Augmented reality has been one of the futuristic technologies that sits somewhere between science fiction and reality. Early attempts at implementing the technology involve the use of tablets and smartphones to overlay information on an image taken from the device's camera. Point your tablet down a Parisian street, and an augmented reality mapping application might superimpose an arrow on the view to show you where a recommended restaurant is located. On the business front, early applications for Google Glass promise to combine augmented reality and the traditional instruction manual, showing a frustrated office worker how to load toner into the printer or a maintenance worker how to perform a complex repair on a piece of equipment.
This level of augmented reality technology seems out of grasp for most companies. There are complexities with everything from geolocation to pattern recognition, yet used creatively, augmented reality can be inexpensive and compelling. As an example, I recently received a promotional mailing from Nordstrom, a higher-end department store in the United States. The promotion was for custom suits, and the pamphlet provided a dozen swatches of sample fabric and mentioned their in-store iPad application to allow you to design a customized suit.
The mailing intrigued me for several reasons. Like many people, I can't help feeling the fabric of clothing as I shop. I know next to nothing about fabric, but the tactile experience of clothing is a key part of the experience. The mailing provided a preview, the clothing swatches complete with the zigzag pattern of a tailor's scissor, which subtly highlighted the possibilities for customization.
The other interesting aspect of the promotion was that — rather than suggesting I download an app, cook up a suit, and key in my credit card — it noted the app was only available in stores, where a salesperson would presumably guide the customer through the customization process. Having purchased made-to-measure suits in the past, a major struggle was my lack of knowledge of suit-related terminology. The tailor would run to the racks to explain what a ticket pocket looked like or to explain the nuances of different lapels. With their app in hand, Nordstrom's salesperson could visually show the different options and present a model of the suit in real-time, while maintaining the personalization (and opportunities to up-sell) of a physical salesperson.
An application to show line art drawings of suits and a mailing with some clothing swatches are neither revolutionary nor technically complex, but the combination of an interesting mailing, personalized sales experience, and an application that makes an intimidating process easier is a great way to use a tablet device to augment the rather mundane reality of selling suits.
Opportunities to leverage tablets to augment physical processes are limited only by imagination. Photographers are using the devices to show samples of their work, explaining the creative vision behind the photo for a process that can't be duplicated by a book or online experience. Field service technicians are using the devices to capture bar code data from defective parts, and also capturing images to show how it was installed, adverse environmental conditions, or merely how it was originally configured. Even small retailers have gotten in on the act, with tablets providing anything from digital signage, to access to "frequent shopper" clubs, to a discrete inventory and ordering system that eliminates the sale-killing "let me check in back for that."
As you consider tablet applications and deployments, don't forget that they can serve to complement a human-driven process. Too often, organizations look at technologies like tablets merely as a means to replace the "old way," when the better alternative may be to augment and enhance the process.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.