Augmented reality in government: far from science fiction

Imagine the world of Tony Stark, known better as Iron Man; goggles that identify potential threats and rate them on a scale of green to red, and have facial-recognition capabilities.

These futuristic ideas are not as far away as one might think, according to Mark White, global consulting technology chief technology officer at Deloitte Consulting, LLP. A recent Deloitte report discussed this concept of augmented reality — an asset that enables complex decisions to be made more quickly and effectively. Unlike virtual reality, which immerses the user in a computer-simulated environment, AR takes the real world and adds computer-generated visuals and data.

In Deloitte GovLab’s report, “Augmented government: Transforming government services through augmented reality,” Christian Doolin, Alan Holden and Vignon Zinsou discuss the potential AR holds for federal agencies.


Many of these technologies already exist. For consumers, there are apps that can locate and identify constellations in the night sky, diagnose skin blemishes or even display a Yelp review just by pointing a mobile device at a store or restaurant.

White said enhanced wireless networks, more robust smartphones and wireless mobile devices, and more tools that can crunch big data have allowed AR technology to progress considerably in the last three years.

“It’s more about making the technology available in extreme conditions, not about whether the technology is available at all,” he said.

These “extreme conditions” White talked about refer to the use cases highlighted in Deloitte’s report. Scenarios such as the Department of Homeland Security using AR for improved border patrol, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency deploying it during times of natural disasters or emergencies, or the Transportation Security Administration identifying potential threats in airports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses AR glasses to translate Spanish to English, perform training exercises for border officials, and even identify and alert the user of irregularities in vehicles passing through.

AR experimentation and implementation sprung to life in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the U.S. military. The Air Force Research Laboratory used AR to develop a system called Virtual Fixtures, which was used to “extend an operators’ sensory-motor facilities and problem-solving ability to remote environments.”


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency more recently invested in the production and research of AR contact lenses for battlefield use. They would be an upgrade from the larger military heads-up displays, and move the AR capabilities from glasses or goggle frames onto the contact lens itself.

The timeline projected for AR, according to White, is “within three years, at the most.”

“Technology is better, cheaper and faster,” he said. “Suddenly, it’s a good time to implement augmented reality. Cost and performance of mobile devices are almost where we need them to be, and wireless networks are as accessible as they’ve ever been.”

Some have expressed concerns that effective AR technology will require access to private information. But report author Christian Doolin said there is a whole emergence of information that is publicly available, called Personally Predictable Information. It’s the ability of data to build a profile of someone using three or four separate characteristics, and identifying them. For example, take someone’s hair color, height and geographic location; alone, those traits are useless, but together they create a profile.

According to White and Doolin, big data or “high velocity of data,” will be incredibly useful in disseminating information and providing it quickly to someone in an augmented reality.


“I can feed you data about the person in your view, about the task at hand, a checklist of what you need to do in that situation, a visualization of your threat level — that’s putting big data to work to help make complex decisions quickly,” White said.

AR also lends itself well to experimentation on a small scale because it’s relatively low cost. It’s based off cloud-based services, which are widely accessible and affordable.

“Very large-scale deployments of augmented reality may be set back because of tightened budgets, but the price point of doing pilots is very low,” White said. “And once we do these pilots, the value of investing in this technology will become very clear.”

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