Are IT professionals ready for augmented reality?
The EU believes the number of digital jobs being created across Europe is growing by around three per cent each year and this figure is expected to increase in 2014.
Do we have enough skilled professionals to fill these roles?
There has been a lot of debate surrounding skills shortages in the IT sector in recent months, with many employers suggesting that finding talented and experienced technology specialists is one of their biggest challenges. Whenever new technology is developed, it can take time for IT experts to master it and integrate the system into their organisation.
This trend was evident when cloud computing was first introduced and there are still many companies that are not maximising the potential of this technology. Something else that could have a huge impact on firms is augmented reality, which research specialist Gartner believes will become a common business tool in the coming years.
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality is the term given to live camera images that have a second layer of computer-generated data placed over the top of them. The most recognisable form of this technology in 2014 is Google Glass, which is an optical headset that enables wearers to retrieve relevant information on the live images that they are seeing.
Although Google Glass is viewed by many people as being one of the most cutting-edge devices to be launched in 2014, some companies are already working on even more advanced versions of the technology. For example, Innovega is developing a contact lens-enabled format of augmented reality. Samsung is also expected to unveil its version of smart glasses before the end of the year.
Why is this a problem for IT professionals?
The consumerisation of technology is one of the most pressing concerns for IT departments. Firms are under more pressure to enable employees to use new technology in the workplace and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend - which is where staff are given permission to use their own smartphones, tablets and laptops to do their jobs - has presented IT specialists with new challenges.
While augmented reality is still a relatively new concept, Gartner thinks it is only a matter of time before it is used by businesses on a daily basis. In a recent report, the organisation stated that although the adoption of augmented reality is in its infancy, the technology has matured enough to enable companies to use it to enhance business processes, workflows and employee training.
Tuong Huy Nguyen, Principal Research Analyst at Gartner, commented: "Augmented reality is the real-time use of information in the form of text, graphics, audio and other virtual enhancements integrated with real-world objects.
"[It] leverages and optimises the use of other technologies such as mobility, location, 3D content management and imaging and recognition. It is especially useful in the mobile environment because it enhances the user's senses via digital instruments to allow faster responses or decision-making."
Gartner's findings have been supported by fellow technology industry expert Juniper Research, which has predicted that worldwide augmented reality revenues will exceed $1.2 billion by 2015. This would be a dramatic leap from the $180 million that was generated in 2013 and is a clear indication of how the popularity of this technology is expected to soar.
The organisation also predicted that 200 million people across the globe will use augmented reality applications by 2018.
While augmented reality brings many benefits, companies that want to adopt the technology at the earliest opportunity will need to hire IT specialists who are familiar with how it works and are capable of finding/developing devices that make a noticeable difference to how the business operates.
In an article for MIT Technology Review, Tobias Hollerer, a Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, suggested that using new technology such as augmented reality can take time, but it is worth it in the end.
"Obviously there's a lag in deploying these technologies from when they became possible to when they became robust enough to actually be deployed in work flows," he was quoted as saying.
"But I think there is enough of a benefit in augmented reality to make that leap."
How can companies harness the power of augmented reality?
Here are just a few ways in which businesses can benefit from augmented reality, according to Gartner:
- Pinpointing hard to find places: Employees can use augmented reality glasses for navigation purposes.
- Improving health and safety: It is possible that augmented reality can help firms make their working environment safer. Firefighters can feasibly use the technology to easily find the emergency exits in a building, for example.
- Making research easier: Employees can use this technology to unearth statistics and other information without having to conduct the research themselves.
- Making mundane tasks much less time consuming: Augmented reality has the capacity to pick out specific products from a cluster of items. For example, it can identify a shoe among numerous objects on a table.
Because it is yet to enter the mainstream, it is hard to say if augmented reality is fulfilling its vast potential. There have been some promising smartphone and tablet applications emerging in the past few months that suggest augmented reality can have a positive impact on everyday life.
In February 2014, IDG News reported that Telecom firm NTT and navigation service specialist Navitime Japan have been working on an application that enables iOS and Android-powered smartphone users to find free wireless internet hotspots. Users can hold up their camera phone and then hit a button that will add extra data that highlights where the nearest Wi-Fi hubs are located.
Major financial institutions have also been making the most of augmented reality. The Royal Bank of Canada has updated its banking app to enable customers to find a nearby branch. Location-based apps already allow people to find landmarks and points of interest using their mobile devices, but augmented reality adds extra context. It can see which way a person is walking and then suggest a bank that is along their route, rather than simply highlight the closest branch.
Gartner: Risks will decrease over time
As with any new technology, IT professionals are concerned about the risks that are attached to augmented reality applications. For example, some apps rely heavily on content that has been provided by third-party sources, such as customer reviews. If these are not readily available, the technology's benefits are diluted.
There are also concerns that large technology companies like Google might monopolise augmented reality apps, which means device users will only receive an additional layer of information or data that has been generated by a small selection of businesses.
Gartner's Tuong Huy Nguyen accepts that IT specialists will encounter problems as they adopt augmented reality, but he feels these issues will subside over time. He also advised firms not to use this technology for the sake of it.
Although Gartner suggested that augmented reality, if used correctly, can boost productivity and increase efficiency, it might not work for everyone. Mr Nguyen added that companies should identify a "clear goal" for using these applications and should only invest in the technology if business benefits have been outlined.
Conclusion: Is augmented reality the future?
It seems to have taken a long time, but finally it appears that augmented reality applications are becoming more than promising technological concepts. Companies have started to put the theory into practice and two of the world's most respected industry experts - Gartner and Juniper Research - have both predicted that augmented reality will become increasingly important to businesses in the coming years.
IT professionals have voiced their concerns about the technology, but the negative aspects of augmented reality appear to be outweighed by the positive. Companies must now ensure they have access to a pool of suitably talented IT experts who are capable of adapting this state-of-the-art technology to their business.
With IT skills gaps emerging - particularly in Europe - the competition for candidates who have experience of using these applications will be intense in the near future.