What’s wrong with reality? It has served mankind well for thousands of years. But one of the big technology trends for the next decade is changing that.

Both virtual reality and augmented reality are predicted to make a big impact. Augmented reality looks set to make an impact sooner. But what is it, how does it work, and how could it affect public service delivery? Here are four things that all officials should know.

1.What is it?

Augmented reality is the process of adding information onto your experience of the everyday world. This is different to virtual reality, which is an immersion into a completely different world.

Augmented reality could be something like the display on a fighter pilot’s helmet, giving readings on air speed and missile locks. Virtual reality, meanwhile, would be the creation of a flight simulator.

Augmented reality can be delivered either using existing technology, or by creating dedicated hardware. For example, smart phone apps can provide an augmented reality experience; alternatively, Google Glasses are dedicated to augmenting their wearer’s experience of reality.

2. Why is this relevant to government officials?

From education to healthcare, augmented reality could improve a citizen’s experience of public service delivery.

Surgeons could use it to see vital signs as they perform an operation. It has even been used to allow a remote surgeon to show the movement of their own hands on screen to guide a doctor performing an operation.

Education is also a promising field. A Stanford University project is using augmented reality to help autistic children see other people’s emotions. This will help them better interact with society.

It could even be used to ‘nudge’ citizen behaviour. For example, augmented reality windscreens could warn of speed restrictions, advice drivers on congested routes and guide them to available parking spaces.

But security is probably the biggest potential area of gain. A study by consultants Deloitte advised that security forces could use it to see chassis strain on a truck and be warned of a potential bomb threat. Immigration officials could also be given real-time information on passengers and suspicious behaviour, the consultants believed.

3. What’s happening so far?

Public sector use of augmented reality is currently limited in Asia, but Singapore has recently started to make progress, particularly in education and culture.

In the past year, local museums and attractions have announced plans for a host of apps to add to visitors’ experiences.

The Ministry of Communication and Information has also announced support for a new ‘Smart Learning’ initiative – in partnership with the IDA – to boost cultural spaces. Cultural hubs will be encouraged to look at how they can use technology to improve their visitor experiences.

The National Gallery is looking to launch an app that augments visitor experiences with detailed information on the exhibits. Meanwhile, at the end of October, the Science Centre will launch an app that supports its exhibition on the brain.

screenshots of Mobile@HDB

Earlier this month the Housing Development Board released an app to show people local house prices. The Mobile@HDB app allows people to point their smartphones at public housing blocks and understand the resale history and other useful information.

4. Are there any risks?

There are some risks to augmented reality. First, if hacked, people could be tricked into doing the wrong thing. Mass panic could be caused if, say, a PSI display were to suggest that the Asian haze had increased past 500.

Equally, apps could be hacked to gather sensitive information. If security officers were to wear connected devices that were accessed by a third party, they could inadvertently reveal vulnerabilities to a hacker.

But these risks are common amongst all connected devices, and require good cyber security and risk management.

Perhaps the most obvious risk is a more simple one: cost. Technology is only an enabler of services, not an end in itself. Officials must be sure that AR serves a user need before they start delivering a service with it.