Google Glass is the most visible example of augmented reality, but a business case for the emerging technology is building. According to Gartner research analyst Tuong Huy Nguyen, the technology could be most valuable where workers do not have immediate access to information such as remote sites or in jobs that require one or both hands. While it’s still early, manufacturers are already using augmented reality for factory planning and equipment repair. Applications are also being developed for use in distribution centers for more efficient order-picking and delivery.
The rise of smartphones, tablets and wearables, including head-mounted displays such as Google Glass, is facilitating the development and adoption of augmented reality.
Google Glass, which lets users access applications like email and texts, navigate hands-free and take pictures or video through a screen that hovers just above their right eye, is the most well-known and well-publicized example of this emerging technology.
But while much of the talk surrounding augmented reality is on the consumer side, the technology’s biggest impact may one day be on the manufacturing, distribution and logistics industries.
What It Is
Think of augmented reality as layering digital information onto the real world. The technology uses smartphones, tablets or even desktop computers with cameras. An increasingly popular way to access augmented reality applications in industrial settings is by wearing double-paned smart glasses that overlay data onto whatever you are looking at in the real world.
APX Labs’ Skybox will let sports fans access real-time content on their smart glasses while sitting in the stands. The program can overlay a player’s statistics onto the screen or replay a home run – all with the actual game going on in the background.
The technology has also been used to augment advertising and store displays. Toy-maker LEGO’s digital kiosks in stores let consumers hold a box up to a camera; the LEGO product appears on the screen in 3D, showing the potential buyer what it will look like assembled.
Esquire magazine featured an entire issue dedicated to augmented reality; when readers held the magazine’s cover up to a webcam, Robert Downey Jr. jumped out of the cover and spoke to them on the screen. Another example, as detailed in the Wall Street Journal, is the ability to hold a tablet over a movie review in a newspaper and have the film’s trailer pop up.
Many have questioned the long-term viability of some potential uses of the technology, especially in the consumer space, but Gartner research analyst Tuong Huy Nguyen says that augmented reality could be extremely valuable in industries where workers are in the field, do not have immediate access to information or jobs that require one or both hands and the operator’s attention.
The military was an early adopter of augmented reality, according to Nguyen.
APX Labs, which develops software for smart glasses, was started in 2010 when it created what it called “Terminator Vision” for the U.S. military. The software lets soldiers scan crowds, identify faces, take a picture, send it over the network, make a match and then present the results in seconds on their see-through smart glasses. The company then developed MedSight, which gave combat medics remote and hands-free access to patient records.
Beyond military applications, however, augmented reality is young, Nguyen says. Most companies are just now laying the groundwork.
“We are really still in the infancy of this market,” he says. “The verticals you are seeing it in is more of a trial or prototype, trying to really understand, ‘What is this augmented reality thing, and what can it do for us?’”
In the Warehouse
Analysts have big hopes for augmented reality’s potential in the warehouse. Using headsets with screens that allow the overlay of digital information onto what’s in front of them, warehouse workers can tap directly into the order system.
Hands-free, pickers are told or shown where to go in the warehouse, how many of which box (the screen highlights the box in front of the picker to ensure they are grabbing the right one) and even which warehouse loading dock these boxes need to be taken to. Instead of scanning a barcode to validate the item, the augmented reality-driven smart glasses would scan it as soon as the worker picked it up and would indicate if it was the right item.
While many distribution centers are already using similar technology through devices such as barcode scanners, augmented reality takes it to another level, says Trak Lord, who leads metaio’s marketing in the U.S. The company’s software drives augmented reality applications such as the one described above.
And smart glasses can be used for more than picking and scanning, including for example, warehouse navigation or forklift maintenance. “We can drastically change the operations of an industrial or automotive company with a single application,” Lord says.
In the Field
UK-based Vuzix has partnered with enterprise software company SAP to develop augmented reality applications for field services.
In one concept video showcasing the technology, an electrician goes to a stadium, puts on his smart glasses, which then show him how to get to the room where a repair is needed. When he looks at the equipment, it highlights where the problem is through his glasses and shows him what needs to happen to fix it through instructions on the right side of his screen.
When he’s done fixing the problem, he uses a voice command to call a co-worker. Still hands-free, he’s able to talk with the technician (appearing live in a square at the top right of his vision), who can then see what the electrician sees and collaborate with him on next steps.
Car-maker Volkswagen worked with metaio to deliver the unique service requirements to mechanics across its European network for its XL1 concept car. It didn’t make sense for VW to roll out extensive training for a car that very few mechanics would see due to its limited production run. But the car-maker also did not want an XL1 to roll into a VW dealer and not have mechanics who could service it, Lord says.
So it developed MARTA, which stands for Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance system. The system lets service technicians point a tablet at the car; it then labels the parts and shows the technician the next steps based on what it sees. The mechanic can also leave notes for future service and can track anomalies or suggestions that are then communicated back to the design team for future improvements.
“The ability to put tremendously helpful insight into the hands of individuals at the time they need it so they can then take action is the real power of augmented reality,” says Guy Blissett, specialist leader for wholesale distribution for Deloitte Consulting. Blissett was also the author of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors’ Facing the Forces of Change: Reimagining Distribution in a Connected World.
In the Factory
Augmented reality is already being used by manufacturers for factory planning, equipment maintenance and product design.
In one case from metaio, KUKA, a robotics firm, used the company’s augmented reality software to determine if robotic arms would fit on a plant floor in the space allocated. The software allows engineers to super-impose 3D renderings to ensure that plans on paper translate to reality.
“If you literally move (the arms) too far to the left or right, it could destroy something,” Lord says. “… You have a limited amount of real estate.”
In another case, MAN Diesel, a ship engine manufacturer, used augmented reality to simulate the installation of a new engine. Using photos, augmented reality allows virtual positioning of an engine, as well as analyzes spatial requirements for maintenance of that engine.
While augmented reality is in the early stages of adoption, interest among executives across industries is high. Lord says he is frequently invited to speak on augmented reality as an emerging technology and is asked to talk about how it can be used to improve processes in industrial environments.
“They want solutions for maintenance, safety and training,” he says. “… I think all companies are looking for ways to cut costs and run more efficiently.”
Nguyen says executives can think of augmented reality as another way to leverage their existing assets. “Augmented reality is a tool to supplement your existing toolset. It won’t replace other technology. It’s a complement to them,” Nguyen says.
Augmented reality can help distributors and manufacturers bridge their digital and physical assets, he says.
Blissett views augmented reality as a “game-changing development” that could change the way distributors run their businesses.
“I challenge distributors to educate themselves about augmented reality and how they may incorporate it into their warehouse, their sales force, their field service, their drivers,” Blissett says. “The opportunities there are extremely powerful, especially when combined with analytics.”