People think of the iPhone and the smartphones it inspired as “revolutionary” devices.

But we’re on the cusp of something that could represent an even bigger transformation in computing: augmented reality.

Augmented reality, or AR, overlays digital images on top of views of the the real world. And it’s something that many in the tech industry, including the head honchos at Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and Google, all expect will be the next big thing.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he thinks AR could replace anything in your life with a screen, including your TV. Even sooner than that, many tech experts think AR could one day replace your smartphone. After all, why carry a separate phone if your e-mails, texts, calls, and spreadsheets are projected straight into your field of view?

AR may sound like science fiction, but it’s already starting to make its way into the real world. And one of the first places you can see it is in the workplace, whether that’s the front-office or the factory floor.

First steps

A lot of the early momentum for AR in the workplace is coming from Microsoft and its HoloLens augmented-reality goggles. Microsoft generally isn't selling HoloLens to consumers yet, but it's currently offering the first version of the hardware to developers and business customers that starts at $3,000.

HoloLens is seeing some promising potential business uses. Architecture firm Gensler used HoloLens to redesign its Los Angeles headquarters, as Microsoft detailed in a recent blog post. HoloLens projected a three-dimensional image of the new building into architects' eyes, allowing them to update and tweak the model in real-time.

microsoft hololens thyssenkrupp elevator

Foto: Thyssenkrupp engineers use HoloLens to inspect an elevator, with an engineer collaborating with a remote colleague present virtually. source Microsoft

Thyssenkrupp, a German conglomerate that makes elevators and escalators, has equipped many of its elevator repair specialists with HoloLens. While performing repairs, the workers can use Skype to communicate with expert technicians back at the office. Thanks to the HoloLens' camera, those technicians can view a video stream showing what the repair specialists are seeing, allowing the technicians to offer advice and assistance, such as looking up the appropriate section in an operators' manual or ordering just the right parts.

Meanwhile, companies like GE are experimenting with using augmented reality at power plants and other industrial facilities. For its part, GE is creating "digital twins," or exact digital replicas, of its industrial machines. Those digital twins incorporate all the data from their real counterparts, allowing technicians to examine them virtually, off-site. The twins can also help highlight malfunctions when technicians visit the real machines in person.

The bigger picture

Microsoft was early, but it isn't the only one building augmented reality hardware. Google is working on a revamped version of its groundbreaking Google Glass aimed at businesses. Google-backed Magic Leap is racing to build an AR headset, although it's unclear what business uses it will have. Reports have long swirled that Apple is developing its own smart glasses. And Epson - yes, the printer company - has for several years now offered a line of AR headsets developed for industrial uses.

Still, it will likely be years before AR is widely adopted in the workplace. There are still lots of technical hurdles to overcome. With HoloLens, for example, Microsoft managed to pack the considerable computing power necessary for AR into a standalone headset that doesn't need to be tethered to a phone or a computer to function. But among the tradeoffs of its approach is the fact that the AR viewing areas in HoloLens are only a few inches wide. You can only see them if you have the headset adjusted just right; the experience is still pretty far off from the immersive holograms promised by "Star Trek."

Conversely, Magic Leap promises its upcoming headset will offer a wider viewing angle and a more immersive experience. But that's likely to come with some frustrating costs. According to leaked photos of a prototype of Magic Leap's headset obtained by Business Insider earlier this year, the device will be powered by - and need to be connected to - an unwieldy external device that looks something like a fanny pack. A big priority for the AR industry going forward will be to find a balance between those two extremes.

Apple ARKit

Foto: Apple ARkit will let developers show digital images overlaid on the real world by way of the iPhone and iPad camera. source Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Still, the technology's already making significant strides. Apple recently unveiled ARkit, a set of tools that will let developers make AR apps for the iPhone and iPad that tap into those devices' cameras and sensors. Just as Apple's App Store spurred the widespread development of smartphone apps, ARkit could help spark a similar proliferation of augmented-reality apps for productivity, gaming and more.

Enterprises will likely benefit from that fervor as well. As we can already see by the early examples of enterprise-class AR, there's a real need for businesses to interact with computers in a way that goes beyond what you can do with a smartphone or PC.