Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Enterprise Reality

For many people their first experience of a virtual world was at the computer game arcade. Thanks to Google Glass, Facebook's purchase of Oculus Rift, and ever increasing computing power. Augmented, Virtual, and various forms of Mixed Reality are finding a niche in the enterprise. Increasingly for visualisation and use cases where it's 'handy' to be hands free. Displaying and accessing information may make sense via a Virtual or Augmented channel.

Briefly to make some distinctions: Virtual (computer generated), Augmented (computer assisted), and Mixed Reality (anything in between) enable the user to experience and access information that is beyond what their senses can naturally obtain. For example is completely computer generated and considered Virtual, whereas augments reality by overlaying contextual data onto video in real-time.

So if this still sounds all like games and gimmicks how can virtual reality be used effectively in Enterprise? It already is... Consider the following examples:
  • Military Applications (Training and simulations such as flight, parachute, and combat along with Heads Up and Head Mounted Displays for various scenarios e.g. BARS)
  • Design (Computer Aided Design e.g. VRDL)
  • Retail (Try before you buy applications e.g. Ray-Ban and a great augmented pixel article)
  • Medical Applications (Remote presence, 3d imaging refer this medical blog)
  • Education & Training (e.g. Mining training)
  • Real-estate (Virtual tours, walk-through)
  • Asset Management

In addition advertising agencies are using Augmented Reality to bring wow factor and interaction to a variety of brands and products with interesting interactive campaigns aimed at the tech savvy generation.

Key factors when it comes to Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality are the real-time nature and visualisation of information. Additionally depending on the implementation these solutions often contain characteristics such as: immersion, remote or telepresence, private or social interactions, gamification, and hands free operation. And while mostly obvious, the benefits to the use of these technologies come from increased efficiency, safety, customer loyalty and engagement along with a reduction in costs, manual handling, and errors.

Mobile computing and Virtual reality share some common enabling technologies. Looking back at early Virtual Reality is like reminiscing about old Motorola mobile phones. Both used to be chunky, had only basic user interfaces, and simple display ability. Underlying both of course are advancements in hardware and software. For more details refer to my article on the history of mobile computing. So why then is all this “un-reality” not ubiquitous like mobile phones?

A couple of key factors should be considered. Firstly while technology has advanced to a stage where phones can now act as full mobile computing devices the tech curve is still on the rise when it comes to Augmented and Virtual reality. Secondly, mobile computing by its nature has a wide scope of viable use cases. Many would argue that mobile computing is replacing desktop computing, whereas Augmented and Virtual reality only enable consumption of information in a different way.

So is all this un-reality only for high end computers with dedicated hardware? Thankfully mobile phone technology has reached the level where it can support Augmented Reality. In some ways it is currently the perfect technological platform. With a combination of ready availability, processor power, camera, GPS, connectivity, and display. A modern mobile phone is being used as a virtual platform. Obviously it is still early days with the potential of Augmented and Virtual reality continuing to improve in direct relation to advancements in software and hardware price and performance.

Augmentation applications on iOS and Android are gaining popularity and include a variety of useful and fun features such as product visualisations (e.g. Augment), Translations (e.g. Word Lens), Search (e.g. Google Goggles), Compass (e.g. Play Aid) and many more. While these applications are useful in their own right the good news is that additionally they are all paving the way for further refined use of the technology for real benefits.

So will Virtual Reality now explode into the Enterprise? My guess is probably not. This technology is not necessarily (or perhaps just not currently) sensible for all scenarios. Additionally there can be downsides such as privacy concerns, information overload/filtering, and even motion sickness. Perhaps further advancements in display and user input such as holographic, mind machine interfaces, implants, or contact lenses will enable a more ubiquitous reach for these technologies.

For industries and scenarios discussed that are already using the technologies many where early adopters. This is certainly the case for design based industries such as industrial and automotive. There is now some encroachment for certain products with the influx of 3d printing. However a Virtual world allows for a more immersive experience (take for example a concept vehicle). Additionally aeronautical and military applications such as flight simulations are some of the earliest examples of Virtual Technology. For these types of industries/scenarios the Virtual style technology is only going to improve. But for the vast majority of business computer use a Tron style environment is not likely to be productive! From time to time we've all met or worked with someone that seemed to be operating in their own reality. With continued large technology investments becoming commonplace, it won’t be long before the next great advancements in the Mobile Computing, Augmented, and Virtual Reality. This could really change the meaning of “operating in their own reality”. I can only imagine that with Google not grabbing Oculus and with Augmented Reality contact lenses already in production it must be about time for the Google “HoloDeck” announcement. Please count me in as a “Holo-explorer”!

This article was originally published on Enterprise Mobility Network

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Internet of Our Things

There is a lot of talk and statistics around about the internet of things (IOT) and the amazing number of connected devices. But the real questions are: how can these connections be leveraged and where is the benefit? Is the internet of things another marketing buzz-word like big data or cloud?

