How we view the world is about to change. David Rose and Hari Nair explain

The human eye can discern 10 million different colors and is the body’s fastest muscle – the average blink lasts just 100 milliseconds. For all of its wonders, however, the human eye hasn’t evolved significantly in millennia. Our ancestors perceived the world much as we do. That’s about to change in a radical way with the arrival of augmented reality (AR) technology and what we dub ‘SuperSight’.

A vision of the future

Imagine this. You’re walking through New York on a gloomy December morning, wearing your Apple AR glasses. These stylish spectacles have built-in GPUs (graphical processing units) that customize or ‘curate’ everything in your field of view, in real-time. Trash is replaced with images you prefer – flowers, perhaps. Instead of street advertising, you see videos of friends speaking in Chinese to help prepare for an upcoming trip. The bleak sky is brightened up with hints of summer sun. Tinder’s AR functionality ‘edits out’ any recent dates that didn’t work out: you pass that guy who dumped you last week and see only a ghostlike figure.

Because you recently downloaded a Gucci fashion app, your glasses highlight on-trend outfits; you bookmark them with a quick eyebrow raise. Ratings for stores pop up with avatars of friends who recently shopped there. Your glasses know your food preferences, so healthy places are highlighted while burger joints are blurred. Later, you go for a run: your glasses show a small pack of zombies chasing you, helping you keep up the pace.

Don’t mistake this for sci-fi fantasy. Every smartphone maker, social media giant, game studio and wireless carrier is racing to ‘own’ and personalize the photons that hit your eyes. One research analyst pegs computer vision as a $30 billion market by 2025. For the first time in history, we’re about to have a super-human ability to experience reality as we want it – or at least, as the companies that are subsidizing our glasses want it.

The emerging market

A whole ecosystem of software companies is emerging to create compelling AR applications and new business models. Incumbents are investing huge amounts alongside new entrants like AR goggle-maker Magic Leap, which raised $2.3 billion on the promise of mixed reality experiences. Where the military used to pay millions of dollars for pilots’ heads-up display helmets, Microsoft now sells its HoloLens developer kit for $3,500.

Affordable cloud-connected glasses are being rolled out by Snap, Bose, and others. Amazon has launched the Alexa Echo Frames, which connect to a phone to read messages, provide calendar cues and give directions, for $179.99. This is just the beginning, with sophisticated coaching services adapting to your context, activity and mood in the near future. New business models are likely to dominate: our magic glasses may be free, as long as we tolerate next-generation ads.

Four easy places to start generating value

As with any new platform, there are abundant opportunities to use spatial computing. Companies should create future optionality in the AR space by conducting ‘stepping stone’ experiments: disciplined attempts to find market footholds. There are four paths to create useful experiences.

1. Generate incremental product sales with a virtual try-on experience.

Furniture-makers Wayfair and Ikea increased conversion rates by five to ten times when they enabled customers to see home decor items in the context of their homes. We achieved the same at Warby Parker with our ‘virtual try-on’ app that uses a phone camera to read the topology of a customer’s face and show a live selfie with stylish glasses. If you sell a 3D product or service, you have the 3D models needed to prototype this experience; use tools like Vuforia or to get started quickly.

2. Decrease the burden of support costs with a 3D customer-support app.

Where companies today leverage YouTube to explain how to install or repair their complex products, AR allows for exploded views, assembly animations, time-lapse visualizations, and detailed 3D views. AR tools can help consumers solve simple breakdowns.

3. Increase employee retention and engagement with immersive training.

Employees want to be challenged and prepared to perform. AR provides affordable and compelling ways to rehearse both soft and hard skill challenges.

4. Improve collaboration for product development teams with spatial telepresence tools.

The most expensive asset in any innovative company is people. We spend too much time in blind meetings without shared views, harming understanding of product issues. AR can provide great collaborative experiences while cutting the time, expense and carbon emissions created by travel for meetings.

These four use-cases are a fast way to start making a meaningful difference across the enterprise. There are many other applications, of course, but these may take more time and investment. One approach is applying the ‘jobs to be done’ framework: look for pain points that are frequent, important, and where the alternatives are not ideal. These could be great starting points for an AR-enabled solution.

Through our open innovation initiative, we are part of an ecosystem of people who are committed to using this framework to solve consumer pain points. Some of today’s opportunities may appear niche, but there is significant value in building early traction in this space while keeping the investments small. Big market opportunities are set to follow, as a range of new AR and AI-enabled devices hit the market. Leaders can get ahead of the curve by focusing on customers’ pain points and the jobs to be done that AR technology will help us solve.

— David Rose is a faculty member at MIT and a futurist at EPAM Continuum. Hari Nair is a fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, a Duke CE educator, and collaborates with Rose on the SuperSight initiative.