A New Burst for Augmented Reality

Augmented reality may finally be close to becoming very real, with significant implications for how clients operate and, eventually, for insurers.

Augmented reality and I go way back, to when it burst on the scene in the early 1990s. As a technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal, I was a skeptic especially about virtual reality (where a headset provides an immersive experience unrelated to the physical world around the wearer) but also about augmented reality (where goggles add images or other information to what the wearer sees through the glasses).

In fact, while the VR/AR concept was clearly powerful, the technology wasn't close to good enough yet to provide even a useful experience -- the computing power in the devices was about one-millionth of what is available today, thanks to the exponential improvements in electronics.

In the last decade, enthusiasm returned. Facebook bought Oculus for $3 billion in 2014, when the VR company still barely even had a product. Pokemon Go had hundreds of millions of people in 2016 trying to "catch" Pokemon projected onto the real world via an AR app downloaded onto their phones. But interest faded again. VR/AR made only modest inroads, primarily in some video games.

Just in the past week, though, an announcement suggests that augmented reality may be close to becoming very real. There could be significant changes in how clients operate and, eventually, in how insurers themselves do business.

The announcement came from the U.S. Army, which said it is buying $21 billion of AR headsets from Microsoft "to help soldiers map the battlefield, select targets and stay aware of possible threats by overlaying intelligence information directly onto their field of vision." Even beyond the Army's hefty endorsement of the technology, the contract for AR headsets will give Microsoft a lot of real-world experience with AR and will finance a great deal of continued research and development. Microsoft might initially focus on providing AR for its growing video game franchises but will surely look for ways to bring AR to its bread-and-butter corporate customers, too.

I suspect that early uses in the business world will be at the fringes, rather than in routine work, where augmentation would help far less, if at all. For instance, AR could allow measurable improvement in certain types of inspections.

Perhaps someone repairing equipment that he doesn't see often, or that may even be decades old, will have his AR glasses project schematics on the device, with information from the manual projected just off to the side. Perhaps someone conducting an inspection could look at a valve or pipe and, right next to it, have an image projected showing what it should look like. There could even be some interplay: An artificial intelligence or a centrally located expert person could be viewing the same scene through the AR's "eyes" and offer guidance.

There has long been optimism about AR applications in medicine, especially surgery, given that the surgeon doesn't know exactly what she'll find inside until she cuts into a person -- amalgamating all the pre-surgery scans into an image that could be projected onto the patient could provide some initial guidance. I think of Sam, my closest friend growing up, who is wonderfully educated and trained (Harvard undergrad, Yale med school, surgical residency at Massachusetts General), but who petrified his mother when he became the chief resident in the cardiac unit and was the one using a jigsaw to cut through patients' sternums at the beginning of heart surgery. "Do those doctors know he flunked wood shop?" Sam's mother once asked me.

In time, AR could work from edge cases into the mainstream. For instance, workers in industrial settings might start wearing goggles that are designed to provide technical information, as summoned by the user, but could also then head off accidents -- maybe a flashing stop sign is projected onto an intersection in a factory because an overhead camera has spotted a forklift speeding toward it right as you're about to get in the way. Once AR glasses earn their way onto the bridges of people's noses, all sorts of workplaces can become not only more efficient but safer.

The same sorts of warnings could be provided for cars, where AR glasses could give drivers the sort of heads-up display that fighter pilots have on their windshields. I don't imagine a reprise of Google Glass, which tried to do too much, hoping to provide a new way of looking at the whole world. But I can see the value of glasses that would warn the driver of an accident ahead or even of a blind intersection known to be dangerous. People could use some combination of voice and head movements to control the car environment so they wouldn't have to take their eyes off the road. As so-called connected cars begin communicating with each other and with "smart" infrastructure, the AR could also deliver warnings of a car that you can't see but that is braking hard on a crowded freeway just ahead of you. Or the AR could alert you that a car recently skidded on some black ice on a stretch of road you're about to reach.

Once AR becomes widely adopted, adjusters could well use the glasses to not only help assess damage on site but to have estimates of repair costs and timeframes appear right next to what they're seeing.

And, as always, clever people will come up with a far broader list of potential uses as the technology takes hold, both among clients and in the insurance industry itself.

As history shows, AR will take time to spread -- but I'm more optimistic than I've been in 30 years.

Stay safe.


P.S. These are the six articles I'd like to highlight from the past week:

Want Some Insurance With That?

Insurance is becoming the French fries in a meal deal--offered as part of another transaction at a moment of need. The change is profound.

The Digital Journey in Personal Lines

Personal lines insurers are focusing on self-service capabilities for policyholders, especially for policy service and claims.

Post-Pandemic: 4 Tips for Independent Agents

There is an opportunity to improve on objectives like paperless processes, remote relationship building and digital communications.

Rational Ignorance and the Protection Gap

Insurers need to acknowledge rational ignorance as a major sales obstacle; that could be a first step in a recovery for life insurance.

In Search of the Digital X-Factor

How commercial insurers capture, clean and use data across their distribution channels will become their competitive lifeblood.

The Cost of Uncivil Discourse

The successful rollout of vaccines worldwide will calm many but will not, alone, decrease the risk of civil disturbances and riots.

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.