By 2020, 25% of the American workforce will be over the age of 55 and approaching retirement, a phenomenon becoming known as the Silver Tsunami. While this could create a shortage of skilled workers in a number of fields including electric utilities, telecommunications, and manufacturing, augmented reality (AR) is poised not only to address issues faced by our aging workforce, but to fundamentality increase productivity by changing how all employees are trained in the future.
In 2016, U.S. companies across industries spent nearly $1,000 in training per employee, largely delivered in traditional formats like classroom-based seminars and classes, and even online training modules that mimic that experience. This kind of learning has suited people’s needs for centuries, particularly when learning was thought of as memorization with many cultures celebrating those who could recite long texts with exceptional rote skills. But as the breadth of human knowledge expanded, learning paradigms have changed with the works of John Dewey and others who recognized that understanding why information is important and how it relates to our world is true learning—and should be the goal.
In the coming years, machine learning and augmented reality will likely take both educational approaches to the next level by empowering workers to have the latest, most accurate information available in context, when and where they need it most.
Here are four ways that digital reality can revolutionize corporate training:
Heads-up displays on AR glasses or safety helmets will assist those in the field by being able to recognize equipment and guide workers through step-by-step diagnostics. A maintenance worker could look at a specific make or model of high-voltage equipment on an oil rig and be safely taken through the diagnostic and repair procedure. No need to retrain a workforce when information becomes dated or obsolete. When new equipment is added to a facility, the system will be updated and all field workers will have the most current information. Workers just need to learn how to use the digital reality hardware, and they will be prepared for field work. Less time will be spent in off-site training so productivity increases.
A Virtual Presence for Skilled Workers
See-What-I-See (SWIS) glasses will give the most skilled workers near omnipotence. No organization has a workforce with equally distributed skills and experience. When out-of-the-ordinary problems occur in the field, all-too-often a second team needs to be dispatched, costing the company both time and money. Rather than rolling a second truck with more senior technicians when an unfamiliar problem is discovered, top talent can now work from a central location and literally see what the field service teams are seeing from their augmented glasses. A construction crane operator, for example, could remotely operate cranes at construction sites around the globe. The most experienced workers will be available to transport their skills across time and space—without ever leaving their desks.
Retaining Skills and Knowledge
Augmented reality systems can retain valuable employee learnings and insights. Highly trained skills will no longer leave the company when experienced workers retire. A recent U.S. government report estimates that half of all electrical lineworkers will retire within the decade causing a shortage of manpower that could affect America’s energy grid. Artificial intelligence systems can actually learn and adapt by watching what today’s workers are doing right (and conversely what they are doing wrong) to make the augmented systems smarter and safer. With machine learning built into future systems, all workers can benefit from whatever one worker has discovered. Training systems become evolving tools for increasing productivity and safety.
Learning Experiences via Everyday Devices
Lastly, corporate benefits of augmented reality training aren’t dependent on the next generation of hardware. The new ARKit from Apple turns today’s hardware into powerful AR training tools. As Craig Federighi, head of software at Apple, aptly pointed out at the company’s most recent developer conference in June:
When you bring the software together with these devices, we actually have hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads that are going to be capable of AR. That’s going to make overnight the ARKit the largest AR platform in the world.
Just as the smartphone was adopted by employees long before corporate training apps were created, millions of workers are engaging with augmented reality on their phones and tablets today. Their familiarity with these devices will make training the worker of tomorrow much easier. Properly configured, today’s digital reality and machine learning tools have the power to improve safety, productivity, and reduce cost.
Isn’t that the reality we are all striving for?
This post first appeared in Fortune on July 22, 2017