AR meets VR

Combined with the Industrial Internet of Things, it's a powerful tool

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Nabuath Khan

Assistant Vice President, Analytics and Research

May 30, 2018 - A lot of companies have questions about augmented reality (AR) and its potential role in industry. They're wondering if this trending technology has any business benefit to offer and – if so – what kind of ROI they can expect. They're also concerned about how long they'll have to wait to see an impact on both the top and bottom line.

I'll address some of these concerns in this blog. First, though, let's clear up the confusion between AR and virtual reality (VR). Here's the key difference. While VR immerses people into a parallel digital world, AR brings digital information into the real world and overlays it onto an existing physical environment.

AR has actually been around for a while. But when it was new, like every fresh technology it went through an initial push-and-pull stage that left some people disillusioned. Still, with recent leaps in the hardware that drives it, AR has evolved. For more than a decade, thoughtful AR creators have been steadily testing and refining how to best use the technology and make it widely accessible. Now, enterprises can take advantage of it as never before. The proof: Fortune 500 companies and other globally recognized firms are investing heavily in this tool.

Augmented versus virtual


The real difference: Augmented versus Virtual


That answers the first question. Clearly, these enterprises believe – as do I – that AR is ready for primetime. Years of research that saw advances in hardware and breakthroughs in computer vision are finally bearing fruit. Industry is recognizing that the technology may have had a long maturity curve, but it's now on the upswing and rising fast.

The convergence of devices and sensors

What's behind this momentum? AR-enabling devices, such as tablets, smartphones and wearable systems, are one factor. But the explosion in their use also coincides with a new era – the so-called Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). You might know it as Industry 4.0, the 4th Industrial revolution, or the brilliant factory. But whatever you call it, sensors are at the core of IIoT. And these sensors are integrating with AR.

Sensors now pervade modern consumer devices, but they were once so expensive most big companies couldn't buy in; only NASA could afford to invent and build them. In a relatively short time, however, all that has changed. Just consider how many people have products and devices that are sensor-enabled or sensor-controlled today. Or take a walk through practically any factory floor. You'll likely see dozens of sensors on a single machine, tracking everything from the vibrations of multiple axes to pressure, temperature, mass flow – and you'll also note variable-frequency drives controlling the motor.

Why are these sensors relevant? The answer has to do with what they amass. Connecting machines, data, and people produces an enormous amount of information that grows exponentially.

Think what happens when organizations take this data, apply advanced analytics, and push out the most meaningful intelligence to the people on the ground in real time. That empowers everybody to do a better job.

Now let's consider the way IIoT and AR work together. IIoT is how various devices digitally monitor, manage, and “talk" to one another, while AR allows people to see and experience the digital attributes of those devices.

Here's what I mean. Every organization has traditionally used monitors to access the data in hardware. Screens are great – but looking at them isn't the same as interacting on a physical plane. Today, with the right AR software embedded in it, people can experience the data in hardware in a totally different way through video communication and augmentation. That goes for data in the physical world, the cloud, or – if it takes the form of databases – analytics, platforms, and applications. This physical connection is a key reason AR is gaining traction. It enhances the whole technology stack.

AR in the field today

Here are just two examples of AR's potential.

  • Manufacturing: The manufacturing workforce is aging, and in turn skilled manufacturing talent today is increasingly scarce – and that's a serious issue. Recent research indicates that the industry could experience a shortage of 10 million workers globally, including two million in the U.S. But AR and IIoT can help. Together, they're a way to collect and digitally capture the information that lives in the heads of highly skilled people about to leave their posts. Using remote guidance with AR and IIoT, retiring workers can act as mentors, so newcomers can learn on the job with absolutely zero or minimal upskilling downtime. Even unskilled workers can learn how to fix complex machines through remote diagnostics and troubleshooting. The upshot is that productivity could go up by at least 10% to 15% from the outset – a figure likely to increase as people become more comfortable with the AR.
  • Aviation: At present, people in control rooms monitor flights 24/7 to track data flowing from the multiple sensors and hundreds of components that contribute to smooth flights. But they can't always appreciate what's really happening when a plane is in the air. Suppose, for example, some sensors appear not to be working properly, and components are smoking. To understand what's really going on, people need AR to “board" the plane and see how the components are performing. Imagine the impact that would have in terms of ROI and time saved, among many other advantages.

The bottom line is that we're still learning about AR's potential for industry. But even programs now at the pilot stage show great promise. The more we learn how to use it, the more we stand to see significant savings and major benefits.