Augmented reality (AR) was supposed to be a game changer in the consumer world, but has failed to match its hype. Fortunately, in the B2B world the news is far better.
AR combines a person’s perception of the real world with some sort of computer-generated overlay. Google Glass was the most hyped—but ultimately commercially unsuccessful—incarnation of AR, in large part because it targeted the wrong market.
It is dramatically easier to find business uses for AR than consumer ones. People don’t really need to see menus or apartment listings or ads as they walk down a city street.
But take a technician who needs to fix a jet engine in 20 minutes or less, and that person can benefit greatly from a hands-free way to identify potential problems and their fixes.
The more complicated and technical a challenge, the greater the value of AR. Imagine looking at the inner workings of an oil refinery and having a visor that identifies every part and its purpose. Even better, imagine a worker being able to order a replacement part just by looking at the broken part and verbally requesting a new one.
A 2016 PWC study found that more than one in three manufacturers expect to adopt VR and AR technologies by 2018. They cited numerous potential applications, including:
Smartglasses that help track complicated assembly processes to ensure that all parts are assembled in the right sequence without the downtime of consulting a clipboard, manual or even tablet.
Parts inspectors can take a photo of a part that needs to be modified, and also add a spoken record of the issue and relay those data to the appropriate co-worker in seconds.
To offer a real life example, every new Boeing 747-8 Freighter includes over 130 miles of wiring. The old way of showing workers what goes where was to provide them with
“phone books” full of diagrams, as well as instructions on laptops. But this approach was unwieldy, as it forces employees to constantly search for new information and to look away from their work.
But now an AR solution called Skylight allows Boeing’s technicians to see instructions in front of them as they do their work. They can navigate the system using voice commands.
A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted “a side-by-side time-lapse comparison of a GE technician wiring a wind turbine’s control box using the company’s current process, and then doing the same task while guided by line-of-sight instructions overlaid on the job by an AR headset. The device improved the worker’s performance by 34% on first use.”
That same HBR piece cited AR as a wonderful example of “upskilling technologies, a partnership between humans and smart machines, (that) can augment workers’ abilities, resulting in dramatically improved performance, greater safety, and higher worker satisfaction.” In other words, it combines what humans do best with what digital technologies do best.
On the consumer front, Google Glass just wasn’t perceived as being cool. But “cool” isn’t a factor in manufacturing plants in which workers have long had to dress a certain way or wear safety equipment, to meet the demands of their job.
Luigi De Bernardini, President of Autoware Digital and CEO of Autoware points out that “the differentiating value of AR is in how information is presented to the user. It’s superimposed over the ‘reality.’ The values, icons or graphics are anchored to the real object they relate to. In a standard application, you would probably use a valve icon and an ON label to indicate the state of a valve. In AR, you just superimpose the ON label over the valve itself, which makes it easy for the operator to understand.”
Without AR, the limited factor in many operations is how much information a worker can keep accurately in his or her head. AR has the potential to remove this bottleneck, by serving as an easy, accessible, and accurate reference. Used in this manner, AR isn’t about games or entertainment, but rather about productivity, speed, safety, and accuracy. It’s worth your attention.