Augmented Reality: Where Are We?

At one automaker’s plant a milling machine goes out of service on the factory floor, the maintenance tech heads for the spot armed with his iPad.

This manufacturer created a virtual reality library that contains specifications, maintenance procedures and parts information for each machine, which has been tagged with a QR code. The technician scans the faulty machine’s code with the iPad’s camera, and on the screen up pops a table of real-time data, including manuals, videos and other handy information. The technician can have it all at the scene, instead of trudging back to his desktop or looking up repair data in a thick manual.

This type of augmented reality, where information about the real world is rendered digitally, and becomes interactive, is making its way onto consumer and commercial markets everywhere.

Head up displays in fighter jets and high-end cars that project speed and other info in the pilot’s line of sight have been around for years. But the growth of computer-processing power has finally made virtual reality portable.

The first AR app for the iPhone was released in 2009. Now there are dozens of mobile device apps for consumers, from golf-course range finders with tips for each hole to astronomy apps that deliver information about the stars.

In 2014 a report from DHL researchers Augmented Reality in Logistics found that augmented reality tools are already showing up in surprising places.

Volkswagen service technicians use a mobile app that provides repair and maintenance steps in real-time. The Liver Explorer app gives surgeons data and planning capabilities for delicate operations. With IKEA’s catalog app, users take a photo of a room on their mobile device and insert a piece of furniture into the picture to see if it will fit or if they like the color. Ubimax, a Germany-based leader in industrial wearables, has developed an order picking solution for smart glasses that eliminates the need for time-consuming bar code scanning.

And DAQRI, A U.S.-based company, recently launched the SmartHelmet which incorporates visual displays and an onboard computer. “We call it creating a cellphone for your face,” says president Andy Lowry.

Because there’s no underlying language for industrial automation like the HTTP standard for the Internet, DAQRI’s has designed an open system that will interact with existing software protocols already on the plant floor.

“For programmable logic controllers, you can tap into the existing language, pull it in to the display and record information for augmented reality,” Lowry said.

Lowry calls augmented reality “4D” because it adds a dimension of contextual awareness to the user’s experience, a step forward from static 3D design tools.

“It really is a new communication medium,” Lowry says.

Photo courtesy of DAQRI