by Yossi Karp
An Augmented Selfie of Yossi Karp
Technical Communication is on the verge of an upheaval. We have been told for years that the PDF is dying a slow death, to be replaced with on-line, flexible, modular, responsive, and interactive formats.
We are already moving away from the written word as the primary medium for instructional guides. 3D animation and live-action video are engaging ways to communicate information, but those solutions are so pre-2015.
The next big thing in technical communication is augmented reality (AR). When a user looks through glasses, goggles or at a mobile device, software layers virtual objects on top of the physical environment so that it seems to the user that the virtual object is actually there. Users can then interact with those virtual objects in 3D space.
The possibilities for AR are endless. Healthcare, design, gaming, education, marketing, and of course, instructional guides are just some of the practical applications for AR.
Technical communication is about presenting information clearly and in a user-friendly manner. Good technical communication enables users to get on with the job as efficiently as possible. For certain types of documentation, AR answers that need better than any other currently available technology.
Imagine that a service technician needs to replace a part in a machine. The technician puts on a pair of AR glasses and looks at the machine from any angle. The software maps the 3D space, and recognizes the machine and its parts. The technician uses a virtual touch-screen, seemingly suspended in mid-air, to select the required procedure. Screws, panels, and brackets are highlighted so that the technician can easily identify and remove them. The software runs in real-time at the technician’s pace so that it progresses to the next step only when the previous step is successfully completed. Dangerous parts are highlighted with a red overlay, and warning symbols flash if the technician is about to put himself in danger. Visual cues, such as pulsing arrows, show the technician which way to pull the part out of the machine. A voice-over might add to the experience by providing further information, instructions, or safety warnings.
While AR at that level of engagement is exciting to think about, it sounds like something out of Star Trek, Minority Report, or at least, Back to the Future. This concept video from 2009 shows a BMW technician using AR glasses to walk him through the steps of fixing a car. In 2009, those glasses were science fiction. But the thing is, it isn’t 2009 anymore.
There are already tools available to enable you to turn your smartphone or tablet into an AR device. Point the camera at an object and the software recognizes it and overlays virtual 3D elements. The experience is less immersive than a headset, but the technology is proven and is available right now. For instance, in this video the AR application provides instructions for using an Epson multifunction printer. A written procedure, video or even 3D animation can’t provide that level of immersive, interactive communication.
In this example, the user points an iPad at a picture on a printed brochure and the product springs to life in full 3D. Imagine what you can show your users when they point their iPad at a 2D graphic or QR code in your documentation or on your web site. The possibilities are limitless.
Magic Leap, an AR company, recently released this exciting video, showing off some of the cool things they are working on.
Microsoft is planning to release its HoloLens AR headset as soon as December 2015. HoloLens, demonstrated earlier this year, is a powerful, cable-free, stand-alone device that promises to deliver a spectacularly immersive experience. And if you think that devices like HoloLens will be out of the average consumer’s price range, you’d be mistaken. Pundits estimate that the retail price for a HoloLens headset will be between $500-$900 US – cheaper than most mid-range laptops.
Augmented reality is not going to replace all forms of technical documentation; the written word, video and animation will still be around for some time. However, augmented reality has real-world advantages that other media do not. As technical communicators, we should explore the possibilities that augmented reality has to offer, and grab the opportunity to get in early on this mind-blowing technology.
Yossi Karp is a Technical Communicator at Stratasys Ltd. He blogs at www.ykarp.com and curates a Flipboard magazine “Everyone Needs One of These” at www.ykarp.com/magazine.