Getting Real About Reality – Augmented Reality for Technical Communicators

By, Raj Kiran

Apple’s recent acquisition of Metaio (an Augmented Reality (AR) software company based in Germany) is a clear indication that heavy hitters in the industry are seriously considering the game-changing capabilities that AR-based technology has to offer.

According to an independent survey, the Augmented Reality market which had approximately 60-million users in 2013, is expected to grow to a whopping 200-million users by 2018! Statistics aside, sooner or later Augmented Reality is going to worm its way into pretty much all facets of our daily lives.

Before we can begin examining ways by which AR can be an agent of change for technical communicators, let us look back at the Boeing design and development center in 1990.

A Brief History of AR

Thomas Caudell, a senior researcher at Boeing was working with head-mounted Virtual Reality (VR) headsets for years to simulate their state-of-the-art engines and aircraft machinery. These VR headsets simulated a completely digital world to the wearer. He soon realized that it was possible to blend the real world with the virtual world and create an experience like none other. The rest is history, and the word Augmented Reality was coined by Caudell.

Unlike Virtual Reality, where the information displayed is completely computer generated; Augmented Reality uses real world objects as a platform or base to display computer-generated imagery/information. Essentially the real world is Augmented or Supplemented by the digital/virtual world.

A Simple Use Case Scenario

Imagine yourself taking a pleasant stroll around the iconic Times Square, New York. It’s your first visit to the city, and you want to withdraw some money. Since you have never been here before, you do not know where the nearest cash machine is located.

How could AR technology be your little helper?

Simple. You could pull up an AR-based app on your smartphone and use the camera to scan your surroundings the app not only locates the nearest ATM in your field of view, but also highlights the actual ATM with an arrow or pointer on top of it! Easy, and also a whole lot of fun!

Similarly your customer could simply scan your product with the camera or point it a certain location on the screen to get interactive procedures or documentation delivered within seconds.
A question that often comes up is; “If AR has been around for so many years, why isn’t it more popular? And why are people now showing renewed interest in its applications?” The renewed interest in this technology is due to the impressive processing power now available in smart mobile devices. The processing power which was required to run an AR app in the 90’s is now readily available on almost all mobile phones.

AR and Technical Communication

Let’s now look at why Technical writers the world over are embracing AR. Most of the users these days prefer to access information on their mobile devices. Intelligent information can be displayed by using the smartphone camera as a trigger. Software installed on the smartphone recognizes the camera image and overlays it with hotspots that can be activated to display relevant information.

Deploying an AR Experience is Easier Than Ever Before!

The prerequisites of a mobile device to deliver a top-notch AR experience is now more or less standard hardware/software that comes equipped with most devices, some of these are:

  • Touchscreen
  • Motion sensors
  • Camera
  • GPS
  • Sound
  • HD Display
  • 3D/Graphics

What Type of Content Can Be Delivered and How?

Typically, AR content can be segmented into very specific elements and can include the following:

  • Procedural or task-oriented content
  • Reference content
  • Geo-location or position mapping content

To deliver documentation via AR, a Technical Communicator will essentially need:

  • A 3D model, video or a web-link
  • An AR enabled SDK/App
  • Interactive app interface/design

A number of software companies now provide AR capabilities for deployment of content. Some big names are Metaio, Layar, Augment, Vuforia etc.

Alternatively, a company with strong app development and interaction design capabilities can homebrew an app by using the standard AR SDK available for Android and iOS.

Interactive and Intuitive Design is the Key!

An AR based app that delivers rich media documentation needs to be easy to use, and as interactive as possible. A few key elements to consider while designing your AR app are:

  • Use gestures like Swipe, Pinch, and Hold to increase interactivity
  • Consider layout modes like Landscape and Portrait during development
  • Avoid cluttering the app with too many buttons; keep it simple
  • Disclose only those regions of the app which are relevant to a certain user demographic
  • Feedback is key; include a mechanism that enables users to provide inputs for improvement

Markers Vs Marker less

AR experiences can be delivered via what are popularly known as Markers, which is actually the physical documentation itself. The user can scan a portion of the user documentation to bring up AR content, like 3D models, web links, or videos.

In certain cases a user may scan a portion of the physical product (Marker less) to display helpful information. For example, information such as location of ports and connectors, or feature related information is overlaid on the object itself.

Choosing a Marker or Marker less method would depend entirely upon the type of document being deployed for AR. A few scenarios where one is preferred over the other are listed below:

Marker Marker-less
Specifications Disassemble guide
Video link Install guide
Web links Port/node identification

Augmented Reality in Medicine and Healthcare

AR based apps are already changing how medical professionals perform their day-to-day tasks. There are several apps which are already in use by several medical professionals and new apps are being developed every day.

A few of the popular ones are:

  • AccuVein – A handheld scanner that projects over skin. It shows nurses and doctors where veins and their valves and bifurcations are located in a patient’s body.
  • ARnatomy – An AR based app that helps medical students learn anatomy.

A few examples of AR done right

What next?

AR is not only the future of information design and delivery, it also has a clear advantage over other recent wearable technologies like Google Glass or Magic Leap. A regular smartphone is all that is needed to deliver a stunning and interactive experience. So, go ahead and take the plunge into the exciting realm of Augmented Reality. Help just got more real.

About the Author

Raj Kiran is a Senior Technical Writer at Dell R&D center, Bangalore. He is passionate about Augmented Reality and its scope for technical communicators. He has been actively following the latest trends in AR for more than a decade. He recently presented a paper at the STC conference (Pune 2015) on applying Augmented Reality in technical documentation. He can be reached at