Many associate augmented reality (AR) with the world of gaming. There, the immersive experiences AR offers are as impressive as they are exciting. In the workforce, however, the real added value of AR will be its ability to make insights from machine intelligence available to the average worker.

Unlike virtual reality, which transports the user—usually via a headset—into a fully virtual world, augmented reality applications present an illusion of layers of graphic information superimposed on some portion of the worker’s field of view. Most AR systems currently deployed are tablet- or smartphone-based, although some are now moving aggressively in the direction of head-mounted displays (HMDs) that allow the worker to access AR data continuously without interrupting a task to refer to a tablet display.

This makes HMDs particularly attractive for work in hazardous environments. The Daqri Smart Helmet, for example, features a retractable AR display — behind a protective visor, to reduce distraction — and a set of 360° cameras capable of identifying dangers like forklifts approaching from behind. Its capabilities as a display medium match its comprehensive collection of sensors, including heat vision, depth perception and inertial measurement. Daqri CEO Brian Mullins describes the Smart Helmet as “the best of people and the best of machines working together”.

The eventual effect of such devices will be not only to deliver precise work instructions accurately but to make each worker a node in a smart network with all of a company’s equipment as well.

For now, however, efforts are focused on low-hanging fruit: displaying information about the piece of equipment being worked on or communication about downtime issues.

Patrick Ryan, engineering manager for augmented reality at Newport News Shipbuilding, is an enthusiastic advocate. He lists seven uses for industrial AR applications: “Work Instructions, Workflow Management, Quality Assurance, Safety, Logistics, Training, and Operations. It typically takes an expert that understands both the industrial process and the capabilities of the technology to field a valuable [AR] solution,” he says. Among the dozens of AR projects piloted by his company, he points to quality assurance as the most mature application thus far.

Today’s AR systems don’t come cheap, however. Their prices range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, thus early industrial adopters have mostly been large-equipment manufacturers. But the results in terms of process improvements seem to be there. An independent study by Iowa State University and Boeing, for example, found AR could deliver a 30-90% reduction of errors and assembly time for first-time workers. More recently, GE’s research centre in Brazil has been experimenting with AR to help workers build and maintain equipment on offshore oil and gas platforms—and get rid of cumbersome paper manuals in the process. “While the project sizes are large,” notes Mr Mullins, “the ROI is extremely fast as AR is proving to be a truly transformative technology for the industry.”

As for how we will access AR, many, including Mr Ryan, believe tablet-based systems will dominate in the shorter term. In the longer term, as HMDs improve and costs go down, AR might become as ubiquitous as smartphones. The market could reach $120bn by 2020, according to digital consultancy Digi-Capital. AR would then move out of purely industrial process management into the wider Internet of Things that will tie together consumer and enterprise devices with industrial robotics and beyond.

As Mr Ryan emphasises: “The beautiful thing about AR is that it doesn’t replace people, like robotics or automation does. Instead, it empowers people. It is an investment in people.”