Augmented reality gets to work
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:
Credit: BMW

As the promises made about AR and VR look increasingly close to coming good, Simon Creasey addresses the possible use-cases, the challenges that remain and why 5G will be a game-changer

It is time for the hyperbole surrounding augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to end. The technology is no longer the stuff of dystopian sci-fi movies such as Minority Report. It’s a modern-day reality for many businesses that have been early adopters. A report published by Capgemini Research late last year, which surveyed more than 700 executives in the automotive, manufacturing and utilities sectors, underscored the extent to which these technologies have already made significant inroads – and how huge their growth trajectory is anticipated to be in the coming years.

Capgemini found that 50 per cent of the businesses surveyed that were not already using AR/VR intend to start exploring immersive technologies for business operations in the next three years. Furthermore, 46 per cent of respondents said the technology would become mainstream in their organisation within the next three years – an additional 38 per cent think the use of AR/VR within their business will become mainstream in the next three to five years.

“Immersive technology has come a long way in a short time and will continue to evolve,” said Lanny Cohen, chief innovation officer at Capgemini, on launching the Augmented and Virtual Reality in Operations: A guide for investment report. “Faced with stiff competition from aggressive investors in the US and China, businesses need to streamline investment to seize the long-term growth potential this technology offers.”

Credit: RealWear

So, what do businesses that want to grasp this opportunity need to know about implementing AR/VR technology, and what are the major obstacles they need to overcome?

To date, early adopters of AR/VR technology have largely been manufacturing businesses in the automotive and air space sector, defence companies, energy and utility businesses and travel and transportation companies.

Regardless of the sector in question, Nathalie Vancluysen, offering manager, workplace and mobility at B2B IT service provider DXC Technology, says there are a lot of commonalities across the different industry sectors, with companies using the technology for three main purposes.

“The first one is visualisation of work instructions, the second one is remote guidance, and the third one is virtual collaboration,” says Vancluysen.

The use of AR to visualise work instructions is a boon to those who have to learn how to carry out complex procedures (such as assembling an aircraft engine) and those responsible for their training. “Using AR technology you can get employees up to speed quicker and get them trained quicker, so the business benefits are improved productivity,” says Vancluysen. “You can also reduce the number of faults, so you have improved quality and you can keep your more experienced people focused on the job. We see in a lot of these industries that experts are spending a lot of time training new people, but with augmented reality technology, new hires can train themselves.”

The efficiency benefits she underlines are reflected in Capgemini’s report, which found 82 per cent of companies surveyed that are currently implementing AR/VR state that the benefits they are enjoying are either meeting or exceeding their expectations.

But deriving such benefits from the use of AR/VR technology is not without its challenges. Sanjay Jhawar, co-founder, president and chief product officer at RealWear, which developed the HMT-1 AR headset currently used by around 1,000 companies worldwide, says there are a number of common issues that users encounter.

“Like any field-based [technology] there is a lot of preparation work the enterprise has to plan for, including really understanding the core business case and use-case for effecting change in the particular field process that they have,” says Jhawar. “We see a lot of companies in industry who want to understand the technology and, for want of a better word, ‘play around with it’ without having a clear idea of what they want to do with it. I think the most successful implementations are the ones where there is an urgent pain point that needs to be solved.”

He adds that knowing what process or problem the customer is trying to improve or address is the first step that businesses looking to embrace AR/VR technology have to make. After that, users can look at the different potential technology solutions.

This is where the likes of DXC is able to help. Vancluysen says customers have to carefully select the AR/VR headset to use because not every device works for every scenario. She adds that DXC can assist in that decision-making process and also aid customers in undertaking the 3D modelling required for common uses of AR/VR technology, such as the visualisation of work instructions.

“There is an exercise that needs to be done to translate [how a trained employee carries out a task], which is usually a PDF or maybe a piece of paper, and convert that into an augmented reality instruction using a combination of holograms and 3D animation,” she explains.

Vancluysen says this is typically one the biggest issues that users of AR/VR technology face. Another recurring problem is connectivity, which is particularly challenging for field workers who are based outside and sometimes operating in remote locations where network coverage is an issue.

It is a scenario that is all too familiar to Edgybees, which has developed an AR vision intelligence software platform. The company’s software takes real-time video footage from drones and geo references it. This footage would typically be viewed by users on a tablet or a PC, but the company has already integrated its software with AR glasses.

“So, you can be flying a drone with a headset on and get the live video feed via the headset with the street names overlaid,” explains Edgybees CEO and co-founder Adam Kaplan.

