Augmented reality check: is this the future of work?
Microsoft's mixed reality headset may well prove a game changer, but it isn't going to change the world overnight
As tens of thousands of delegates flocked to Barcelona last weekend for the Mobile World Congress, one of the biggest annual events for the global technology industry, much of the attention was focused on the launch of a string of flashy folding smartphones unveiled by rival manufacturers Samsung and Huawei.
But it was a Microsoft event on Sunday that could turn out to be more significant in the longer term.
The US tech giant is doubling down on an audacious bet that the future of work involves the use of “mixed reality” headsets, which combine your own view of the real world with virtual content supplied by a computer.
Augmented reality (AR) has received plenty of hype over the years but outside a few niche areas, such as gaming, it has so far failed to catch on with consumers in a big way. Microsoft and a string of other big companies believe 2019 may be the year that it finally takes off.
In Spain, Microsoft announced its HoloLens 2, a new version of its $3,500 (R48,500) AR headset that it hopes will prove a hit with businesses around the world. The HoloLens isn’t aimed at video game fans looking to experience the future of games in their living room. Instead, Microsoft has far more mundane uses in mind.
On Sunday, Microsoft showed off a customised version of its new headset made by Trimble, the US software development company that produces tools for the construction industry and farming, among others. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, claimed AR technology like HoloLens would serve as a new and “instinctual interface” allowing humans to interact with computers in new ways.
“You have an experience that is instinctual – speech, gaze gestures, all of it together,” he said. “It changes the game, the physical and the virtual are coming together. It will play out in the next half-decade to a decade.”
It might not be flashy, but the HoloLens headset shows Microsoft is serious about involving businesses in what it sees as the future of work. Seeing the headset in action is certainly impressive. Among other things, the company demonstrated a virtual keyboard that can be played with all 10 fingers. The headset will also allow for “eye tracking”, HoloLens engineer Julia Schwartz said, meaning users can scroll through a web page using only their eyes.
Wow, but no thanks
But do businesses actually want to strap these things to workers’ heads?
Microsoft has boasted of customers including Japan Airlines, Nasa and Volvo for its HoloLens devices, with Japan Airlines using the headsets to show trainee engineers virtual, 3D models of jet engines. For HoloLens to succeed, though, Microsoft will need to bring about a shift in the way we work.
Many businesses aren’t yet ready to make that change, said Urho Konttori, the co-founder of rival virtual and mixed reality headset business Varjo. When the business started in 2016, he had meetings with firms about Varjo’s virtual and augmented reality products. “They all pretty much said: ‘Wow, we desperately need this kind of virtual reality quality. Don’t get us wrong, the mixed reality stuff that you guys are doing is fantastic, but we don’t have an instant need for that. We don’t have a business case that has dozens and dozens of units waiting for something like this to happen,’” he recalled.
Varjo has since grown to 115 employees in Finland, raised $45m in funding and is preparing to release its own augmented reality product to rival Microsoft HoloLens. But many companies still aren’t ready to throw their weight behind the tech.
“There has been a bit more pessimism towards mixed reality during the past two years,” Konttori said. “Obviously there was a lot of hype built on Magic Leap, and when it didn’t deliver, that was a huge let-down for most of the companies.”
Magic Leap is often the elephant in the room when discussing the potential use of augmented reality with businesses. The US business has raised $2.3bn in funding for its smart goggles that overlay the real world with games and 3D models. It has been keen to showcase the possibility of its headset as an industry tool, including in medical and industrial scenarios. But the reveal of the company’s technology in 2018 proved a disappointment to many, with technology news site Motherboard declaring that “there is no magic in Magic Leap”.
Despite this, many large companies are still experimenting with the use of augmented reality at work. German logistics company DHL is using mixed reality smart glasses in its warehouses to help staff locate items, said Matthias Heutger, its global head of innovation. “You always have to assess each process and each operation to make sure it makes sense,” he said. “We have certain operations where we use smart glasses for picking; we also see an increasing use when it comes to maintenance. We offer repair and inspection services so we can easily use them. There are also some limitations on the hardware when it comes to battery life and heat.”
It’s these limitations that could prove to be the biggest stumbling block faced by Microsoft and others. Often, the headsets are heavy, warm helmets that aren’t practical to wear for extended periods of time.
“The cost of the hardware has also been quite difficult,” said Nick McQuire, vice-president of enterprise research at analyst firm CCS Insight.
Another problem has been the demand on cellular and wifi connections as headsets, including Microsoft’s HoloLens, can use large amounts of data. “Customers have complained in remote, rural areas, where cellular and wifi connections are poor, that can undermine both types of use cases,” McQuire said.
It’s telling, then, that Microsoft chose to launch its new HoloLens headset at Mobile World Congress. The firm knows that its second version of HoloLens isn’t going to change the world of work overnight, with engineers reaching for a $3,500 headset to diagnose an issue with a car engine using a 3D model. But the company is positioning itself as the future of work, and its bold gamble on HoloLens could pay off if large manufacturers start to believe in its vision.
For McQuire, HoloLens shows that Microsoft isn’t afraid to do something that isn’t just for standard consumers.
– © The Daily Telegraph