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Seeing things? Why augmented reality will transform industry

Augmented reality is on a disruptive path to transform industry and change the way we work forever.

Imagine you’re working on a new top-secret project, developing the next generation of state-of-the-art sports cars. You’re part of a global team, collaborating on the design, development and manufacturing the latest vehicle. As you join your next online meeting to decide the next trendy car colour for the upcoming launch, you remember to pop your smart glasses on.

One by one, each of your international colleagues appears in your room as if they were sitting across from you, despite being a thousand miles away. Before long, you’re sharing the latest car designs, each of you looking at the same next-generation 3D virtual car in life size, interacting with each part as if it was real. As you fine tune the precise shade of electric blue paint on the wing mirrors to send into manufacturing, your colleague tweaks the colour slightly with an effortless hand gesture, ensuring everyone in the meeting can see the latest iteration. And with that, the job is done.

Technology

Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that has been in people’s imagination since the dawn of computing. AR allows for new 3D visual elements to be added to the real-world environment, enabling transformative new computing applications and experiences. Since the 60s, researchers have been exploring the usage of head mounted displays to add additional information to human vision. Until recently, the concept has been limited by technology, with available computational power, display technology and user interaction mechanisms being key factors preventing the adoption for wider use cases.

Over time, as computational power increased to levels suitable for advanced 3D graphics, particularly through innovations introduced with the smartphone revolution, augmented reality has developed to a level where it is suitable for wider consumer and industrial usage across the world.

AR technology often comes under the “mixed reality” label. Mixed reality is an umbrella term, covering a spectrum of technologies involving placing users in virtual environments. It covers everything from virtual reality, where the user is placed in a fully virtual 3D space, all the way to augmented reality, where 3D objects are added in to “augment” the user’s real physical environment.

Industrial Applications

There is vast potential for mixed reality usage in industry. Industrial applications include product design, development, manufacturing, and maintenance – allowing humans to operate more effectively.

Recent augmented reality devices have become affordable, reliable, and useful enough for industrial applications. The Microsoft HoloLens device is the most prominent example, being in use across Airbus, Boeing, Intel, Porsche, Volkswagen, NASA and Trimble, to name a few.

For product development, AR allows visualising digital designs in 3D space, cutting down on time-consuming prototyping stages and R&D costs. Impressively, AR devices allow users to physically walk around the designs to get a sense of scale, as if the virtual objects exist in real-life – as Ford have demonstrated in the below image. It is easy to imagine the advantages of collaborating on a new car in 3D, being able to move around the object to rapidly make suggestions, rather than being huddled around a flat computer screen and having to imagine how it would look at scale.

Use of augmented reality in the car industry

As well as the automotive industry, AR has endless applications across every business sector. From healthcare, to education, to manufacturing – the benefits of accessible 3D technology will be transformative. Architects can physically walk clients through their future buildings; teachers can show their students how 3D mechanics works, in 3D; and manufacturers can visualise new machinery and factory layouts at life size to optimise material flows.

In addition, AR is actively used for employee training. Using Microsoft Dynamics 365 Guides and the HoloLens device, user-created three-dimensional annotations and arrows can teach users how new machines works more effectively than paper-based diagrams. Other major industrial use cases include quality control and inspections – allowing operators to interact with their environment in three dimensions. Combined with machine learning, this unlocks potential for increased efficiencies, and computer-aided inspections to reduce errors and mistakes.

At a practical, day-to-day level - meetings will no longer need to be conducted in person to get the tangible human connection; computers need not be limited to 13” laptop displays, when your day-to-day apps could be the size of cinema screens; and teachers need not be limited to textbooks and 2D diagrams. For consumers, AR-enabled gaming, entertainment, and sports can provide thrilling interactive and more immersive experiences – take Pokémon Go for example.

Challenges

Despite the recent advances in AR technology, there are still several major challenges that are preventing wider adoption. Firstly, the technology is not quite ready – limited fields of views (i.e., how much of your vision the screen covers) limits how close you can get to objects. Factors such as device weight, brightness and visibility are currently a challenge, with poor colour reproduction and focus depths affecting usability and usefulness on current devices.

New technological developments will solve many of these challenges. For example, the three-year gap between the Microsoft HoloLens 1 and 2 solidified Microsoft’s lead and massively improved performance, reliability, and the holographic displays. Over time, with increasing competition in the tech industry from Apple and Meta (previously known as Facebook), the costs and barriers-to-entry will reduce, enabling wider adoption from both the consumer and industrial markets.

In addition, a key challenge for business is a lack of the available skill sets to take advantage of AR. Using AR technology in new use cases currently requires advanced software development skills and knowledge, requiring advanced 3D software techniques typically reserved to gaming and engineering industries to be applied to industrial and commercial software projects. Existing software engineering talent will need to be upskilled, and it is easy to envisage skills shortages in these areas over the next decade before education catches up to meet demand. AR technology will inevitably become easier to develop for as new tools and techniques are developed, driven by market demands. Requiring less specialised knowledge will enable wider adoption, particularly among smaller businesses with smaller research and development budgets. New AR products integrated with existing industry standards like Industry 4.0, digital twin, ERP and CAD software will emerge – further driving down costs and increasing demand.

Conclusions

AR is certainly a promising technology with potential to transform industry and productivity for the better. In the long term, it is easy to see how the vision outlined at the start is possible, with multiple users collaborating on virtual 3D objects as naturally as meeting in person. Technological innovations will continue at pace, and current issues (such as device weight, and display quality) will certainly improve to a point where they’re no longer a problem.

Before long, it won’t be necessary to fill the office with flat computer monitors and physical computing equipment, when every employee could have cinema-sized displays and cloud-powered computing in a device the size of sunglasses. It’s almost inevitable that AR will transform the way we work - exactly how is difficult to predict!

Augmented reality is certainly one of those things you have to see to believe.

Sources: Images sourced from Microsoft, and Ford

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