"Those that are in it, commit to it, and do it right will run naked through the streets of opportunity"
– American inventor Ralph Osterhout
As a child 20 years ago, I remember hearing about the future of virtual reality. I was told we would be able to put on a headset and time travel back to ancient Egypt to watch the pyramids be built, or sit inside the Colosseum and watch a gladiatorial battle. Yet, here we are in 2015 and it feels like virtual reality has no more permeated everyday life than flying cars or hover boards.
While virtual reality technology was developing at a snail's pace, contemporary life was transformed by the internet and smartphones. So much so, most of us have become utterly dependent on portable devices that allow us to call up information anywhere and anytime.
It’s all about information
Essentially, augmented reality describes applications that are designed to enhance the real world with virtual information, enabling the user to interact with it in real time. It provides visually presented, context dependent information that can support almost every aspect of everyday life.
Augmented reality has become synonymous with smartglasses such as Google Glass or Microsoft’s HoloLens, but smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches are all devices that can include the software.
Augmented, not virtual
While virtual reality lets you create an imaginary world and is primarily about entertainment, augmented reality supports people in their everyday activities by extending their perception and facilitating communication. It allows people to access live information, without obscured vision, and without looking away from what is happening in front of them.
Our understanding of augmented reality shouldn’t be shaped by futuristic products or expensive toys. Indeed, companies and private individuals are already using the technology across many areas. According to a recent Deutsche Bank research report, the global market for augmented reality is tipped to increase from US $500 million to US $7.5 billion by 2020.
Real world application
Why are companies investing hundreds of millions into augmented reality technologies? Because, Deutsche Bank believe, the technology can be deployed at every stage of the value chain and it opens up huge potential for efficiency improvements, particularly in production and servicing.
For example, in medicine, surgeons have started using smartglasses to display computed tomography scans of their patients so that they can operate more precisely and less invasively. In medical training, applications are being developed that overlay digital information in the form of video, audio or 3D models onto skeletons to offer a better understanding of the human body and how it functions.
The US military, who are at the cutting edge of technological development, currently use augmented reality for faster transfer of information in crisis situations. They have also developed military smartglasses that can see through walls and detect a beating heart from up to 150 metres away.
Applications in accounting
In a recent article, tech magazine WIRED considered what augmented reality could mean for the professional services sector. Author, Kyle Vanhemert, predicts at some point in the future augmented reality headsets will supplement, but not replace, desktop computers. In particular, he believes there is great potential for skilled users who can create 3-D workspaces tailored to their tasks.
In the case of accounting, augmented reality software engineer, Raffi Bedikian, believes that with one interaction of an accounting bubble floating in space, users could load up a whole suite of relevant programs. Instead of manually maximising and minimising individual programs and windows, the floating window would treat them as one unit and remember the user’s preferred spatial arrangements of things. Because of this spatial arrangement, Bedikian believes the data visualisation and interaction capabilities are powerful.
A typical day in the office
Assuming the hardware becomes affordable and sufficiently user-friendly in the next five to ten years, the following scenario between accountant and client is entirely imaginable:
Based on the client’s needs, existing knowledge of the business, and industry trends, accounting software would make a series of recommendations that would appear in a floating window.
Sensors on the wearable device would allow the accountant to scroll through the recommendations using finger gestures and eye movements.
Using their judgement, the accountant would present the best options to the client.
Accountant and client would discuss and plan a course of action.
Context dependent information presented instantaneously in a virtual window might sound like the beginning of an automated workforce, but there will still be a need for human skill. A recent Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand report titled, Future Proofing the Profession, predicts accountants with social and emotional intelligence and effective communication skills will be in high demand in 10 years.
60 years ago, Australia’s first computer was built. It weighed two tonnes, filled a large room, and had just a fraction of the capacity of an iPhone. Now, Microsoft are developing smart glasses that can detect and interpret the emotions of people within their field of vision. Is the robot revolution upon us? Probably not. But I wouldn’t want to predict what computing will look like in another 60 years.
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