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Augmented Reality – deciphering the high-tech hype

Augmented reality (AR) is a fast developing technology that essentially aims to merge the physical world with the digital world, allowing every object we see to be seamlessly enriched with virtual content. It’s a new type of real-time natural user interface for human interaction with the world around us.

Imagine wearing smart glasses that enable you to see step-by-step instructions on how to repair your flat tire, or see real-time online ratings digitally overlaid on every product as you browse through the store. That’s powerful stuff.

It seems rather farfetched, doesn’t it? The truth is that the trend is capturing the attention of a lot of people – and not just start-ups and major corporations, but also the mainstream population. Global media coverage of AR has skyrocketed over the past several years, and video after video on YouTube shows the promise and future of what augmented reality could deliver.

 

Just another high-tech hype?

I believe AR is more than just hype. In fact, it’s one of the most exciting technology trends that we here at DHL Trend Research observe today. It has the potential to not only revolutionize the way we shop but also to transform operations in a number of industries.

More and more companies across numerous industries are integrating augmented reality into parts of their daily work and products – Airbus, BMW, Canon, IKEA, the list goes on. Volkswagen, together with Metaio – a leading AR provider, has developed MARTA or Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance, which allows their service technicians to see step-by-step repair information on tablets. The system shows the next work steps directly and displays real and virtual parts in three-dimensional relation to one another.

 

In the medical industry, AR applications are being developed and deployed to guide surgeons through operations and display vital information on head-mounted displays, allowing them to work hands-free. That’s more efficient and it could save lives!

The technology still has a way to go. The hardware side has to catch up. Processor speed and battery life of wearable AR devices are currently lacking, but it is highly encouraging to see major corporations investing more and more in augmented reality. Since the release of Google Glass, we’ve also observed more and more AR hardware devices coming onto the market. If the smartphone and tablet trend over the past several years is any indication, some rapid growth is in store for this exciting new technology.

Augmented reality research at DHL

Our DHL Trend Research team uses the Logistics Trend Radar to identify the implications certain trends have on the logistics industry, such as big data, 3D printing and low cost sensor technology. This year we have selected augmented reality for further research, and in collaboration with our customers and industry partners, we have identified 11 potential use cases for this technology across the supply chain, ranging from augmented warehouse planning to the use of AR in last-meter navigation. These findings as well as a range of industry best practices have been captured in our recent report – “Augmented Reality in Logistics”.

One of the use cases that we think will benefit the logistics industry is pick-by-vision in warehouses. Today, orders are largely picked using a pick-by-paper system which often leads to higher pick-error rates and longer pick-times. Using a head-mounted display or AR-equipped smart glasses, warehouse pickers can see navigational data displayed in their line of sight, allowing them to find the right shelf quickly and scan the items instantly. The pickers’ hands are free to focus on the item, reducing the overall order picking time. Think about how beneficial this would be for new or seasonal workers that are not familiar with the warehouse floor! This solution is already being field tested by companies such as Knapp, Ubimax and SAP. I think we’re going to see the early adopters in the logistics industry putting it to use soon.

Another area in which we see potential is the use of augmented reality to assist delivery drivers in the last mile. One of the issues for drivers today is the amount of time it takes to locate the right parcel in the delivery van once they have arrived at the destination. Using a wearable AR technology similar to the warehouse solution, we envision future drivers being able to optimally load the parcels in their delivery vans according to the delivery route. The system will tell them right where to place each parcel and at the destination where the right one is located in the van. It will be the ultimate in efficiency.

Augmented reality could also play a role in supporting customer services. DHL has developed an augmented reality application called Paket Assistent that helps senders choose the right box size for their parcel. Using a QR marker and a PC camera, Paket Assistant displays different box sizes digitally in front of you and you can even place your items inside to check the size.

Where will the journey go?

As is often with new and emerging technologies, it’s rather difficult to gauge whether AR will take off and if so, how soon that will happen. But the examples and use cases above illustrate that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to augmented reality in the logistics industry. We know that it can play an important role in almost all parts of the supply chain – from improving warehouse efficiency to increasing customer satisfaction not to mention empowering our employees who are at the heart of our business.

DHL will continue what is sure to be an exciting journey into augmented reality and hopes that more logistics providers and organizations alike will participate, too. Let’s drive the AR revolution!

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