While Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies have languished over the past several decades, major technical advancements within the past few years have brought forth a resurgence of interest in these technologies. From the first AR/VR experiments in 1968, to the failure of the Nintendo Virtual Boy in the 1990s, to the explosive success of the Oculus Rift VR headset several years ago, to Apple and Google’s mobile releases of ARKit and ARCore last year - technical advancements over time have made new, effective use cases for VR and AR adoption actually feasible. These technical advancements have now brought AR and VR technology back to the forefront as businesses determine how to stay ahead of the curve and take advantage of these disruptive technologies.
VR describes a three-dimensional, computer-simulated environment which can be interacted with by a user. The user can become a part of the “virtual” world, fully immersed within the environment and able to manipulate virtual objects and perform actions simulating real-life, physical scenarios. Usually, special equipment such as a VR headset, sensors, and/or controllers are used to track the position of hands and other appendages. VR is meant to completely “replace” a user’s current reality, while AR is focused on enhancing the user’s immediate real-world environment by overlaying additional information about the environment and the physical objects within it. AR applications can add information and virtual objects into a user’s real-world environment, such that they are visually perceived by the user as part of the physical world. AR applications are most commonly used on mobile phone devices (for example, the Pokémon craze), though specialized headset devices, such as Google Glass and the RealWear HMT-1, feature capabilities that allow a camera to “intercept” the user’s view of the real-world environment, augment the view with information, and re-display that augmented view to the user. The consumer is not the only group who is beginning to use AR/VR. Businesses are starting to recognize the value of the technology as well by using it to reduce costs, increase productivity, or to develop competitive advantages.
Imagine taking apart and repairing a complex piece of equipment, like a transformer, as you train for your new technician job. Now, think about all the people who are also being onboarded, plus the instructors, the facilities, the equipment, and more. Maybe you had to travel to where this training is taking place as well. Physical training has significant expenses and overhead that occur every time more people are onboarded. VR can reduce the practice equipment cost (the transformer) for each trainee, along with any travel. Even more important is providing an immersive, realistic experience where someone can encounter a variety of situations, from the most basic to rare, complex cases. Encountering challenging cases in a hands-on setting will prepare employees for handling similar cases in real situations, preparing them to think on their feet and problem solve in the field. More examples include customer service representatives, factory workers, and field technicians. Putting a service rep in real situations with difficult customers, factory workers in front of large complex machines, and technicians with a variety of HVAC unit models, are the future of training and preparing employees for any situation.
Visualizing virtual objects in the physical world is one of the most common use cases for AR. IKEA’s app is a great example. It can be used to place virtual furniture on tables and counters. A similar, more applicable example would be showing a new product design in AR by virtually placing it front of you, moving it around, looking at the product from every angle, and modifying the colors and design in real-time. In the field, a utility worker could place virtual utility poles along a street to get distance measurements and determine if there are any obstructions. Visualization plays into other use cases showing virtual objects in data access/reporting and collaboration.
AR can enhance the perception of a physical object by providing the observer with related information. This could be looking at a machine and having stats such as temperatures, operation time, fluid levels, etc. displayed in real time next to the machine. That is an attainable goal but complex; the main goal is real-time data access, and to achieve this you don’t need fancy AR overlays. Being able to access information quickly while mobile is possible and surprisingly easy with current market offerings, like the enterprise Google Glass and RealWear HMT-1. The HMT-1 is a hands-free, wireless, voice-controlled headset with a screen that sits directly below one eye to keep out of your field of vision but viewable by looking down. It is also equipped with a camera, so scanning barcodes, QR codes, or using GPS can put you in context of what’s near you. Once you are in context, data is shown on the screen and can be navigated with your voice.
Going hand-in-hand with data access, you may also want to report on physical objects. Expanding on the concept of gaining context via barcodes, QR codes, or GPS to determine which piece of equipment you are near, you can use similar technology to log notes on the equipment. The major difference is inspecting equipment is more hands-on than just viewing data. That’s where using a hands-free device for reporting data comes into play. The HMT-1 can enter text into forms via voice and use the camera to supply supporting images. An example of this is utility workers performing inspections of powerlines, manholes, and vaults. The top of a utility pole isn’t the best place to take out a clipboard or phone and start filling out a form when you could just say what you are seeing and quickly snap a photo. Hands-free data access and entry is essential with manholes and vaults where it can be dark, wet, cramped, and potentially hazardous.
Collaborating remotely is difficult, especially if you are trying to show a physical object to someone across the world within a 2D environment. By immersing collaborating parties into a virtual environment, or transforming the physical object to a virtual one so everyone can interact with it in their own physical environment, all parties can interact or observe the object on their own terms. AR and VR could allow objects to be shared between users, such as a writing surfaces and other objects, like a new car design or complex piece of equipment, and let all users interact with these objects together like you are all in the same room. For example, a remote expert technician could provide advice to a field repair worker on a new, unfamiliar piece of equipment in real-time with information about the equipment like part temperatures, service issues, and fault codes overlaid onto the user’s screen. While there are many more use cases for AR and VR, these are just a few of the most transformative opportunities we’ve seen potential for within our clients.
First appearing in pop culture, AR and VR were not defined, but flourished as a science fiction ideal. Fast forward only a few decades to VR being available to the mainstream consumer and AR already in the hands of the public via technology they use every day. Integrating these technologies into existing business processes is an exercise in innovation, whether designing or implementing, since these technologies have only just begun their role in business. Our technology consulting professionals have experience in designing and building AR and VR applications on many platforms for various business cases.
Contact us for more information on how West Monroe can help enable your business to take advantage of these emerging technologies.