[Note: this functionality is now production, as part of the SAP BusinessObjects Mobile Explorer product -- a free download from the Apple App Store]
The idea stemmed from one of the key themes of my BI future directions presentations: that for the first time in centuries, new technology comes from the consumer world, not from governments and businesses, and so we need to adapt and adopt these technologies for corporate use.
The mobile telephone is starting to become a “universal pointing device”: using the phone’s GPS location and compass, it knows where you are, and what you’re looking at. There is now a wide range of augmented reality mobile applications available on the market that help people find the nearest pizzeria, get information about a monument, or locate local twitter users.
How could this functionality be used in the business world? My first proof-of-concept blog post imagined examples of a manager getting information about a particular retail operation, a factory foreman getting maintenance records of machinery, and comparing sales between two different areas of a retail store.
These examples spurred a lot of conversations with customers around the globe about possible applications:
- An oil company interested in getting information about equipment in refineries
- A car manufacturer interested in providing information to managers of sales dealerships
- A consumer goods company interested in tracking information and location of their vending machines
Based on those conversations, we have been able to validate the core concepts and refined the functionality of our prototype. The result is an iPhone / iPad application that works closely with the SAP BusinessObjects Explorer technology and the BI onDemand web site.
Before I tell you more about it, let me emphasize: it’s a prototype, not a product. The SAP BusinessObjects innovation center is modeled on Google Labs. We’re taking a transparent, Web 2.0 approach to innovation. Rather than working for years in some dark room and then unveiling a completed product, the team creates iterative prototypes and make them freely available for download, so that you can test them, use them, and give us feedback. They’re free, but not supported, and we give no guarantees that they will be developed further. The idea is that not-so-good ideas sink without wasted development, while good ideas get refined before turning into real products (our track record is very good: mobile BI, the Explorer product, and many features of the current BusinessObjects platform all started off as prototypes).
And please note that everything I mention below may change over time, based on your feedback. We are in the process of refining the prototype, and hope to make it available for you to download and use in the next few weeks or months.
How it works
You upload a data set that includes Point of Interest (POI) information to the BusinessObjects OnDemand platform at bi.ondemand.com (you can sign up for a free account), set some data configuration options, then access that data set from your iPhone or iPad. The prototype works out what information to display based on your location and the phone’s compass heading:
The prototype uses five fields of information to define the “points of interest” (POIs) that can be viewed: latitude, longitude, name, an associated image, and at least one data value.
Demonstration Screen Shots
First we install the Augmented Reality Explorer application (currently, this involves a specific build for identified devices – we will make it a free download from the Apple App Store as soon as we can). We then open up the application on the iPhone, and log into a BI OnDemand account:
We choose an appropriately-configured data source. The points of interest are then automatically displayed based on your location: you can choose to see either the closest POI first, or the one closest to the direction you are pointing your phone. The icons are configurable — in this case, I’m using them to indicate the current state of sales: the arrow indicates whether current sales are larger than the previous period, and the color indicates whether the current sales are above, equal to, or below the current sales targets.
We can choose to display the points on a map, and zoom in to get more detail by tapping on the radar to make it full screen, and sliding a finger to choose the radius of distance we’re interested in:
I can also view the points of interest superimposed on the real world, using the iPhone’s camera – as I move around, each POI seems to hover over its physical location, and I can choose what information is displayed as each point is selected:
At any time, I can choose to filter the points by any of the dimensions available in the data set, and clicking on a POI takes me through to the same interface as the BusinessObjects Explorer application. Any filters that are applied in the augmented reality view are applied to the Explorer view, and vice-versa, so I can easily and simply explore the information available (and it could be many millions of rows of data, if you’re using SAP BusinessObjects Explorer Accelerated)
And the prototype looks great on the iPad, too (the camera view is not available, obviously):
- The possible uses are currently limited by the precision of the location services of the iPhone/iPad (GPS, cell tower triangulation, wifi triangulation). It works very well outdoors with GPS, but using cell-towers only tells you where you are within a few blocks (which is good enough to locate the nearest retail branch, but not for comparing one aisle of a supermarket with another). Various companies such as SkyHook and Cisco are working on increasing the available precision.
- The Augmented Explorer prototype can also directly access a corporate Explorer server, with an appropriately formatted data set
- The BusinessObjects data quality solutions include location coordinates for just about any address in the world. In an ideal world, you’d be able to submit a file with addresses, and we’d turn it into coordinates on the fly, and that’s something we’ll be looking into in the future. In the meantime, there are other free solutions out there.
- Note that the locations that you’re looking at don’t have to be static: imagine pointing your device to get information about cars, trucks, or people (e.g. combining it with information from the Social Network Analyzer prototype). In the short term, data latency getting information into Explorer would be an issue, but better BI on event information will improve this area, too…
If you have an questions, comments, or feedback, or feel like you have a good case for getting a copy of the application even before we post it to the App Store (e.g. you’re an SAP employee with a customer who might be interested), feel free to contact me or the SAP BusinessObjects innovation center team directly. We’re particularly interested in finding real-world scenarios for this (it’s not about doing something just for the sake of the technology).
Early press coverage:
- SAP working on augmented reality for business, Jennifer Scott, IT Pro, July 8, 2010
- Q&A: Timo Elliott, BI evangelist at SAP, Jennifer Scott, IT Pro, July 9, 2010
- SAP working on augmented reality for business, TechCentral (Ireland), July 12, 2010
- SAP working on augmented reality for business, Leo King (Computerworld UK), Network World, July 9, 2010