Augmented reality apps for the industrial worker

It's not just for Pokemon Go.

In augmented reality (AR), digital information is overlaid over the real world of the viewer. The Pokemon Go game and visual displays in the Ironman movies are just two examples of AR and while they may appear too simplistic or too futuristic, Digi-Capital projects that AR will be $120 billion industry by 2020. Industrial augmented reality will be a major part of that.

The majority of AR applications are focused on industrial use cases with aerospace, automotive, life science and manufacturing industries being the first adopters. In a 2016 survey conducted by Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance, 80 percent of respondents predict that their business will adopt smart glasses within the next 2-3 years.

Key drivers for current and future adoption include increased productivity and reduced downtime to drive competitive edge. Moreover, industrial augmented reality is seen as a perfect medium to deliver faster training to novices through step-by-step instructions and to improving compliance requirements by verifying work completion.

With many AR options emerging on the market it may be challenging to determine which solution will meet specific business needs. In addition to smart glasses, of which there are a multitude of options, helmets with visors, mobile phones and tablets, as well as projector-supported workstations can all be considered for AR use.

While technological prowess, such as battery life, clarity of images and internet connectivity are important factors in picking a solution, the human and work component must also be considered carefully. Specifically, the type of work that AR will support and the environment in which work is executed, have to be evaluated thoroughly. As cool as glasses or mobile devices may be, there is nothing worse when the workforce is hindered by rather than assisted by technology.

Let’s examine these two questions more closely and highlight what any business beginning with AR should consider. These decisions affect not only the hardware to be adopted but also inform how AR interfaces and workflows need to be designed and re-engineered to ensure that AR is a successful investment.

What jobs will industrial augmented reality applications support?

Different processes and sub-tasks require customized tools; AR is no exception to this rule. On the one hand, workers need to see certain information in order to make decisions at work. For instance, oil and gas field technicians look at temperature and pressure gauges before deciding what maintenance steps to perform on a well.

In situations where information is presented solely or primarily for the consumption of the user, one must consider the order in which that information is presented -- one at a time or all at once? How could the user retrieve information that was presented just a few moments ago in case he got distracted or didn’t have a good enough look at the display flashing in his visual field?

In addition to displaying information, industrial augmented reality could be used primarily to capture and quickly record data. Here, for example, a technician could have her visor record data of a meter as she’s walking by it, or take photos of equipment being inspected. What workflows need to be created to assist in situations when text and number information from the meter cannot be recorded due to erosion of some of the labels? Would voice commands be appropriate and useful given the work environment and if so, how would the user verify that her device correctly recorded information it was dictated?

Finally, some industrial AR platforms provide a video and audio bridge between the smart glass wearer and an office worker. In these scenarios, a field worker can live-stream his work to an expert in a remote location who can provide real-time verbal and visual direction on how to complete the task. While this scenario showcases the economy of global and remote deployment of expertise, it also raises questions about the safety of such interactions. For instance, what workflow instructions will ensure that visual pointers and any other instructional materials do not exhaust and distract the field worker?  

What environments are ideal for industrial augmented reality technology?

In addition to task flows, work environment is also important to consider for any technology adoption. AR product demos show nicely-lit, interruption- and distraction-free environments. However, industrial settings are typically buzzing with activity, sound, visual information and action.  

From the technical side, businesses must evaluate whether WiFi or internet connectivity is stable or intermittent. As a result, one must assess what task steps should be implemented to support users in online and offline scenarios to ensure that work is executed as seamlessly and efficiently as possible despite connectivity challenges.

Physical characteristics of work settings are also informative. For instance, if day and night shift work is executed under significantly different lighting conditions, as is the case in numerous industrial settings, AR content displays must be appropriately designed to ensure that workers can see and read the information.

Similarly, can the workforce rely on video and audio bridge if field work is performed outside? For instance, how will the ambient noise level affect audio interactions with the remote office? How can the smart helmet wearer ask her questions if the wind is howling and the device mic is not picking up her voice? And what of video quality in dark environments or when it is raining?  

Environmental constraints should also impact the selection of the AR technology form factor. While in some settings, like a laboratory, taking smart glasses off and putting them back on as needed is not a concern, in other settings this may pose risk to the AR equipment. In other situations, field workers have to wear protective gear and already carry a lot of other tools. Would a ruggedized helmet with visor be a better option than smart glasses, or would either device quickly become a nuisance to the worker?

Input and interactions with devices must also be considered. Workers who have to wear gloves and use tools with their hands do not need to be hampered by yet another object to carry. Some of the ways to interact with smart glasses rely on touch sensors embedded on the leg of the glasses. Other devices work with voice commands. Hand gesture commands and even eye movements and prolonged fixation are also pursued interaction methods. Yet, despite these options, which combination is most optimal for a specific user group and business goal?

The future of augmented reality

Preliminary reports of AR technology benefits in industrial settings have been shared. Chrysler, for instance, report 80 percent quality improvement and 40 percent increase in productivity after implementing AR systems to assist with assembly. Boeing reports 6 percent in error reduction and 25 percent increase in productivity.

Capabilities of AR technology and its potential to advance businesses are inspiring. However, the true merit of these engineering marvels will be demonstrated only when this technology is launched in the real industrial settings that are often noisy, full of distractions and aimed at supporting a diverse set of tasks that the workforce executes.

By focusing only on technology capabilities designed for “perfect work conditions” and ignoring the reality of the industrial environment, AR will become obsolete before its value is fully demonstrated and explored. Make sure that your foray into AR is driven by focusing first on people who will use it, and not on the bling of the gadgets. Deep understanding on where and how specific users actually execute their work, paired with a good understanding of AR technology and device capabilities is the way for successful AR use in enterprise.


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