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Why companies need to embrace augmented reality

Over the past couple of years, augmented reality (AR) has moved from science fiction into daily life. The most prominent example may be last year's Pokemon Go craze, but the potential uses of overlaying visual data in a real-world environment are showing up in a variety of ways. Microsoft's HoloLens, Google Glass and Apple (with its new plans for AR) all point to the speed with which the technology is advancing.

Although AR has until now been largely aimed at consumer applications and games, it has already shown promise in some business and enterprise settings: Doctors are overlaying clinical data during consultations and surgery; trainings are being offered for a remote audience; field service workers can access data and schematics while away from headquarters; and customers can get remote support to make repairs on their own, guided by an expert.

As AR becomes more prominent and widespread, it will become an increasingly valuable -- and ultimately necessary -- component of enterprise apps. So IT departments and enterprise developers need to start thinking now about how best to integrate AR and capitalize on its potential.

Apple doubles down

One major reason to get moving is that Apple has made a big commitment to incorporating AR into iOS 11, which will be released this fall. Unveiled at its worldwide developers conference in June, Apple's ARKit makes developing AR apps far simpler than other platforms. It also makes iOS the dominant AR solution, because AR will be embedded in millions of iOS devices once iOS 11 is released -- and doesn't require specialized hardware.

Not only will this make iOS the leading AR platform, but given the prominent role it already plays in the enterprise, it will make iOS the single best enterprise AR option. With ARKit easing the development process, AR will be a natural feature for many enterprise apps. Simply by telegraphing its plans, Apple has already significantly raised awareness of the technology.

Give workers access to information on the spot

One of the biggest advantages of the modern-day mobile ecosystem is that it allows instant access to information of all sorts, anywhere, at any time. AR extends this advantage by displaying key information in a highly contextual way. This has immense and broad potential.

A surgeon, for instance, can see scan data, anatomical diagrams, vital signs and other critical information without looking away from a surgical field; plumbers, electricians, technology installers and general contractors can view architectural plans and other diagrams of a building, guiding their work while knowing exactly what's within the walls; repair technicians can get instant access to diagrams or photos of the equipment they're servicing, as well as remote advice in realtime; and architects, fashion designers, landscapers, interior designers, and event planners can more easily help clients visualize projects.

It's important to remember that for AR to be effective, it must deliver real and actionable value. AR should be added as an enterprise app component thoughtfully, not in a way that appears gimmicky.

Don't get cute

As with any new technology, there will be a rush to build AR into new and existing apps. That rush will almost certainly include apps that have AR simply because it's the latest thing, not because it delivers value or engagement. These apps make an initial splash, then often fall into disuse and/or get deleted quickly. Adding AR to an enterprise app strategy needs to be done thoughtfully and, like every app initiative, should be undertaken with input from all stakeholders, particularly targeted users, to ensure it delivers value and, equally important, fits into existing workflows.