Technical Communicators Must Evolve to Support Augmented Reality

As other AREA blog posts and pages on this website attest, Augmented Reality can be very beneficial but it doesn’t happen by itself. The preparation and delivery of AR experiences in professional settings involves the cooperation of many groups and investments from diverse points in a larger corporate information value chain. One of those groups is responsible for technical documentation.

As a professional technical communicator, I believe that introducing AR will also be rewarding to those people and organizations delivering their content in new, contextually driven systems. However, the development and delivery of AR-enriched content also comes with a new set of challenges.

From Topic-Based Content to Experiences

Changes in technologies, skills, priorities and procedures will be necessary. Accepting responsibility for and producing AR-enriched content will involve a shift in the mindset of technical communicators who, like most of their customers, are accustomed to developing traditional, topic-based or video content. In other words, technical communicators will have to embrace a more holistic view of content: experiences.

This means that, in addition to performing their traditional information development tasks, technical communicators will need to begin designing and supporting the delivery of content that changes in real time, based on the user’s context.

Crowded Display

We Need New Approaches

When content is destined for use on AR-enabled systems, our technologies will need to change. We’ll also need to adopt new approaches designed to:

  • Position and format the experience content so that it doesn’t obstruct the viewer’s line of sight to the real world target, as well as present other objects that could introduce risk or errors.
  • Anticipate and correct error conditions in real time, under constantly changing light and environmental conditions.
  • Design overlay information so that it doesn’t overload the user’s ability to process and use the information effectively.
  • Leverage sophisticated software that produces and manages 3D models, and reduce current reliance on traditional 2D graphics and illustrations.
  • Take into consideration the higher processing power required to render digital models, graphics or other supplementary data over the real world in real time, while taking into consideration its impact on battery life.
  • Plan for both the user’s device to access high-performance networks (especially when the content is in 3D format and stored on corporate servers), and for when those connections have high latency or are interrupted.
  • Work with the strengths and limitations of new end user hardware such as smart glasses or helmets, watches and other wearable sensors, and design new software tools that are unique to these, and rapidly evolving.
  • Adopt still other types of new hardware and software to capture the objects, develop, view and test the experiences when under development.
  • Design to comply with new yet-to-be-defined policies and tools for certification, data security and encryption.
  • Notify users when their every action is being captured and recorded, and control this capture, while managing the changing acceptance (or resistance to) these technologies.
  • Manage the use of cameras in restricted environments in order to reduce risk of confidential information being exposed and pirated.
  • Measure benefits gained from, and additional costs and complexity associated with the delivery of AR experiences.

All of these changes and new skills associated with AR-enriched content development will require many years of testing, some of it by trial and error. Eventually refinement will lead to mature and widely accepted best practices.

New Standards in Augmented Reality

I believe that these skills and best practices must also be accompanied by the development of formal standards for technical communicators to follow in AR design and development. I’m co-chairing the OASIS AR Information Products Technical Committee in order to study what’s needed for the wider adoption of AR technology and associated experience development methods by technical communicators. Over time the committee members will also work together to develop standards that will guide technical communicators and improve their ability to deliver content in AR experiences. Then, the suggested benefits of using AR-assisted systems will be achievable across a great many industries.

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