Is augmented reality part of technical communication’s future?

While walking my dog last night I came upon a mother and her young son standing on the sidewalk. She was holding her smartphone high in front of her, pointing it toward the western sky.

As I came near she announced, “Mars and Venus.”


The Sky Map map (Screen shots from Google Play)

I learned the names of the planets and stars the old-fashioned way: standing outside on cold nights with my dad, and studying the sky atlas he gave me. But today I guess there’s an app for that. There are actually several apps, as a cursory Google search will attest.

I think it’s cool that you can aim your phone at the sky and learn the basics of stargazing. I think it’s very cool that many of the apps are using augmented reality.

When I got home I downloaded one such app, Sky Map. True to its name, Sky Map immediately gave me a clear, easy to use map of the heavens. I haven’t yet sussed out what all of the icons mean. But I had fun using the Time Travel feature to see the positions of the moon and planets on the day I was born.

Do I sound like a space geek? Guilty as charged.

When it comes to augmented-reality apps, though, I’m still unsure about a couple of things.

No business case?

Number one: the stargazing apps are very low-cost. Many, like Sky Map, are free. So it’s hard to see whether there’s a business case for using AR in training and technical communication.

I write documentation for networking hardware — switches and routers. I can easily imagine how customers would like AR documentation that shows them how to attach brackets to switches and mount them together in a rack. But does customers would like translate to customers would pay for? Or to customers would choose my company over our competitor?

In the absence of clear answers, would my company invest in the tools, time, and training needed to develop such documentation?

Not ready for prime time?

Number two (and maybe this follows from number one): it seems so far that AR is mostly the province of gamers and app developers — not technical communicators or training developers.


Time Travel, Sky Map style. Recognize the date?

Most of the literature about AR in technical communication is still speculative. An article might say, for example, Here’s what AR is, and here’s how I think it could be applied to tech comm. Or: Everyone loves AR, and tech comm is on the verge of embracing it. I’ve seen only a handful of isolated case studies in which AR actually is being used for technical communication.

One such case study is General Motors’ myOpel app. GM began distributing the app to Opel owners a few years ago. Does anyone know if they’re still doing so? Or if they’ve expanded the idea to other brands? (A quick peek at Google Play reveals that myOpel is still available but it’s getting only tepid reviews.)

So, despite the star-struck articles (one of which — full disclosure — I wrote in 2013), I remain unconvinced.

What do you think? Do the stars say that AR will be a big part of technical communication’s future? Have you done AR work for technical communication or for training and if so, have you succeeded in making the business case for it?

9 thoughts on “Is augmented reality part of technical communication’s future?

  1. Mark Baker

    All of the “this will revolutionize tech comm” fads, from embedded help to AR (which is, guess what, loosely coupled embedded help), all miss one essential point about technical communication.

    The biggest technical communication problems are not “how to do” problems, they are “what to do” problems. The technical communication problem does not begin when the user is in front of the machine ready to act. The technical communication problem begins with a business problem that the reader does not know how to solve. They don’t know which machine they need to stand in front of or what actions they should take when they get there. Embedded help is no help at all until they get to that point.

    And while there is a real need for some help for some people at that point, it is not universal. Intuition, experience, coaching, training, and good interface design all address large chunks of that problem.

  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Mark, thanks for your comment. While AR can’t tell a user what machine to stand in front of, once they’re there I think AR can guide them through a series of actions. The question for me is, can it do a better job of that than the other things you mentioned: intuition, experience, coaching, training, and especially good interface design?

    When I talk with you, I inevitably think in terms of communication as storytelling. I wonder if there are use cases for AR as a storytelling tool — and, if so, what are they?

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  4. Susan Carpenter

    I know I wasn’t, but I could have been that woman. I was never a space fan until I started tracking the planets on Sky Map. I’ve been known to whip my phone out from the passenger seat of a motorcycle to identify that Really Big Bright Light.

    I doubt most of us will see relevance in AR. But one of my required classes in grad school (When The Dinosaurs Roamed) was multimedia integration, the intent being to outfit science journalists for media other than text and print. Museum interpretation, maybe. (Yes, that’s technical writing, too!) It’s not hard for me to squint my mind’s eye to admit AR in that same vein.

    I’m one of those insufferable geeks who reads all the placard material in museums. But my associative brain could take me all kinds of places if you enabled me. Imagine standing in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I would love to read more on –
    * La Giaconda, the woman behind the smile
    * Da Vinci’s life, legacy, overview of related works, related artists
    * Florence in his lifetime, and its turbulent politics
    * His issue with Michaelangelo
    … and so forth. Working with AR infrastructure professionals, I could see the technical communicator layering and pacing the experience.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Susan. The museum would indeed be a good use case for AR. But it’s still words-intensive. I wonder if there are use cases for showing moving parts and that sort of thing.

      1. Mark Baker

        In other words, is there a case for interactive AR? Susan’s answer tells us there is a case for static AR to replace sign boards. The star map example says AR can help you orient yourself. Also useful. But can it usefully interact with you as you execute a procedure? That would be the interesting tech comm case. And then the question comes back to, is it worth it?

  5. Mark Baker

    I suspect there is a subset of problems for which it can do a better job. I’m not sure if that is a subset of machines or a subset of people. If it is a subset of people, then its not going it fly. It is is a subset of machines it is going to depend on demonstrable reductions in service time or improvement in service quality that make a bottom line difference. I’ll bet there are some cases of that. There may also be some environmental factors. Battlefield conditions, for instance. Or it could make more sense if the user was wearing a heads up display for other reasons.

    But I think a lot of the talk about this fails to appreciate the essential difference between the central and the peripheral. It is like the idea of a heads up speedometer in a car. You would absolutely hate it. It would pull your focus away from the road. Dashboards and mirrors are positioned at the periphery of our field of vision where we can filter them out till we want them, then glance at them quickly when we need information from them.

    The idea that you should avoid the need to glance away from what you are doing for more information seem to me to be fundamentally flawed. Glancing away is exactly what suits the way our eyes and our brains work. We need to focus and remove distractions, not have them projected into our field of vision.

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