He adds that one of the first practical use-cases of the company’s software was during Hurricane Irma in the US, in 2017, with the company using live streamed video taken from a drone, which was then overlaid with street names in the flooded area, to identify where citizens were reportedly trapped.

“The first time we tried to use that, it didn’t work very well because all of the telecoms were down due to the storm,” says Kaplan. “What we had to do was cache the maps on top of local devices and you couldn’t necessarily see where all the things were. Our software works a lot better with connectivity because we are connecting real-time maps and real-time locations of people. We are still able to work without that level of connectivity, but having it to help save people’s lives is pretty important.”

Connectivity is a key challenge that Jhawar also identifies – particularly in remote worker environments – although he says that there are workarounds that users of the company’s headsets can deploy.

“It can be as simple as turning your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot,” he says. “That works quite well for occasional use, otherwise you might start to run into battery use issues on your phone. Then you move into portable hotspots or industrial grade hotspots that are more robust. Beyond that, some customers are using satellite VSAT networks.”

He cites the example of an oil field services company that uses RealWear’s technology for remote repair work on offshore rigs. It uses VSAT to allow workers to do live video calls with colleagues on-shore who are experts on a particular piece of equipment.

“While it is quite expensive to do it that way, the value of the downtime of the equipment is so high it’s still worth it,” says Jhawar. “It might cost them $2,000 to do a 30-minute video call over VSAT, but they are saving $25,000 to $30,000 of lost production downtime for that piece of equipment.”

Going forward, he thinks that many of the connectivity issues experienced by some users could be eradicated with the roll-out of 5G, which he believes could be a watershed moment for AR/VR technology in terms of adoption rates. He cites the example of video uplinks, which can prove problematic when being used as a collaborative tool with remote mentors.

“What the remote mentor wants to see is what the field technician is seeing from the camera they are wearing on their head, which is part of our device,” explains Jhawar. “Even in 4G LTE in the real world, we might see 0.5Mbps to maybe 1Mbps of reliable uplink speed – it will vary depending on where you are and what type of network you have, as well as other factors. That is not all that much. It will give you 480p video compressed at maybe 10-15 frames a second, which is okay and you can do a lot with that. But if you really want 1080p at 30 frames a second, which is full HD, that is going to require 5-15Mbps of reliable uplink, and you just do not get that on 4G networks. However, you will get that with 5G, and that is a game-changer.”

Many industry experts believe that the widespread roll-out of 5G will see many more use-cases of the technology emerge globally, with companies in the US and China being the most aggressive investors in AR/VR technology to date. In these nations, Capgemini’s report found more than 50 per cent of companies are already implementing immersive technology in their business operations. This is in stark contrast to the more than 50 per cent of companies in Germany, France, the UK and the Nordics, which are still only experimenting with AR/VR initiatives.

However, it is anticipated that an acute shortage of skilled workers that continues to grow in many developed nations will hasten adoption rates of AR/VR over the next decade, with the technology used to speed up training of employees – a 2018 report published by Deloitte suggests that the US manufacturing sector faces a potential shortage of 2.4 million workers in the next decade if the nation’s skills gap is not addressed.

Vancluysen says the company is already seeing many more clients coming forward who are interested in using AR/VR technology.

“In terms of adoption, many clients are running proof of concept at the moment, or at least trying to identify a good use-case for proof of concept,” she explains. “Some are at a further stage where they are moving from proof of concept to production.”

As a result of this shift, she thinks the tipping point for the technology is fast approaching. It’s a view shared by Jhawar.

“We probably see a longer time horizon for the more advanced types of immersion because I don’t think the industrial usability, safety, battery life and robustness challenges have been solved for the holographic systems yet, so I think they will find applications in architecture, building information modelling and design before they are going to find widespread application in the field,” he says. “However, the type of device we have, which doesn’t really depend on any of those things and is very usable today, is expanding at a very fast rate.”

Jhawar adds that the company is growing at a rate of 300-400 per cent year on year and already has around 1,000 customers spanning the globe and numerous different industries.

“A lot of them are in the pilot phase, but many have got past that into real deployment and they are in real deployment in tens to hundreds [of headsets], but within nine months or less [we’ll] see thousands [of headsets] being deployed at individual customers, moving to tens of thousands in another year.”

RealWear has identified around 100 million workers worldwide that could benefit from using its technology over the next decade. The challenge for AR and VR technology businesses is now cutting through the hype and converting this opportunity into sales.

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