May 2016
By Rhonda Truitt and Christine Perey

Image: © www.microsoft.com

Rhonda Truitt is a well-respected leader in technical communication with years of experience directing Fortune 500 Companies’ technical documentation and training departments. She is the Director of Innovation & Best Practices, Technical Communication at Huawei Technologies. She is the co-founder and co-chair of the OASIS AR in Information Products Technical Committee and a member of The AREA board.


rhonda.truitt[at]huawei.com
www.huawei.com


 


Christine Perey is the founder and principal analyst of PEREY Research & Consulting. She provides highly strategic research, business- and market-building related services with an emphasis on building robust strategies leading to the successful introduction and widespread adoption of Augmented Reality products and services.


christine[at]theAREA.org
http://theAREA.org
www.perey.com


 


 


 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The authors wish to thank the following experts for their review and feedback on this paper:
Farhad Patel, Huawei Technologies and Sally Martir, Huawei Technologies.

The future of Augmented Reality in the workplace

Augmented Reality (AR) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are well on their way to revolutionizing not only the way we work, but also what we – as technical communicators – deliver to customers. Coupled with improved wearable devices for hands-free work, these technologies have the power to increase productivity, efficiency and work quality.

It is the year 2022. Many products are built to order and to specification using 3D printing and advanced materials. When Joe arrives at the ACME workplace, he learns that the team responsible for the assembly of a new section of the latest wind turbine (that his company must deliver on time to a customer) has been summoned to repair another mission-critical system damaged in an overnight storm. Assembling the new section will now be Joe’s job. However, he has been working on other components and although he is familiar with the equipment, he is untrained for this delicate task.

After putting on his protective boots and garments, he puts his thumb on the fingerprint recognition pad and looks straight into the camera. A green light appears showing that he has been recognized and is cleared to choose a pair of form-fitting, transparent safety glasses with AR support from a rack. He receives a three-minute training video on the features of this new model of display and answers a few questions to configure the system to his level of training.

As Joe enters the facility door, the system detects his position and directs him to the part of the factory where he can see the materials clearly identified with a shimmering halo and the tools he needs to perform the assembly. Joe then receives step-by-step audiovisual instructions for the tasks. He documents that the assembly is continuing according to schedule. He uses both hands, and his attention is focused entirely on his work. Although Joe has no prior experience with the process, he is able to rely on technology to assess his progress. If Joe encounters any problems or has questions that are not part of the documentation, he can establish a remote-assistance session with off-site experts to resolve the issue without delay.

The workplace of the future

Compared with today, in the workplace of the future our technologies will have matured considerably. While today some "intelligent machines" are being introduced, 99 percent of equipment remains unconnected. In the future, most physical objects will be connected to and communicating with one another. People will no longer just be programming, configuring and supervising machines. Instead, the worker will be an integral part of the dynamic "fabric" of sophisticated processes in connected environments. Sensors in garments, buildings, and objects will rapidly send information about current conditions that aids decision-makers and management. Humans will be able to respond to and perform new or complex procedures.

As a component of this future workplace, AR has many promising benefits for the enterprise user. As illustrated in the scenario above, by using new hardware and software, AR-enabled systems promise to provide individualized information in context at the level best suited for the worker, thus helping him to perform new and unfamiliar tasks quickly and without errors. This is more than theoretical. As reported in a research study conducted by Boeing and Iowa State University (ISU), users of AR can complete job tasks faster when they view instructions on a tablet via an AR experience, compared to when they view traditional instructions on a tablet or another type of screen. The study also reported that AR users had a 94 percent reduction in quality errors. The data proved that by employing AR, users remained more focused on their task with less bouncing back and forth between the task and the documentation.

By detecting changes in the workplace, identifying risks and reducing exposure of employees to those risks, AR will make the workplace of the future safer and more efficient, and help to deploy people in an optimized manner. Workers will not be limited by their years of experience and certifications, but will be supported at any time by those who have experience.

Meanwhile, down on planet Earth

While this technology is still in the early stages of introduction, Augmented Reality is on the technical writer’s radar today. This article is dedicated to the topic because technical communicators are at the forefront of developing the raw information that could one day be delivered in Joe’s smart glasses. Without people to develop and code the content, there is no point in wearing the new hardware. Without technical communicators developing task flows and ensuring the integration of IT systems to deliver the right content, at the right level, at the right time, Joe’s day will be far less productive and the assembly of the turbines delayed.

We believe that the emergence of AR delivery systems will affect the field of technical communication. Not only will this technology influence technical documentation user requirements and the deliverables we provide to our customers, it will also impact processes, tools, and skills used during information development. Coupled with improved wearables for hands-free work, Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things will increase the productivity, efficiency and work quality of those who embrace it.

