A concern that machines will replace workers animates much discussion about the future of technology. Robots, drones, and virtual reality all seem to portend a time not far distant when machines do work once done by humans. Indeed, in some instances, that future is already here.

Proponents of augmented reality (AR), though, are increasingly saying that AR will improve employee performance, hiking both productivity and safety and increasing worker satisfaction. The key point to them is simple: machines and human employees, working together, perform better than either performs alone.

On the Factory Floor…

Most people in the U.S. likely know AR through Pokémon Go, the wildly popular AR computer game. It overlays computer-generated material on reality. 

A recent Harvard Business Review piece observes that AR’s ability to overlay video, images and text instruction on physical objects has huge potential in manufacturing work. An employee can, for example, repair a piece of equipment as the instructions are superimposed on the physical area being worked on. Workers are guided visually via AR throughout the job. 

AR interfaces have been shown to improve employee performance on a variety of manufacturing jobs by anywhere from 25% to 46%.

AR not only helps worker performance in the specific instance, it may be part of the solution to a macro problem: declines in U.S. productivity. Domestic productivity rose just 0.5% annually from 2011 to 2016, a significant drop from the 3% annually registered between 1996 and 2005. AR is one technology increasingly shown to work to boost overall employee productivity.

It may also provide the key to solving another macro problem: a growing need for more manufacturing employees that is not likely to be filled by available workers. U.S. manufacturing is expected to generate 3.5 million positions over the next decade. Yet only 1.5 million seem likely to be filled. So how to bridge the gap? Potentially through use of AR and similar technologies.

…to the Start-Up Office

Manufacturing, though, is not the only sector that believes AR will augment productivity. In other technology news, at least one start-up, Silicon Valley’s Meta, has eliminated the desktop personal computer in favor of the AR headset.

Meta’s founder, Meron Gribetz, recently told the MIT Technology Review that employees can interface far more seamlessly with three-dimensional objects floating about them than with a one-dimensional stationary computer screen. Meta’s AR glasses, like those used in manufacturing, can overlay on physical objects. The work is performed by a gesture.

To what uses has Gribetz put his leadership skills? He gives design and editing as examples. Rather than using a tool like Paint, for instance, graphic design can be accomplished be using a virtual paintbrush. Editing can be accomplished with a virtual tool.

In the world of Pokémon and the factory floor, AR is here. It offers a fresh approach to the business office user interface and could challenge to dominance of the computer in the near future. Its ability to boost performance is a potential salve to U.S. productivity and a method of achieving synergy between human employees and digital technology.