The industrial case for augmented reality

The demonstration of the Hololens, Microsoft’s new augmented reality (AR) glasses, left more than one Minecraft fan in awe during last June’s E3 conference (shown below). With just a voice command, the user managed to project the game from 2D screen onto a 3D structure lying on a real, physical table from which he could control elements via simple finger gestures — leading to thunderous applause. [Ed Note: Unlike virtual reality, which transports the user—usually via a headset — into a fully virtual world, augmented reality applications overlay graphic information on real objects.]

Long dominated by the gaming industry, AR is now increasingly finding its way into industrial settings, where applications range from quality control to training. According to data analytics firm Quid, $101.5m of the $177.6m invested in AR start-ups between 2011 and 2014 went to companies building applications beyond gaming.

Los Angeles-based Daqri and Northern Virginia’s APX Labs, for example, have built helmet- and glasses-based AR technology for use specifically in industrial settings. The headsets, called the Smart Helmet (Daqri) and Skylight (APX Labs), allow users to rely on powerful computer vision software to augment their immediate work environments; users then can make decisions based on precise measurements using sensors built into the headsets.

To understand the potential implications of such technology, imagine an oil repair technician in the midst of a safety check on an onshore rig. After ensuring that everything checks out visually, he flips on the AR on his helmet’s visor to see if he’s missed something. A heads-up display opens across his field of vision and locks in on the rig’s crown, 100 feet up. It reads that the sheaves are tilted abnormally. The drill line is under thousands of pounds of unexpected tension. He looks at his smart watch and scrolls through a menu hovering above his wrist, visible on his visor, and opens a repair ticket. HQ is notified and the rig powers down. The technician prevents a catastrophe he otherwise would have missed—and the rig company can repair the defective sheave instead of replacing an entirely failed rig.

“From an industrial perspective, this will help us better understand and prevent risks and to precisely measure all of the activity happening around us,” says Jamais Cascio, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, a technology think tank based in Silicon Valley.

AR is also slowly revolutionising the design industry. Combining a simple gaming controller and an Oculus Rift turns the act of 3D design from a drawing to a sculpting exercise, for example. The technology is also making its way into the automotive sector, with brands like BMW and Jaguar planning to deploy AR technology within the next decade — the former via AR glasses, the latter via an AR-enhanced windshield. Current research at Keio University, Japan, suggests applications could go beyond straightforward information display like speed to also provide drivers with the ability to see obstacles behind blind spots.

In future, AR may not only use visual augmentation, but also offer auditory and haptic (touch) augmentations. Researchers at the Eagleman Laboratory for Perception and Action, for example, are currently developing a jacket that helps deaf patients “hear” via haptic feedback.

“We’ll be living in the real world, but we’ll get to curate and control what we see, hear and feel to a very exact level,” says Mr Cascio. A promise whose impact will be felt well beyond the video game industry.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Andrew Trabulsi writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: Developer Robin von Hardenberg holds a tablet computer that runs his Timetraveler augmented reality app at Bernauer Street in Berlin. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 

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