Driverless trucks and completely automated warehousing systems may seem like futuristic gimmicks, but some technological advances that don’t involve robots and flying cars could have a big impact on the shipping industry’s efficiency and reliability in the coming years.

From personal computers to mobile devices, we know that technology can profoundly alter the way we communicate and interact with the world. New technologies impact almost every industry, and logistics is no exception. So, the next big wave of change in the logistics industry might just come in the form of ‘Augmented Reality’ technology.

Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented or supplemented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified, possibly even diminished rather than augmented, by a computer. As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. By contrast, virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one. Augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in semantic context with environmental elements, such as sports scores on TV during a match. With the help of advanced AR technology (e.g. adding computer vision and object recognition) the information about the surrounding real world of the user becomes interactive and digitally able to be manipulated. Artificial information about the environment and its objects can be overlaid on the real world.

AR is made possible by performing four basic and distinct tasks, and combining the output in a useful way.

  1. Scene capture: First, the reality that should be augmented is captured using either a video-capture device such as a camera, or a see-through device such as a head-mounted display.
  2. Scene identification: Secondly, the captured reality must be scanned to define the exact position where the virtual content should be embedded. This position could be identified either by markers (visual tags) or by tracking technologies such as GPS, sensors, infrared, or laser.
  3. Scene processing: As the scene becomes clearly recognized and identified, the corresponding virtual content is requested, typically from the internet or from any kind of database.
  4. Scene visualization: Finally, the AR system produces a mixed image of the real space as well as the virtual content.

Though augmented reality has largely been used in fun phone apps and hobby accessories like Google Glass, experts says the industry is due to grow to $5.2 billion by 2017. For the logistics industry, this means advances in two main areas: warehousing and transportation.

Over 50 percent of all warehouse costs are associated with picking orders. AR technology, which could come in the form of integrated smart phone cameras or wearable headsets and accessories, could optimize the picking process and make it faster and more accurate than paper-picking.

Head-mounted displays could pinpoint boxes for an order and then automatically update stock in the warehouse management system. The headsets, or technology like them, could also reduce employee training time. Experts estimate that it could reduce picking errors by 40 percent.

The experts also mention how transportation could be perfected, for instance delivery vehicles with augmented windshields that can display real-time traffic data as well as other valuable information such as cargo temperature and alerts, minimizing driver distraction. Moreover, drivers and staff at the parcel hub could be equipped with wearable devices to gain critical information on each parcel such as contents, weight and destination. This would improve loading processes and reduce handling damages. Finally, Augmented Reality could improve maintenance and repair services offered by logistics providers, if workers are equipped with smart glasses that blend in step-by-step instructions.

Most of this technology is still being tested and retested, although it could be integrated into field testing sooner rather than later. However, before the companies agree to use it, there are still some questions remaining.

Before AR devices, especially wearable ones can be widely adopted in logistics, service providers need to overcome a number of technical and societal challenges including battery life, high investment costs, network performance issues and privacy and public acceptance.

Nevertheless, logistics providers and their customers should be aware of the benefits of AR can offer now and in the future. We must be ready to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, many of which are currently untapped.