Augmented Reality Puts a New User Interface on Smart, Connected Products

Data is the glue that connects customers, products and departments—the living tissues—of an enterprise. Without data and new methods of producing, collecting, storing and using life-giving data, companies and markets shut down. And, for the past decade we’ve been hearing how some companies transform themselves and their industries with more and better data, and how systems that leverage enormous amounts of data—Big Data—continue to receive huge investment.

Some of those who were successful in introducing Big Data are now surrounding themselves, and building new businesses (or new opportunities for old businesses) with “smart, connected products.” You might’ve read about early versions of such products. These are physical objects built with connectivity and embedded sensors that pump out and ingest real time data for a specific purpose. Bruce Sterling coined the term “Spimes” to capture how these physically real objects also have a strong sense of their place and time. They are fundamentally important to a generation of 21st century businesses that see a future based on Big Data, but they are hard to make and use.

A Framework for Answering Big Questions

Few question the need for smart, connected products. The big questions for which many managers would like simple and clear answers are how to design the best smart, connected products and how to develop new businesses (or better, more efficient business processes) around these.

In my opinion, few business leaders have been able to better communicate the necessary ingredients and steps for designing, building and using smart, connected products for business transformation than Michael E. Porter, faculty member at Harvard Business School, and James E. Heppelmann, president and CEO of PTC.

Originally published in Harvard Business Review on November 2014, their first article on smart, connected products defines the domain and the new technology stack upon which the domain is based. The new technology stack Porter and Heppelmann define is composed of:

  • New product hardware
  • Embedded software
  • Connectivity
  • A product cloud consisting of software running on remote servers
  • A suite of security tools
  • A gateway for external information sources
  • Integration with enterprise business systems

The authors then explain how these smart, connected products are exerting pressure on businesses by changing the competitive landscape for those companies who adopt and deploy them, and those who don’t. Essentially, the focus of the article is on how to use smart, connected products to manage or change the competitive landscape.

Building a Bridge between Smart, Connected Products and People

In the October 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, another article by the same authors provides insights into the internal use of smart, connected products. It focuses on their use in transforming businesses and their value chains.  For those of us involved in the introduction and deployment of Augmented Reality in enterprise, this is a highly useful guide and conceptual resource to study and have handy.

How to Smart Connected Products are Transforming Business” adds concepts that utilize and build upon the previously defined technology stack and the original framework while also examining the human side of smart product introduction.

Porter and Hepplemann explain that smart, connected products require a new design discipline. The use of Augmented Reality is one of the ways that changes in design are transforming the value of limited resources, primarily by reducing task execution times by humans by displaying specialized knowledge in the field of view.

Augmented Reality is also making other processes more efficient. From configuration of unfamiliar instruments to after-sales services, the authors repeatedly illustrate how having data accessible and visible in context is reducing the time and the errors that can increase the cost of complex processes.

Many industries will be transformed by smart, connected products using new, contextually sensitive user interfaces. Although they never use the buzzword “Industry 4.0,” the authors give a wide range of examples and conclude that manufacturing companies (or manufacturing departments within other industries) are the first to tap this potential in a meaningful way.

People Remain a Limited and Valuable Resource

The adoption of Augmented Reality in enterprise fundamentally builds upon the successful introduction of smart, connected products. It will not be able to deliver on its potential without parallel investments in other enterprise IT systems, in particular those that produce, collect and store data in the new products.  

Investments in technology are required but not sufficient. One of the take home messages of the second installment of Porter and Hepplemann’s smart, connected products series is that people trained in the new design disciplines, and in the development of experiences and systems built upon them, are rare.

New expertise needed for smart product design and use is in desperately short supply. Before those with the expertise are available in numbers sufficient to meet future demand, business leaders need to develop new cultures that place value on collaboration between people in different product and service life cycle phases. New incentive models will be developed to reward productivity without errors and higher compliance levels than have ever been possible.

In the end, or at least for the next transformation of business, people using data in better and faster ways remain more important than simply producing and storing more data.

Has your organization defined roles suitable for the next transformation of business?

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