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Reality check

August 13, 2014

When you start seeing the digital world mixed in with reality, you may think you have been spending too much time in front of the computer. However, this mixing of the virtual and real world is exactly what augmented reality is doing and it could be set to revolutionize the postal industry.

Augmented reality (AR), where digital information such as images, videos or audio is combined (augmented) with the real world using smartphones or new wearable devices such as Google Glass, is already helping to breathe new life into direct mail and print marketing. “Postal services have been under pressure from digital marketing for some time. AR is enabling them to compete,” explains Jack Dashwood, from leading augmented reality research, consultancy and software producer Metaio.

Dashwood says that by using tablets and smartphones you can bring printed advertisements to life by scanning the print advertisement with a camera to see enhanced, digital content overlaid on the print images. “It is offering a new way of getting digital information and enables people to access websites and place orders simply by interacting with the print material.”

So far, AR has only been used and promoted as a marketing tool by postal services. Last year, US Postal Service (USPS) unveiled its AR app to help companies make the most of their direct mail marketing, and other postal operators are following suit. The app allows you to scan a piece of mail and uses augmented reality to make the paper an interactive advert, helping companies that want to engage with potential customers to use a new kind of advertising that merges digital and physical content.

“USPS will continue to leverage digital technologies and explore new innovative opportunities through the use of QR codes, augmented reality and personalized URLs,” says Gary Reblin, vice president of USPS new products and innovation. “Our focus is to use enhanced technologies to build strategic advantages by targeting new solutions for e-commerce with speedier service, improved tracking and same-day delivery.”

Dutch postal service PostNL, which in conjunction with the Netherlands Institute of Architecture launched a collection of AR stamps that showed off contemporary Dutch architecture when scanned with a smartphone, also believes that AR offers potential.

“It remains important to follow new technologies closely,” says PostNL spokesperson Jo-Ann Izenia. “We believe that the use of new technologies such as AR does not have to be a purpose in itself. AR is a nice addition to traditional media. When technologies such as AR serves a purpose and can add value to our products and services, we will certainly identify opportunities for use.”

 

Left: Augmented reality can be used in the warehouse to optimize parcel picking processes

 

Beyond marketing
However, uses for AR beyond marketing and e-commerce have yet to be fully explored by postal services. Some believe the launch of wearable AR devices such as Google Glass mean that this new technology has the potential to revolutionize the postal service right along the delivery chain. Furthermore, they warn that waiting too long to begin investing in this technology could be disastrous for postal services. 

“Postal services are in danger of losing market share if they don’t act quickly,” says Michaela Hohlwein, a solutions manager for postal services at SAP, an enterprise software company whose customers include some of the world’s major postal organizations. “For postal services, AR offers plenty of potential to improve service, reduce error rates and save money. Let’s not forget, necessity drives innovation,” she says.
Hohlwein believes the logistics industry is ripe for AR implementation, but companies need to act soon. “My advice is not to wait too long. Start some test cases and get some experience,” she advises.

One company that is certainly not hanging around is DHL. In June 2014, the logistics company released a trend report called Augmented Reality in Logistics, which outlines the potential this technology could offer logistics and postal companies in the future.

“Augmented reality is one of the trends we see entering the industry in the next five years,” comments Dr Markus Kückelhaus, director of DHL’s Trend Research Team and author of the report. “In the past we have seen technology go from the consumer to industry quickly, and we think this will be the same. We want to be one of the first players to pick it up.”
He says that manufactures, particularly in the aerospace and automotive industries, are already realizing the benefits of the technology. “Manufacturing is ahead of the game, but we are not that different other than having a broader spectrum,” he says.

Dashwood agrees. He has worked alongside all sorts of manufacturing industries, such as Epson America and Mitsubishi Electric, who have developed technology that allows service technicians to access maintenance information quickly and conveniently by overlaying it step-by-step onto the actual product, and he says there is a lot the postal sector can learn from companies such as these.

“It is in the hands of users to apply it for their needs. AR can visualize a process before it is in place. We’ve seen it used successfully in rapid prototyping, helping to design factories and warehouses, and helping train people to work on new processes. Of course, it won’t solve all problems, but it can certainly be a real solution for many industries, the postal service included,” Dashwood adds.

 

Pick-by-vision
One area identified by DHL as the first process to take up this new technology is logistics, in particular the picking of items in a warehouse. With the instruction of wearable AR devices such as Google Glass, digital information can be given straight to logistics workers, helping them to identify locations and items in a warehouse, making the process of picking more efficient.

“One of the first implementations for AR will probably be pick-by-vision,” says Gina Chung, DHL project manager for customer solutions and innovation. “Logistics is basically moving things from A to B. It involves a lot of manual work but being able to provide information such the position of an item will mean an increase in efficiency.”

This sort of AR assistance could soon filter down to other areas of postal operations. “While logistics is the most feasible at the moment because there is money to be saved, I think we will see AR become a reality for all sorts of areas in the next three years,” says SAP’s Hohlwein, adding that sorting and even delivery could soon benefit from AR.

Augmented delivery
She says that AR glasses have very good scanning capabilities, so barcodes on parcels and packages could be used to provide all sorts of information, from delivery addresses and package sizes, to special handling requirements. This information could also find its way to the delivery phase of postal operations.

Richard Wishart, who runs technology consultancy Delivery Management, which advises posts on new technologies, agrees: “I can certainly see a day when postal delivery drivers will be wearing a device like Google Glass to enable them to use location finding, traffic management, route finding – perhaps even implementing facial recognition to ensure that a parcel is being delivered to the right person,” he says.

He believes the postal service of tomorrow will be dramatically different from that of today, with AR playing an integral role, and the entire process driven by smartphone and tablet devices. “There has been a revolution around the smartphone, which makes access to technology so much easier, and so many more processes in the delivery chain could move to being app based and implement this sort of technology,” he adds.

 

Left: The Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research is continually working on the development of smartphone augmented reality applications

 

The challenges
However, AR technology currently has its limits. One area that needs to be improved, especially in wearable AR devices, is battery life.

“The battery on Google Glass probably wouldn’t last more than an hour or so in our environment,” says Kückelhaus. “We really need batteries that can last eight hours, and with development in this area I am optimistic that in the next few years this wearable technology will be up to the job.”

Other advances look set to improve the type of data that is available too, bringing all sorts of opportunities. “AR development is driven by technology, especially smartphones,” comments Dashwood. “As smartphones and devices such as Google Glass improve, AR will improve with it. At the moment we are seeing the introduction of depth-sensing cameras that will greatly enhance the scanning capabilities of AR.”

At the moment, one of the most prohibitive factors of AR is the cost of implementation, with technologies such as Google Glass retailing at around US$1,500 a unit. However, Dashwood believes that prices will soon start to fall and the technology will become more cost-effective. “Prices will come down,” he says. “We’ve seen it with other technologies; they start off high and soon drop dramatically. It is still relatively new, but prices have already fallen from what they were just a few years ago when it was really prohibitively expensive.”
While the technology is still in its early stages, there is a real danger in waiting too long to begin exploring the potential of AR, especially for postal services who could find themselves under threat from start-ups.

“Technology has become more important for the entire industry, but in the past there was a tendency to look at what other industries were doing before we acted – but that can mean being left behind,” says Kückelhaus.

Part of the problem could be the way postal operators use and implement technology, which may mean that they have to make changes if they are to keep up.

“I think the biggest challenge will be a shift in thinking,” says Wishart. “It is more about understanding the business than the technology. New technology can be quite disruptive, and it can be a big shift to move from the way you have always done things.”

August 13, 2014

 

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