The desktop of the future is here now: Augmented Reality in the workplace
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The desktop of the future is here now: Augmented Reality in the workplace

Multiple open windows and browser tabs seem to be the default setting for most workplace desktops. Employees shift from one to the other, sometimes struggling to find the information they are looking for, or having to search in a digital filing system with little logic to it.

Now Meta’s new software, Workspace, is hoping to change all that, bringing the once futuristic tech of Minority Report to your business workplace, using a series of shelves with icons as its desktop metaphor. Using Augmented Reality (AR), the software wants you to open applications by grabbing them from a shelf with your hand and then using your fingers to manipulate the virtual icons in front of you. All of this will require some additional gear though, in the form of headsets or smart glasses.

 

What are the current AR desktop options?

Meta is not the only company examining how AR can change the way office environments interact with the desktop. Companies like DAQRI are also experimenting with the integration of AR with the desktop. The company’s initial AR offering, the smart helmet, was originally targeted at industrial workflows and servicing field service engineers. With the introduction of DAQRI smart glasses, it opened AR applications up to much broader enterprise use, from architecture, engineering and construction to lean manufacturing and inspection, and brought augmented reality into a wide range of professional applications.

We look at the growth in AR and what it might mean for business: The rise and rise of Augmented Reality for business

Similarly, companies like Genesys are looking at how AR can be used in data visualisation with traditional desktop applications like spreadsheets. Simon Wright, technology executive in charge of VR/AR for Genesys, explains that the technology lets you go inside the spreadsheet and interact with the data in a three-dimensional way. You can physically manipulate the data, move it around and merge it with other datasets to identify new correlations or relationships. It is a completely different way of engaging with data from the passive, two-dimensional space of a spreadsheet programme.

Frog, a global design and strategy company, is examining how AR can be used to aid its design work. Charles Yust, principal design technologist at Frog, explains that as a global company with a strong in-person studio culture, the possibility for seamless telepresence, and what that could mean for Frog's collaborations in the future is highly intriguing. “Communicating ideas to colleagues locally face-to-face and simultaneously around the world as if we were all in the same room is one of the most compelling attributes of the future of AR and workplace collaboration,” he says.

 

Is this a different way of working?

Brian Mullins, founder and CEO of DAQRI, says that moving AR into the office environment, means supporting workflows that create lots of information and helping people to interact with and understand complex information. He likens the application of AR in the office environment to the adoption of the mobile phone, explaining how the mobile phone changed the way we work from being attached to a curated fixed environment to being able to do things on the go.

“It changed the idea of the worker, challenging where you can work and the context you can work in,” Mullins says. There are challenges in mobile working too, though, and Mullins believes AR can address at least some of them. “As the screen gets smaller, you don’t have the same canvas to work with, so if you are doing CAD or interacting with large amounts of data such as in trading commodities, for example, you would still need large screens and curated workspaces in order to do that work.  What Augmented Reality unlocks for you is the ability to turn the world into a screen.

“These very large data intensive applications can become really effortless and portable and can start to take place where you are at and really improve the worker’s ability to get the work done,” he adds.

It does sound like the stuff of science fiction. These interfaces seem very akin to what you might see Tom Cruise using in 2002’s Minority Report, for example. But DAQRI has created a different type of interface to the gesturally-bound one seen in many pop culture films and TV series. He says what pop culture has shown us is what is in the collective unconscious; people want to interact with information differently, they want it in their spaces and they want to do it naturally.

 

How is AR adapting to the human body?

To make such technologies as natural as possible to the way people work, DAQRI has opted for a look and feel interface that does not require gestures. “People aren’t necessarily designed from a musculoskeletal perspective to hold their arms up and make broad gestures for long periods of time. So we have designed our products so that you look at the content you are interested in and interact with a gaze and dwell interface, so as to not introduce fatigue. In the same way that the mouse allows you to make very subtle movements and yet control a very large canvas with a computer, AR in this way does the same,” says Mullins.

Wearing a helmet or pair of glasses to engage with your desktop might seem an additional burden, though, especially since much of the equipment used in AR has been quite clunky, bulky and heavy. DAQRI’s smart helmet incorporates full personal protective equipment for safety hard hat and safety glasses, so it works with the protective systems people already wear and are used to.

They have also made their smart glasses the smallest and thinnest glasses product possible, needing only a USB cable to connect. It plugs into a small pack on your belt that has your computer and battery in it or it can plug directly into a laptop or desktop to bring even more computing power to your AR experience. Those who wear spectacles can even obtain special inserts with their prescription from their optician to make the experience as comfortable as possible for all workers.

 

What do c-suite execs need to know about implementing the AR desktop?

For c-suite executives wanting to implement AR in the office environment, Mullins has this advice: “I don’t believe Augmented Reality is one size fits all. You are not just going to be able to buy any device and solve every problem for every worker. You need to look at the environment you want to deploy it in.”

He says companies need to know whether, for example, in an office they need portability. They also need to consider how much compute they would need to interact with their information and work with their models.

“Know your requirements and what kind of content you want to work with, with those workers,” he says, adding that you can see return on investment in AR deployed very quickly, but you won’t get it by buying devices off the shelf without an understanding of the environment and the worker.

Colin Bethell, director at Veative, which develops 3D, Virtual, Augmented and Mixed reality content, adds that companies need to consider some of the potential challenges before investing in AR as a replacement or complement to the desktop. “Despite the cost and available talent to develop AR content balancing out, there are still a few key challenges to overcome in the implementation of it across industries before we see it taking a good hold in our office environments,” he says.

Future-proofing is one area that businesses need to focus on. “The cost of any associated hardware, coupled with the speed at which the technology and its uses advances, will ultimately have an impact on any hardware. Companies could easily run the risk of investing in the wrong piece of hardware as they try to keep up with the AR evolution,” Bethell says.

He also highlights that the costs of transitioning to using AR at work – even on the smallest of scales – alongside the training which will need to be embraced, will also come with its own challenges. “As a new technology AR will need significant investment in order to get things developed and up and running. Add to that the implementation of it, and businesses will need to have open-minded teams who’ll be able to cost this out and achieve change management as this happens,” Bethell emphasises.

Paige O'Neill, CMO at Prysm, a digital workplace platform provider that specialises in visual workplace and collaborative technologies, adds that companies need to consider how these technologies will be deployed so that all workers are able to use them. “Technology should serve as a generational equaliser and not a differentiator, while being flexible to allow participants to work in ways they are most comfortable and productive – without forcing a particular technology path across disparate users.”

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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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