While Augmented Reality (AR) offers a range of benefits, why do challenges around its implementation still exist? Field Service News’ Deputy Editor Mark Glover explores some of the technology’s major milestones, including its role in the industrial environment, and asks what’s needed to make it a ubiquitous part of an engineer’s toolkit...
Both definitions work on their own but taken together they provide more of an insight into what this relatively new, and still relatively unknown technology is.
For me, the words ‘enhanced’ and ‘world’ used in both are important; AR never changes the re-al-world, instead it adds to it, complimenting what’s already there - augmenting our reality.
In repair and maintenance, enhancing a technician’s world through AR has the potential to change the face of the service sector. However, only a handful of firms are taking the first few tentative steps into its adoption, others are reluctant perhaps to take a risk on a technology that on the whole remains unproven.
In 1968, Harvard Professor Ivan Sutherland, created what is seen as the first AR’s first incarnation. A headset suspended from the ceiling which had rudi-mentary computer graphics fed into it, creating a simple yet alternative environment for its users.
Sutherland called his invention The Sword of Domocles, which is an ancient Greek myth that warns of the perils of power – something here philosophical?!
The Sword of Domocles was more virtual than aug-mented reality but it represented the technology’s first manifestation that wouldn’t see its next major evolution until the early 90s, when its potential was realised in an industrial setting and the term Augmented Reality would be coined.
"Firms need to see AR more from a business standpoint rather than something that is just purely innovative..."
In 1990, Thomas Caudell a researcher at Boeing disrupted the firm’s long-standing process of using large, wooden and expensive boards that showed the specific wiring instructions for each, individual plane. Caudell and colleague David Mizell, would, in their solution coin the term ‘Augmented Reality’ by creating a piece of head-mounted apparatus that once donned, users were able to see the asset’s schematics projected onto re-usable boards, thus negating the need for numerous plywood boards for each plane.
Caudell’s work could be seen at the first genuine use-case of AR in a manufacturing environment. The technology helped Boeing remove an expen-sive part of their manufacturing process.
Today, the aerospace manufacturer uses AR smart-glasses across all its complex wiring pro-cesses. According to a case-study from Upskill, the software firm who provide Boeing with the AR platform on which the glasses work, “Boeing cut its wiring production time by 23 per cent and reduced error rates effectively to zero.”
These statistics represent one of the main advantages of AR: productivity. In service, where the first-time fix is seen as the holy grail, its implementation could have a major impact on a business. However, as previously mentioned firms are reti-cent to take advantage of this technology. It’s perhaps easier for large firms, like Boeing, to take a risk on implementing new, still slightly raw technologies but what about small to medium enterprises with a fragile bottom line and a skeptical finance director? How do they even begin to consider implementing a technology like AR?
Firstly, firms need to see AR more from a business standpoint rather than something that is just purely innovative, and on the surface rather exciting.
David Nedohin is the Founder and President of Scope AR, an outfit that provides AR-based solutions for the industrial sector particularly around manufacturing and field maintenance.
"Aesthetically and practically, AR hardware has moved on considerably..."
He believes firms need to approach the use-case for AR like any other: will it bring a positive return on the initial investment (and this is an important from a service perspective) will it benefit clients? “Most organisations are starting to look at the technology more from a business standpoint rather than an innovation standpoint,” he says, “and that’s where it changes in terms of pilots moving into a customer journey.
“They’ll move to the next stage of the customer journey which involves putting it [AR] into a specific use-case with a group that is actually engaged in measuring the impact of it. That’s the critical turn-ing point to me, it means more organisations are willing to start with that business discussion now than previously.”
Aesthetically and practically, AR hardware has moved on considerably from Professor Sutherland’s rather medieval looking headset.
Microsoft’s Hololens 2, a potential game-changer in terms of industrial AR use is a relatively light, fairly sleek piece of kit, resembling something like a pro cyclists’s race helmet, that enables the user to carry out tasks fairly unhindered.
Yet, from the perspective of a field engineer, where comfort and ease of use is paramount, it may take few more re-designs before the kit is part of the engineer’s tool bag. “I think we’re probably waiting on the next generation of wearables devices that allow true augmented reality with hands-free capability,” says Paul Haimes, VP of Business Development and Field Engineering at software and services company PTC.
“With the likes of Apple and Google and so on putting their hats into the ring, this will accelerate the market with the depths of R&D that is going on with that. I think in a three to five-year time span we will certainly see some amazing new wearable tech-nology being launched and that will represent the step-change.”
Tech heavyweights like Google, Apple and Mi-crosoft can only, as Haimes observes, speed-up mainstream AR adoption, from here it seems only a matter of time (three to five years?) before service engineers are donning smart glasses to carry out tasks.
The benefits are tangible, the implementation tricky, however we stand on the cusp of another revolution in service.
Watch this augmented space!