The role of technical communicators

Many, if not most, of the first wave of enterprise AR experiences are task-based procedures or instructions. The person who knows the most about user requirements, user work environments, user product experience and lingo is the technical communicator. Technical writers are also experts on user task analysis. They are often the bridge that connects product design with customers. It seems only logical, then, that technical communication departments should be involved in creating AR experiences. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as found by the research of the OASIS Committee for Augmented Reality in Information Products. If technical communicators do not embrace this opportunity to use AR technology to deliver task-based content, then someone else in their company will, and in some cases, they already have.

At Mobile World Congress in February, providers of wearable head-mounted displays (HMD) described scenarios that could potentially increase the productivity of technical communicators, reduce the time requirements of subject matter experts (SMEs), and improve the user experience.

Scenario 1

A head-mounted display allows an expert technician to record his correct performance of a complex procedure hands-free. While he is performing the procedure, he verbally describes the steps he is taking to accompany the video recordings. Once the process is captured and completed, the project is tagged with the agreed-upon project metadata and saved to the cloud.

A technical communicator finds the video he read about in the last product introduction meeting minutes. The AR application running on both the HMD and the tablet has an object recognition feature. This allows the technical communicator to find any content stored on the cloud related to the piece of equipment he is looking at through the tablet camera. The technical communicator locates and views the video created by the expert. He adds textual step-by-step instructions and some GUI features following the corporate style guide to create task-based procedures for his customers.

In another scenario, an instructional designer takes the same video created by the expert, and circles some components while the expert is talking. The AR 3D overlay serves to draw attention to the components. She adds some related images stored by the documentation team on the cloud. The original video created by the expert will now become a tutorial as part of a self-paced, e-learning course and a live webinar. The expert’s time is reduced from talking through the steps he performs with each of the two technical communicators, and he may not need to participate in the content review.

Scenario 2

A customer technician is wearing a HMD and comes across some corrosive-looking material on his equipment. He decides to make a call to technical support. He can do this via his head-mounted display because it has all of the functionality of a smartphone. The engineer who takes his call asks him to send a photo of the corrosive material. The customer takes the photo using his HMD and sends it to the technical support engineer who views it on his computer. He immediately recognizes it, as he has seen it many times before. He tells the customer technician that the corrosion is quite common and sends him some images of different occurrences as well as some documentation explaining the cause of it and how to address it. The customer immediately views the explanations through his HMD.

AR also has the potential to increase user-generated content (UGC). UGC has the potential to improve customer relationships while enhancing the documentation suite. It can provide source content that is difficult to come by, such as information on customer configurations that are not supported in the corporate lab or troubleshooting procedures for a fairly new software release. This can easily be captured with the HMD capabilities described above.

The digital revolution has already opened up opportunities for technical communicators and customers to interact. User forums and other social media allow customers to contribute their own content, which can be curated and formalized by the technical communicator. The customer relationship has become a two-way conversation with some companies such as Huawei, who have enabled their customers to email feedback directly to the authors of the content and to give the content a rating from one to five stars. AR takes this one step further. The user can employ an AR-enabled device and software to call technical support as described above, and share photos and videos back and forth with the engineer as they collaborate to resolve an actual fault at the customer site. This UGC can then be saved to the CCMS as trouble-shooting source content… an information developer’s dream!

In the example above, the frequency of support calls could potentially be collected by fault type and by customer site. A cross comparison analysis of different data points collected through the remote support AR feature could help find the root cause of certain problems when different data points are captured and analyzed with other data points over time. Another possible metric to collect is the duration of a task. This data could be captured using a hands-free display and used in customer documentation to set expectations. Data cross points collected and analyzed from the Internet of Things over a period of time will give technical communicators important statistics to make content strategy and investment decisions.

Let’s flash forward again, to 2022. As the leader of the technical communication department at ACME, Helene has sure seen her share of technology, organizational culture, and process changes in the past six years. She is proud of the skills her team has acquired and the change management they have worked through. Helene smiles to herself as she looks over her annual metric report. The year-over-year figures for customer errors and also for her team’s delivery release cycle have decreased for the third year in a row. The AR implementation strategy that she slowly rolled out across a five-year plan has really been a success with ACME’s customers, and also internally with her technical communication team and funders. But, now is not the time for a mini-celebration, Helene realizes as she taps on the AR projected keyboard on her desk. For now, she must finish up the ACME five-year rollout for an automated IoT and AI content strategy due tomorrow.