The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and its underlying technologies are changing the world writes Prof Louis C H Fourie.
JOHANNESBURG -  The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and its underlying technologies are changing the world in a way that we would have never thought possible. 

One of the technologies integral to the 4IR is Augmented Reality (AR), which is impacting most industries such as sport, healthcare, aviation, tourism, retail and education and is changing the way organisations operate.

Without knowing it, many people are experiencing the use of AR on a daily basis, especially those watching the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup – that is to say, if you have not been discouraged by the performance of the South African team. AR is used to assist umpires in making the right decisions. A series of 30 cameras cover each match, including the Spidercam that flies above the field on wires. Tiny cameras are also fitted to the stumps to give viewers a real feeling of the speed of the ball often travelling up to 160 km/h.

But it is the infrared cameras that detect the hotspot or heat generated at the point of impact on the player’s pad. It is great help to the umpire in calling a player out since the ball takes less than a second to reach the end of the pitch.

Just as important is the Hawk-Eye above the action. Hawk-eye is used in tennis and cricket to track the ball as it flies through the air. Using a combination of computer algorithms and AR graphics it creates a representation of the path of the ball to determine whether the umpire should declare a batsman out due to leg-before-wicket. 

In the healthcare industry, few people would argue with the importance of highly accurate surgery. By using advanced AR, surgeons can now perform surgical procedures with a reduced error rate of about 50%. The AR superimposes the 3D image from the MRI scan on the body part of the patient that has to be operated on, not only pinpointing the exact point of surgery such as the tumour that has to be removed, but also eliminating the need of the surgeon to look away from the critical area to consult the scanned images. Doctors all over the world perform thousands of surgeries each day using AR to augment their vision.

AR is just as valuable in retail and can realistically show stock not on display due to a scarcity of space. It can further personalise the shopping experience by assisting with shelf and item identification in a large shop setup. All that is needed, is an app on your smartphone to guide your directly to the product you are looking for. Simultaneously, retailers can track the activity of consumers and with the use of data analytics can make informed decisions regarding stock and merchandising.

In education AR can tremendously enhance the learning experience of students. Whether they are studying a complex aircraft engine or human anatomy, AR can help by laying a virtual layer on top of the physical object to create an immersive experience.

A new start-up, RosieReality, with a mission to introduce children to programming and robotics, are using a friendly AR robot called Rosie. Rosie is an exploration robot from a distant galaxy that accidently crashed on the Earth. The children now need to help the robot to recover her memory and explore planet Earth.

When the app is installed on a smartphone, Rosie, the virtual robot, can be programmed using simple commands. The virtual robot only moves when programmed and not via the touchscreen. It differs from games that are completely set in a virtual world, by merging the virtual and real worlds through AR. Rosie is a much more affordable way to expose children to robotics and programming without owning an expensive real robot.

The tourism industry is very well placed for the use of AR. Many apps are available on smartphones that provide an AR experience when walking through a city or historical building or when sightseeing. When directing your smartphone in a specific direction, it will point out the names of buildings, mountain peaks, restaurants and many more, as well as display what the ancient building used to look like when visiting famous ruins.

The very popular AR game of a few years ago, Pokémon Go, were played by tens of millions of people each month during the height of the craze. They were all peering through their smart phones or tablets looking for game characters and would, strangely enough, walk and drive kilometres to find them. 

According to researchers, it is not the (fairly mundane) graphics that made the game so successful, but the successful integration of the physical and digital world. People just love to find objects hidden in their physical world and the travel component is an important part of the excitement and the game’s success. Perhaps unintentionally, the game did, however, had a major health benefit according to a study from Stanford University indicating that Pokémon Go added a total of 144 billion steps to the physical activity of players.

In a restaurant it is sometimes possible to get an immersive menu where the name of a dish suddenly comes to live with a 3D real image or video if you use your smart phone to look at it. 

This could be very useful if you are travelling in a country where you do not understand the language and want to see what the dish would look like.
Just like in the motor industry, the aviation industry also uses AR to assist maintenance staff with the complex maintenance tasks on aircrafts by overlaying virtual diagrams on the physical parts. The use of AR glasses has led to a dramatic reduction in time and costs in the aviation industry. 

At a crowded event it is easy to loose sight of children or friends. This is why Spanish car manufacturer SEAT and experiential innovation agency Wildbytes, in partnership with Google, have created an AR app, SEAT Lost&Sound, to locate friends at an event or festival. They revealed the app at the end of May at the Primavera Sound music festival in Barcelona, Spain. 

In order to be reunited with children or friends, the Lost&Sound app can be used to scan the festival space with the camera lens. If all parties installed the app, the icon chosen for the specific person will appear on the screen to indicate their position within the crowd, as well as indicate the distance from the seeker. It is also possible to send a signal to notify friends where you are and request them to share their signal if they have not done it. This use of AR really solves a problem often occurring at large events in a very innovative and playful way.

The app does this by combining the GPS information, the smartphone sensors, and spatial calculations through computer vision to get the best possible geo-location of the person to be located. The innovative app is pushing the current limits of what can be done with AR and geo-location. Unfortunately for South Africans, the app is currently only available in Europe in the Android and Apple app stores.

AR is certainly making great inroads in all industries. Soon change room mirrors in many retail stores will be replaced with AR mirrors than can change the colour and other features of dresses with the touch to the screen. 

There is no need to try on different colours or styles. 

Medical students will gain expert knowledge of surgery and engineering students of complex designs with the help of AR. And air cabin crew on the long haul flights will be able to serve you better because they would be able to detect your current mood through the use of AR.

AR is not a luxury anymore. It is becoming a necessity for almost every business and industry. It is not wonder that the International Data Corporation (IDC), a global market intelligence firm, projects a compounded average growth rate of more than 75% in AR in the next five years.
 
Prof Louis C H Fourie is a Futurist and Technology Strategist.

BUSINESS REPORT