The Internet of Things may be hogging the headlines, but the real “game changer” for the service industry is augmented reality, according to Cranfield University’s Dr. Howard Lightfoot.

The biggest benefit “is in the area of key metrics, one being first-time fix rate — the ‘big one’ for field service — and the other, mean time to repair,” Lightfoot says.

Howard Lightfoot

Howard Lightfoot

Field service engineers, equipped with a special headset, smart glasses or other wearable device, can see information about the product they are looking at overlaid on the actual product. There’s no need to search for information on their laptop; it’s right in front of them, and they have both hands free to deal with it.

With quicker access to product information, problems can be fixed faster and hopefully more accurately. It also means that lesser skilled (and therefore cheaper) engineers can be sent out into the field, while more experienced specialists can stay back at the ranch, providing help on more complex problems.

The quality goes up and rework goes down. — Howard Lightfoot

It is (or will be) a case of happy customers and happy service suppliers. “The quality goes up and rework goes down,” Lightfoot says. “If you can reduce the first-time fix rate and mean time to repair, there’s a payback because you have happy customers, and also you’ll spend less money doing the work.”

Given these mutual customer and supplier benefits, it’s not surprising that the market for augmented reality (AR) is expected to be huge. In November 2015, ABI Research projected a $100B market for augmented and virtual reality by 2020.

Lightfoot believes the speed of adoption will ramp up fast.

VR_SAP and Vuzix

“Go back two or three years and people were saying it’s going to be seven years or so before AR even gets thought about,” says Lightfoot. “Now people are saying that in two or three years it’s going to be out there, and if you’re not doing it, you’re going to be behind the pace.”

A combination of increased processing power, memory, communications, and display capabilities — all bundled in a very cheap headset or other wearable device — give this technology a real potential for widespread use.

You’ve got to have the buy-in of the guys out there in the field. If they are nervous or think it causes more trouble than it’s worth, then the adoption rate will go down. — Howard Lightfoot

But it has yet to take off on a mass scale, which Lightfoot attributes to “early adopter syndrome.” While the technology is all there, the confidence to take that leap of faith (however the benefits stack up) is lacking.

“You’ve got to have the buy-in of the guys out there in the field,” Lightfoot points out. “If they are nervous or think it causes more trouble than it’s worth, then the adoption rate will go down. It is a bit costly in terms of devices at the moment. It’s not proven yet. But what is proven is how much it can help.”

Device costs might be a barrier to some, but the price is coming down. It will soon be possible to get a decent headset for $200 to $300, Lightfoot estimates.

There are also a few technical issues to be ironed out, Lightfoot admits, most notably with field of vision. “It’s like looking down a tunnel,” he says. “So, if you want to look at something else, you have to move your head all the time. As the field of view improves, it will just be like looking through ordinary spectacles.”

Lightfoot also believes that it will take more time and development before AR is used for servicing safety-critical systems. While aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus, have been tinkering with AR and wearable tech for years, they do not currently use AR in flight-critical areas. Where AR and VR can make a huge difference in safety-critical situations is for training, helping people learn faster and with greater accuracy.

For Lightfoot, the biggest returns are for companies that are servicing complicated products.

“The more complex the product, the more I think it will lend itself to AR to get that information out into the field,” he says.

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ABOUT Janine Milne

Avatar photoJanine Milne has been writing about HR, technology and business for more than 20 years, both as a freelancer and as an in-house editor.