Augmented Reality (AR) has been long been predicted to become an important, even crucial aspect of field service operations in the future, yet in it’s first iteration it has failed to come close to reaching its potential as a radical force for evolution within our sector. However, as we begin to see a second iteration of AR in field service it is becoming an important part of a wider technology stack alongside the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. It is time to join the dots and bring AR tools to the fore within the field service sector writes Kris Oldland, Editor-in-Chief, Field Service News...
I've long been a proponent of the importance Augmented Reality (AR) will have in field service operations. Indeed, I’ve remained somewhat admittedly confounded by the fact that AR hasn’t gone ‘mainstream’ as yet in our sector. Admittedly, if I sit back in the cold, hard light of day and reflect on Gartner’s much loved and generally accurate hype cycle, I realise that’s not the case.
Indeed, the technology that has been exciting myself and others in the industry for some years now still has a journey down to the bottom of that famous curve before it finally reaches a point where it can be positioned as the industry-wide accepted tool, that I and many others have predicted.
However, if I’m honest, given that AR could yield the solution to one of the biggest challenges field service organisations face today - namely the rapid and sudden evolution of the field workforce from ‘Baby Boomer’ to ‘Millennial’ I still things have moved a little slowly. Our very industry is changing around us, and AR can (and I believe will) be crucial in bridging the gap between yesterday’s break-fix world to today’s ‘everything now, everything connected’ society and the customer expectations that come with it.
So yes, I would have thought we’d have seen more urgency in bringing this technology to the fore by now. I even remember thinking the same as far back as 2016 when reporting on a Field Service News research project that showed while over two-thirds of field service companies were embracing the Internet of Things (IoT) only around 10% of companies were exploring the potential of AR.
Obviously, the two emerging technologies of the time would impact field service in different ways.
I’m equally as big a proponent of connected field service as I am of AR, so it’s not that I felt companies should be investing and experimenting with one technology at the expense of the other. I just found it odd that an industry as forward-looking as ours that was actively embracing an exciting and innovative new tech in IoT was essentially snubbing IoT en masse.
"AR is currently being re-positioned not as an emerging technology within field service but as the interface for a new technology stack that also includes IoT and Artificial Intelligence..."
At the time, I concluded that it was mostly a case that we needed to see more competition in the sector to drive forward development and drive down costs. In the research I reference above nearly two-thirds of companies were using basic video services such as Skype or FaceTime to allow for engineer to engineer communications, so the concept of remote assistance to the field was proven.
It was just that the cost-benefit equation of AR didn’t quite balance as yet. Yes, AR was infinitely more powerful than free tools than such as Skype, but the costs remained prohibitive for most - when they could get by with something less sophisticated perhaps, but that was at little or even zero cost.
Fast forward to today, and it seems we are just about to hit that tipping point of cost coming down and the technology maturing. There are more vendors and, as a result, standards are rising and prices lowering. However, there has been one other factor that I didn’t blend into my thinking, which is also beginning to emerge. AR is currently being re-positioned not as an emerging technology within field service but as the interface for a new technology stack that also includes IoT and Artificial Intelligence.
This ladies and gentlemen is the game-changer. The conversations I am having with field service professionals and AR vendors alike now are all revolving around how we can get live data from IoT feeds in real time to our field service engineers to help them towards hitting the one KPI that remains king in field service, first-time-fix.
This adds such an essential layer of potential to AR beyond the broad discussions of ‘see-what-I-see’ over the shoulder remote support - which of course remains valuable in and of itself. However, the futuristic vision of an engineer being able to view an asset’s data directly overlayed onto the asset itself, with the cause of failure being easily identified is in reality just an API or two away. This makes for a compelling vision of what excellent field service will look in perhaps the not too distant future.
Even beyond this, the real glue that will bring all of this together will be the Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is what will allow us to translate the data generated by IoT connected assets and translate that into what our engineers need - insight and guidance on how best to solve the problem at hand. The last two waves of technological transformation came in isolation. First, there was the mobile revolution. Then we saw Cloud change the game once more.
This next revolution will be a stack of technologies working in harmony, and AR as the interface to them all will be the cornerstone.