Should IT pros care about augmented reality?
Augmented reality (AR) has been on the cusp of transforming business and society as we know it for the last five years.
While it hasn't yet transformed in ways many have prophesied, that isn't to say that IT pros shouldn't keep AR in their sights.
As AR becomes a cheaper, quicker and more efficient alternative for businesses, IT teams may eventually have to deal with a new wave of devices and applications washing up at their data center's doorstep.
Fortunately, the biggest challenge of AR going mainstream in the workplace relates to the massive amounts of data it'll consume—something that the average IT pro is already well-equipped to deal with.
Augmentation or distraction?
In the ground-breaking video game Deus Ex, your character can access a range of “augmentations”: nanotech devices that, once installed on your person, enhance your abilities in various ways.
Some of those augmentations, like going invisible or seeing through walls, have obvious value in numerous circumstances.
Others, like an aqualung in a game with only three or four swimming sections, catered solely to players with more esoteric preferences. Fast forward almost twenty years later, and we find augmented reality in a similar situation.
Some industries, like retail and real estate, have found clear value in how AR can enhance physical experiences, whether it's by showing users how a shirt bought online will look on them, or how their furniture will fit their prospective new home.
Others could benefit from niche applications—the equivalent of Deus Ex's aqualung—like the CSIRO-developed goggles that let technical experts guide the hands of on-site maintenance workers thousands of kilometres away.
Most of these use cases have been limited so far by the capabilities of current AR hardware, but it's only a matter of time before the technology leaps forward, or developers go the way of Pokémon Go and commandeer existing smartphones.
At present, there are few use cases for augmented reality in the IT workspace: apart from some applications around data center or site maintenance, it's hard to dramatically re-engineer jobs which mostly involve people staring at screens.
That makes it deceptively easy for IT pros to write off the disruption that AR might cause to their operations as virtually impossible. However, they should resist the temptation to do so—just look at what happened with smartphones.
Prepare for data—and lots of it
The disruption caused by mobile devices, BYOD, and shadow IT has, like a series of mini-bosses in a '90s first-person shooter, prepared IT professionals for an augmented reality revolution.
Existing BYO policies can easily extend to AR devices, while the same application and network monitoring platforms will track how employees use them on the network.
Perhaps the biggest pressure that AR will bring to the IT environment relates to data—something most IT pros will find they're relatively comfortable in dealing with. Augmented reality, by default, consumes and transmits sizable amounts of data.
After all, you're overlaying real-world experiences with digital information that could just be the text-strings of a retro Heads-Up Display, but will more likely involve 3D models, videos, and other richly-detailed visual entities.
AR apps will also create significant data footprints of their own, particularly when monitoring how users—anyone from shoppers to surgeons—interact with their physical environments.
IT pros will need to provision enough storage and bandwidth to cope with any AR-authored increase in data.
Once even a few AR applications make it into mainstream enterprise usage, you could very well see data requirements tripling or even quadrupling, meaning IT will probably have to budget for growth of five times to guarantee sufficient buffer.
A piecemeal approach to expansion will ensure that IT pros can have the capacity they need by the time some “killer app” for AR breaks into the business mainstream.
And they'll have to start well ahead of time, given the tendency of other business functions to drag their heels on updating data centers and networks until the pain becomes unbearable.
AR will also have implications for data recovery, security, and technology training—all of which a decent IT team already know how to handle. Data recovery infrastructure simply needs to keep pace with increased bandwidth.
The same security measures that are applied to mobile devices—sandboxing, penetration testing, and compartmentalisation—should be equally applicable to any AR device that makes it into enterprise usage.
Training will fall not so much to IT, but to the business functions that develop the use cases for AR in the first place.
So should we care?
I don't know when AR is going to actually deliver on its promise to transform the world as we know it, but all signs point to it happening sooner rather than later.
Consumer apps like Pokémon Go have shown that the average user is ready to embrace it, and it's only a matter of time before some of its existing niche applications gain adoption amongst business leaders.
For now, the best thing IT pros can do is steadily provision bandwidth and data storage ahead of future growth, maintain rigorous monitoring of their organisational endpoints, and keep cybersecurity threats at front of mind.
AR might revolutionise business, but for IT pros, it's likely to just mean business as usual—and next-level gaming at home.