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The augmented reality boom will transform phones (and business)

Mike Elgan | July 17, 2017
With lasers, holograms and more, smartphone makers are scrambling to optimize devices. One use that's coming soon: augmented reality collaboration

iphone 8 augmented reality
Credit: Gabor Balogh

Augmented reality is frivolous, we're told. It's mainly for gimmicks and games.

But an important transformation is about to get under way. Starting next year, AR will begin transforming enterprise communications, logistics, manufacturing, analytics, product design, training, marketing, field service and more.

Today's phones and tablets aren't quite up to the task. But tomorrow's will be.

Even business meetings will change. With ubiquitous AR, multiple devices can see the same thing in the same space. Imagine tablet users sitting around a conference table. While looking at their screens, all meeting participants will see the same 3D graphs floating in space above the table, the same virtual prototype, the same globe or the same holographic talking head.

Instead of PowerPoint presentations taking place on a wall, the presented data will be 3D, holographic and displayed in AR in the middle of the room or table. Best of all, remote participants will also see the same images. (The buzzword for this is "augmented reality collaboration.")

The ultimate and eventual hardware platform for augmented reality will be glasses and goggles. But until technology advances enough to enable that broadly, AR will live on smartphones and tablets.

The industry is focusing on mobile devices because they're ubiquitous and have the basic necessary hardware ingredients for AR - connectivity, screens, cameras, processors, motion sensors and the ability to run apps.

Everybody will be surprised when the obvious and inevitable happens -- when the capabilities and performance of AR on phones and tablets becomes the reason to buy one brand of phone over another. You can bet that smartphone makers will then innovate with new hardware features to boost AR.

It's actually already happening. Silicon Valley is suddenly exploding with chatter about an industry-wide race to optimize smartphones for AR.

Here's what industry nerds are whispering about.


The iPhone laser

A single-source report from Fast Company says Apple is trying to build a rear-facing 3D laser system into the upcoming iPhone 8. It's also possible that the new component could be introduced in a later model.

The purpose of the system - which involves a laser beam generator, lens and chip - is to quickly and accurately measure distance, not only for faster auto-focus for the camera (especially helpful in low light), but also for better placement of virtual objects in physical space with AR apps. More exacting information about surfaces and objects allows virtual material to appear to interact more accurately with the real world. And it will greatly enhance utility - for example, to enable quick measurements in industrial settings.


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