opening of a new branch — and overlays it with a map icon that users can touch to get directions to the building.

Bas de Vos is the director of IFS Labs, the in-house “think tank” for enterprise technology provider IFS. The company’s customers, who tend to be in industries like energy utilities and defense, mostly use AR to provide remote support and on-demand information to their workers.

“If you’re going to provide a mechanic or a field service engineer with an AR device,” says de Vos, “first, you need to convince them of the added value of the application right away. And second, it needs to be nonintrusive to their work.” For IFS’s customers, that second criterion usually means delivering the app via a head-mounted device to keep their hands free.

But Wilson from Helios Interactive cautions against assuming a headset is the way to go for most use cases. “A lot of people think if they put an experience in a headset, it automatically makes it more interesting. But people already have cell phones with them all the time and know how to use them. A headset requires so much more teaching and setup — it almost makes them more trouble than they’re worth.”

What is the app’s content, and why should it be AR?

AR is not an end in itself. What are you doing that’s better done in AR than any other medium? We all remember the “shovelware” that afflicted the early days of CD-ROMs and the web, as companies simply transferred their existing content to the new medium.

“The same thing is going to happen here,” says Ortega. “People are going to take their mobile experience, the same 2D elements, and just overlay them into an AR experience and say ‘That’s great, that’s all we need to do.’ The thing that the enterprise needs to know is that AR is different, and it’s going to require a different approach.”

That approach needs to focus on the content, not on the bells and whistles that AR can add. “One of the mistakes that we made in our early steps was focusing too much on the coolness of the application,” says de Vos. “In the last version of our own HoloLens app, we started the other way around. We said, ‘Let’s forget for a second everything about mixed reality. Let’s go back to the user and ask, what helps you?’”

That means less is sometimes more; for example, you can use the tools of AR without actually including “reality.” “You think of AR as, ‘I’m going to put something in the physical world and have this really nice blend between real and artificial,’” says 8th Wall’s Murphy-Chutorian. “But having that world overlay is not necessarily adding value. A much more pragmatic look will tell when you just want to use the ability to have an interface device that can move in space and know exactly where it is in the world.”

As an example, Murphy-Chutorian cites mobile games that leverage spatial interaction without bothering to use the camera overlay. “Once you’re doing that, all these problems with mobile AR go away. You don’t have to worry about occlusion, you don’t have to worry about the really narrow field of view the camera affords. In many cases, this gives you all the benefit of the technology and simplifies the development process.”

ar game zombie gunship 8th Wall

The mobile game Zombie Gunship relies on the kind of spatial interaction possible with augmented reality but doesn’t bother to show the real world. That choice eliminates a lot of the challenges posed by AR apps that have to accommodate real-world objects.

Where and how will people use it?

“Where are people going to be when they’re engaging your AR content?” asks Wilson. “If people are going to be in their house or office, then there’s room for a lot of interaction. But if people are going to be using it outside or in a crowded conference space, it might be hard to use if there are a lot of other distractions in the world around them.”

One potential pitfall of demanding a lot of interaction is that people aren’t yet used to having to do much work to use a phone app — up to now, they simply open an app and they’re ready to go. By contrast, “Apple’s ARKit has this concept of ‘surface finding,’ where you’re going to place something on a table or on the floor,” says Murphy-Chutorian. “The current generation requires the person using it to take some action before the surface can be found. In our experience, people don’t like having to do work to interact with an application. Any time a developer can avoid this, they should.”

There are ways around that resistance, though, in the form of UIs that encourage and reward the required actions. Think of the way your bank’s app coaches you to capture a good image of a check you’re depositing by providing a box to center the check in and some kind of green light or checkmark when you’re in the right place.

augmented reality app bofa check prompts IDG

A lot of people aren’t familiar with AR apps yet, so sometimes the app’s UI has to teach users how to interact with it. Bank of America’s app directs the user how to frame the check properly and provides feedback when the image is captured.

That’s a very basic example, and many AR apps do a lot more to “gamify” the user experience, but that approach might not be appropriate to all enterprises. “Something I see all the time with large financial clients is that they tend to be a bit more conservative,” says Wilson. “The experiences tend to be a bit more passive; you’re not really asking people to do too much in terms of building a world around them.” That makes good sense, since most bank customers probably just want to conduct their transactions and be done.

Which brings us right back to our first question: Who is the app for? Knowing your audience and understanding how AR can serve them will help determine the appropriate level of interactivity and extras for the app.

Key takeaways

Some of this advice will sound familiar to anyone who’s lived through a wave of new technology before. “We all learned in the past from our mistakes,” says de Vos, “but then there’s a new technology and we make the same mistakes again.”

To reduce the number of new mistakes, you can boil these experts’ advice down to a few key points:

  • Do make sure the app delivers value that only AR can provide.
  • Don’t hand your designers or developers a list of things you know AR can do and insist your app do them all. Implement only the technology you need for the purpose.
  • Do keep audience and environment in mind.
  • Don’t start with the coolest stuff; start with the stuff you can realistically implement.
  • Do make sure any employee-facing tool doesn’t disrupt existing workflows.
  • Don’t lose sight of your goal. If you’re offering an app to make it easier to shop for your product, for example, make sure you include a way to buy it.

Using these principles as guideposts will go a long way toward ensuring that your organization’s venture into AR will be your next big success.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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