Interview with International Data Corporation research manager Ramon Llamas

Ramon headerAt the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we caught up with International Data Corporation research manager Ramon Llamas to take a look at the state of the augmented reality market. Llamas is on IDC's Devices and Displays team, covering wearables, augmented/ virtual reality, and smartphones - and here are the insights he shared in his conversation with us.

As you look back on 2017, was there anything that surprised you about the development of the augmented reality business for enterprises - in terms of use cases, adoption, new entrants/exits from the market or industries?

Ramon Llamas: Perhaps the biggest surprise was that multiple companies were going from trial usage to limited deployments. That’s a big step for the market, considering that the bar is quite high for AR (as well as other technologies) to clear in order to gain acceptance. And it’s not just the hardware that has to pass muster; it’s the platforms that act as the connective tissue between user/device/back-end servers; the applications that have to be developed and made available to users; the security that has to go through the entire system and reach every endpoint; and most critically, getting the buy-in from multiple parties within the enterprise (LOB users, C-level executives, finance, marketing, and especially IT).

We're starting to see a greater variety of form factors for AR wearables - such as the RealWear HMT-1. In terms of customer demand, do you see further innovation in form factors on the horizon - or a convergence around a few standard form factors?

RL: I like what RealWear has accomplished with the HMT-1: a small display that sits just down to the corner, easily viewable by the user but doesn’t obstruct the view. And clearly, there are many others like it, like what you see from Vuzix. But since job requirements vary from one person to the next, one vertical to the next, multiple form factors will be needed to meet those demands. Microsoft’s HoloLens is ideal for some use cases, given its field of wide view; Similarly, DAQRI’s smart glasses are easily portable and can be worn for long periods of time. And there are a myriad of other form factors in between. I’m glad that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, becomes sometimes you just need to read information, and sometimes you need to interact with data.

Your latest VR/AR tracker data shows a move away from screenless viewers for AR and a move toward both standalone and tethered HMDs. In the tracker, you also suggest that we'll see AR headsets "play a fundamental role in changing the way many companies do business in the near future." Where do you see the biggest impact of that change in the way that many companies do business?

RL: For me, there are several impact points: first, you get to keep your hands free, and that should not be underestimated among field service workers who sometimes need to reference a manual or contact and show a manager a project. No more having to pick up and put down tools versus smartphones. Second, think about how all the new ways a user can interact with data. Take the designer working on a set of blueprints in CAD. Now she can see and experience a full rendition of a project and make adjustments on the fly rather than go back to the drawing board. Third, think about all the new ways a customer can interact with data, like the car buyer who wants to look at different finishes and trim for a car prior to purchase. And all this boils down to one final and perhaps the biggest impact: productivity. Think of all the steps and time we can all save when we go from 2D to 3D, from blueprints models, from months of work down to weeks or even days.

In your view, is there likely to be a "killer app" for AR in enterprise - and if so, what do you think it might be and how might it impact the enterprises that use it?

RL: Perhaps this is too simplistic, but being hands free is still very much a killer app for me. It saves time, which is perhaps the most precious thing a company has. Here’s an example:

At a major pharmaceutical company, a user has to shove his hands into some long gloves encased in a workbox because the material he is handling is deemed hazardous. Looking up information and working with the material can be a long, arduous task due to the time it takes to don and remove the gloves, let alone go through a PC or tablet to get data. Now think about all the time that is saved by having that same data brought to the eye while the work is being done. It can take minutes instead of hours, that that’s a clear sign of value creation to me.

In the recent IDC Worldwide Quarterly AR and VR Headset Tracker, you predict that shipments of AR headsets will grow to 15.6 million by 2021. Do you have any thoughts about which industries those headsets will be used in - or how the headset usage might break down across major industries?

RL: Manufacturing and design are the biggest ones, but don’t overlook education, government, and healthcare too. Going across major industries, we expect training to be the most popular use case.

In the interim, AR capabilities are being added to iOS and Android phones and tablets (through ARkit and ARcore, respectively). What impact do you think that the existence of so many smartphones and tablets with at least basic AR capabilities will have on the development of AR applications for enterprises? Do you see a future where perhaps apps will scale from basic versions on a smartphone to more full-blown offerings on AR headsets?

RL: I’m glad to see smartphones and tablets to get into the AR mix as they’ll serve to expand the base, increase usage and acceptance, and democratize AR as a whole. These can act as gateways to more robust experiences and devices (remember that part about being hands-free), and for applications to reach a broader audience. As such, expect different versions of apps to scale from these devices to head mounted displays.

Do you see a shaking out of standards for interaction - such as touch, gestures and head motion - for AR devices? These features are being introduced on lots of devices right now, but it seems likely that - at some point in the not too distant future - there will be a user-driven need to coalesce around some standards for interaction. What do you think?

RL: Standards are a tricky thing, because for most technology categories, it is difficult to get consensus even among the biggest players. It becomes even trickier as a market moves quickly and new use cases and features are introduced. Because we are at an embryonic stage of the market, I’d like to take a wait-and-see approach to see what interactions seem to work the best, and then work towards standards.

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