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How Augmented Reality Can Enhance Workforce Training


Although still in development, augmented reality is becoming a powerful workforce tool, allowing early adopters to strengthen their teams, speed delivery and improve quality.

Self-driving cars, Star Wars-like holograms, 3-D printing and even hoverboards have emerged from the realm of science fiction and have now reached the prototype stage or early commercial use. Another once-futuristic technology that will soon be mainstream is augmented reality, which – according to Gartner – will become an important workplace tool. Given the technology’s ability to superimpose digital data on the physical world, many first-movers in retail, manufacturing, utilities, education, tourism and gaming are far along in conducting field trials.  

Powered by existing smartphones and specialized eyewear, augmented reality has so far proved to be very comfortable and user friendly, similar to the overlay tutorials or “walk-throughs” used in popular video games such as Call of Duty, Madden NFL and others. Unlike virtual reality, however – which removes users from real-world environments in favor of fictional ones – augmented reality enhances users’ ability to manipulate their immediate surroundings. As such, the technology is being applied to field service, industrial design and training applications, among others. 

Workforce training and development may present the biggest commercial opportunity. A recent Columbia University study concluded that users guided by augmented reality completed the same task in 53% of the time and more accurately than a control group using traditional forms of instruction (i.e., printed manuals, lectures and DVDs). The primary reason for the gains was augmented reality’s hands-free, immersive approach. 

Such time and defect savings lead to big gains, reports the American Society for Training and Development. For instance, an increase of $680 in training expenditures per employee generates a 6% improvement in total shareholder returns, the trade group found.

Training efficiencies through augmented reality can also reduce costly churn. For example, among workers with poor training opportunities, 41% plan to leave their employers within a year, a Louis Harris and Associates poll found. Only 12% plan to leave who consider their company’s training opportunities to be “excellent.” With so much at stake, the training appeal of augmented reality is easy to see. 

How Augmented Training Works

With augmented reality, workers can learn procedures more effectively and perform them more accurately, thanks to animation-based instructions and reference materials overlaid onto physical equipment. Thus, the dependency on hard copy instructions or user manuals is eliminated, and the understanding of how to fix issues is visually and specifically communicated.

Consider a classroom of 20 newly recruited machine operators. Instead of a 100-page training manual and a multi-day classroom lecture, aspiring operators could be trained on a replica (or actual) machine in the classroom. Equipped with a tablet and special eyewear, the workers could interact with the equipment in a guided way, using gestures and touch to familiarize themselves with each part of the machine. The machine operators could even expand or hide different elements of their augmented reality to assist with, gauge and clarify their learning (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1

Compared with more static techniques, augmented reality enables trainees to better understand procedural curriculum and apply it more quickly. Learning is more uniform, preliminary research shows, and confidence is significantly enhanced, leading to even more speed and quality gains. 

Augmented training is also better suited to a cross-generational blend of older, baby boomer, Gen X and millennial workers, each with differing workforce expectations and learning styles. 

Deploying a successful augmented training program requires three key ingredients: content, hardware and software. The content is the educational text, art and sounds needed to overlay onto a visible environment. This is what augments the user’s reality. Together with context-aware hardware – notably, head-mounted displays from Meta, zSpace, Optivent and others – and sophisticated (often custom) software, the content engages, enlightens and encourages the user. 

Augmented reality can do more than just make workers smarter and more effective, however; it can also make the machines themselves more intelligent by reconciling metadata with stored worker interactions. In fact, Gartner predicts that “by 2018, the total cost of ownership for business operations will be reduced by 30% through the use of smart machines and industrialized services.” 

Looking Forward

Augmented reality is a potential game-changer, with its promise to produce experiences that reduce hardware and people dependencies while improving product quality and delivery. Over the next four years, the augmented reality market is poised to grow by 97%. In parallel, businesses are increasing their investment in workforce training by 15% to identify capability gaps and cultivate future skills. In areas where augmented reality is expected to succeed, interactive learning is among the most encouraging, as the potential for effective, fast and less costly training are profound. 

To learn more, read Augmented Reality: A New Workforce Mobilization Paradigm or visit our Human Capital Management Practice

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How Augmented Reality Can Enhance Workforce Training