Augmented reality (AR) has been getting a lot of attention of late.Last summer it was the blockbuster Pokemon GO game that put the technology on everyone's radar. The rage now is apps that enable real-time overlay of images or video onto the real world: Think Snap, Inc.'s (NYSE:SNAP) new Snapchat feature, World Lenses, or its long-loved dog ears filter.
Beyond the recreational uses currently available to the public, companies are working on developing AR into so much more: a workplace enhancement, a productivity booster, and an information synthesizer.
The next stage of the digital revolution?
Human beings have embraced the flood of information that came with computers and the internet -- so much so that in the last digital-age breakthrough, we took that information mobile. In a few short years, life without a smartphone, tablet, or some other connected device that helps us access information, or communicate with others whenever we want, will seem unthinkable.
The tech community now thinks that AR could be the next big development in this digital age. While the technology has obvious appeal in the gaming community (who wouldn't want to defend their backyard from an army of zombies?), the idea is that AR is really all about information, and how to deliver relevant information in an efficient manner.
Some big names have talked up the potential. Snapchat recently rolled out some new World Lenses filters, objects, and content, but that's all fun and games. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) expanded on its plan to become a vertically integrated augmented- and virtual-reality company at its F8 conference a couple weeks ago. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is also rumored to be in the race.
For now, uses for the technology are limited and accessible primarily via a smartphone. However, these companies are working to expand on AR's capability, first by projecting digital images and objects from a phone onto glasses, with a goal of eventually having a stand-alone pair of glasses or even contact lenses.
The real reason AR is exciting
Some estimates put AR at the helm of a $100 billion-a-year industry by 2021 -- compared with $3.9 billion between AR and VR last year. That could be a boon for device makers, but the information it can deliver is where the potential really is.
Imagine: engineering or industrial workers getting instructions delivered to them as they work on tasks, or office workers utilizing AR to handle video conferences, virtual projects, and task management without the use of a traditional desk. The possible uses are only limited by the imagination; many may seem superfluous, but businesses are investing in them to see if they lead to lower overhead costs by way of a more efficient workplace. Case studies so far suggest AR does just that.
Microsoft has built a headset called HoloLens, which is being touted as a multiuse workplace device; if you're a software developer or just a tech tinkerer, a HoloLens can be yours for as little as $3,000. A company called DAQRI has built an Intel-powered work helmet and headset as well, along with a heads-up display for autos, developed with the future industrial worker in mind. These devices are still in development phase and look big and clunky to wear around, but represent a first step toward the vision of AR delivered via a less obstructive medium.
AR could even eventually become a seamless part of who we are. Ever the visionary, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk announced a new company called Neuralink. The idea of the company is to merge the human mind with digital information and artificial intelligence by embedding electronics in the brain, with content being pulled up by merely thinking of it. Perhaps it's a few too many steps ahead of where we are today, but the idea of usable and interactive information, delivered right before our eyes at the time we need it, lies at the heart of the AR movement.
Investing in the potential
There isn't much in the way of an AR pure play in existence today, at least not in investment form. Investors excited about the possibilities are relegated to one of the aforementioned diversified tech companies, each of which is working on its own version of the technology.
That may not be the most exciting sounding place to start with the development of AR, but it's another compelling reason to have big tech as part of the core holdings in your investment portfolio, as the digital age continues to reshape the world in which we live.
Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors; LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Nicholas Rossolillo owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple, Facebook, and Tesla. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.