A quick recap in case you have been living in a cave with a dial-up modem. What is IOT? Everyone seems pretty clear on what the internet is these days. However the thing (pun intended) that confuses a lot of people is what are the things? Generally speaking these things:

·         Capture (e.g. video, audio, temperature, heart rate, location, etc.)
·         Process (e.g. ETL, editing, controlling, analysis, etc.)
·         Store (e.g. historians, NAS, cloud, etc.)
·         Distribute (e.g. visual-display, loud-speakers, network components, etc.)

In other words web cameras, televisions, hard drives, routers, tablets, computers (and yes mobile phones) are all common examples of connected devices. Increasingly manufacturers are “connecting” every other type of thing they can think of. Some examples include air conditioners, refrigerators, cars, and biometric equipment to name just a few. Don’t forget the wearables, jury is still out on their uptake, they are certainly adding more ‘things’ to the internet.

So is the internet of things a simple equation? Where IOT = ‘things’ + internet. This is of course one definition. For me it’s not about the number of connected devices but instead beneficial use cases that leverage multiple connected devices. The trick of course is the beneficial part. So for example, if your television determines your favourite shows by reviewing your credit card and browser history, downloads these shows automatically, and when you get home turns itself on and shows you its handy-work. Is this of benefit? Likewise is it actually useful for your coffee machine to know what TV show you are watching? If you are like me many of my appliances are not left plugged in but instead go back in a cupboard when unused.

Historically the IOT topic has been one for business. For decades industry, with PLC and other sensors, has used connected devices to great benefit. In areas such as Manufacturing, FMCG, Mining, and Pharmaceuticals data gathered from machinery has reduced manual effort and increased yields. However connecting one or more devices to gather data or control remotely is the thin edge of IOT. In the home an early example of similar technology can be seen in the home stereo market. Manufacturers understood the benefit of allowing consumers to connect different components together for the purposes of control and content sharing. Now many more industries are leveraging the benefits of the IOT. Areas such as:
·         Medical
·         Sports Science
·         Finance
·         Military & Law Enforcement
·         Automotive
·         Entertainment

These industries and many more are innovating, checking feasibility, and finding benefits in a variety of use cases including Biometrics, Remote Monitoring, Connected & Targeted Sales, Marketing, and Advertising. With the changing times and evolving technologies come many more possibilities. This can be considered a double edged sword for the enterprise sector. While consumer spend drives rapid innovation and competition. It doesn’t focus on areas important to most organisations (for example standards, stability, support, and security).

One of the last remaining barriers to getting the most out of IOT is of course common agreed standards. Much work is occurring in this area however there is still more to do. It wouldn’t be surprising if this becomes a tech battleground like BETA versus VHS or Blue-Ray versus HD-DVD. Giant companies that manufacture many different consumer products have been able to keep to their own standards. However this is not much more than an extension of the old home stereo example (where each company used proprietary cabling and messaging). To make the most of the possibilities of the IOT requires that the 'things' used in a solution are able to communicate effectively. Usually for cost /benefit reasons when a solution is implemented it is only focused on its own specific outcomes. For IOT to accelerate organisations need to think longer term and broader than just an individual product or project. The good news is that some companies are beginning to team up to produce standards.

Speaking of good news there are some great success stories when it comes to IOT. One that always springs to mind was the SETI project. While I’m not sure it actually found any extra-terrestrial intelligence it did spark innovation and collaboration across the world. Along with WIFI, and more recently NFC, another great success has been Bluetooth. From its introduction the Bluetooth earpiece often lead to awkward social situations! In the early days of Bluetooth many experienced the unfortunate one sided elevator conversation. However Bluetooth has allowed conversations to take place hands free while driving or when just out and about. It really has been successful in severing the cord that connected phones to other devices. Bluetooth relatively short distance standard allows file sharing and proximity based services between trusted (or untrusted) partners. And judging by the amount of consumer devices available Bluetooth is increasingly used between mobile phones and a variety of other peripheral devices (headphones, speakers, car hands free, and network sharing, etc.)

What has this IOT got to do with mobility anyway? Since their arrival in the 80's mobile phones have continued to increase in capability and popularity. Now reaching saturation point in many markets they are much more than just a device for making calls. Mobile phones are a very personal item, increasingly used more than any other personal possession. Modern phone capabilities cover all aspects of the 'things' in the internet of things.  Mobile Phones:
·         Capture (photos and videos of loved ones.)
·         Process (editing, computing, controlling)
·         Store (every model has greater capacity)
·         Distribute (view, listen, and share)

As you can see mobile phones are an enabling IOT technology. With their wide variety of increasing capabilities including proximity and geo-location the use cases are endless. As technology evolves so does society and acceptable social norms. A while back bulletin boards where used by a relatively small group of early adopters. As the internet proliferated IRC chat became a popular communication tool. This was followed by instant messaging and social networks which combine the features of the past with new easily accessible features. In the future will IOT innovation bring biometric social networking? 

This article was originally published at Enterprise Mobility Network