Hands-free, heads-up computing is making inroads across a range of industries, thanks to the emergence of extended reality (XR) — the catch-all technology category that comprises augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). Companies are embracing XR for a variety of business purposes, from repairing jetliners and optimizing manufacturing to training employees and providing remote assistance to field service staff.
With AR, employees access information via smartphones, tablets and heads-up displays, with software overlaying digital images and text atop physical objects in the real world. With VR, applications running on headsets immerse users in a digital environment. MR blends elements of AR and VR.
Enterprise adoption of AR/VR tech was on the rise in 2020, but when the coronavirus struck, analyst research firm IDC dialed down its estimates for worldwide spending for the category to $10.7 billion from $18.8 billion as enterprises prioritized other investments to ensure business continuity. Going forward, however, remote working requirements, contactless business processes, and augmented meeting places suggest an uptick in expected demand for AR/VR tech, says IDC analyst Marcus Torchia.
Given fears over contracting COVID-19 via surface contact, several transactions are ripe for digitization, says Chris Stegner, founder and CEO of Very Big Things, a digital design consultancy. For example, banks might use software to approximate the physical layout and functions of their ATM machines on smartphones to withdraw money or conduct other transactions. “If you’re at an ATM, you shouldn’t have to slide a card,” Stegner says, adding that his firm is exploring such virtual solutions.
For now, anecdotal evidence suggests that more companies are executing AR/VR pilots and projects at the factory level.
AR to collaborate on tire design
In late 2019, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. began testing an AR headset from RealWear to help virtualize certain operations in industrial manufacturing facilities, from Akron, Ohio, to Luxembourg, says John Wright, the tire maker’s senior director of global technology IT, whose team supports more than 1,500 Goodyear engineers.
The RealWear display, which tucks neatly under a hard hat and can be controlled via voice commands, helps Goodyear collaborate with vendors and customers on the design, construction and testing of its tires on various automotive machines, an effort whose significance grew when COVID-19 limited travel worldwide earlier this year.
Thanks to RealWear’s integration of Microsoft Teams, Goodyear’s production engineers collaborated with designers in Germany to test how large tires would run on mining machines, Wright says. Moreover, engineers who previously might get called into factory plants in the wee hours of the morning to work on production line problems can now provide remote assistance to RealWear-donning staff onsite via Teams sessions.
“The fact that it’s hands-free and built for industrial scale hits the sweet spot for us,” Wright tells CIO.com. With more use cases coming to the fore, the company has scaled its original pilot usage of six headsets to more than 40, Wright says.
AR on the chip foundry floor
GlobalFoundries is using AR to record factory work for training purposes, part of the company’s approach to finding new “levers of innovation,” says DP Prakash, the chip maker’s global head of innovation. Constraints on Moore’s Law are forcing chipmakers such as GlobalFoundries to shift their focus from making circuits smaller to experimenting with new designs, Prakash says.
GlobalFoundries is using heads-up displays from RealWear and AR software from PTC to help record factory work, including chiller maintenance in real-time, and to store the information, edit it, and replay it with contextual overlays to train interns or other novices, Prakash says. The AR approach enables GlobalFoundries to maintain standard operating procedures 10 times faster than previous efforts using a camcorder. Overall, GlobalFoundries has trimmed training time by as much as 50 percent using AR, alleviating a pain point for the business. “The efficiency factor makes this a game-changer,” Prakash says.
The AR solution also enables GlobalFoundries engineers working from any of the company’s 10 factory floors to broadcast his or her work via live video feed to a remote engineer, who can provide guidance to help the worker complete repairs and other tasks. Such interactions are recorded, helping the company preserve institutional knowledge.
AR finds some runway
Airline Airbus is piloting Lenovo’s ThinkReality X6 glasses to help reduce errors and repair time in aircraft maintenance, says Michael Leone, who leads Lenovo’s commercial AR/VR initiatives. In one scenario, an Airbus technician dons the glasses and receives instruction from an expert who guides the engineer’s work remotely by watching via live stream broadcast. The engineer could also access and share CAD drawings with the remote expert.
Other uses cases include enabling pilots to view checklists and other documents prior to and during flights. Such remote assistance cases will also become commonplace in healthcare and manufacturing, Leone says.
Leone also anticipates remote knowledge workers accessing corporate services in the cloud from the X6 glasses without having to lug around laptops. “We’re engaging differently,” Leone says of Lenovo’s approach to market, which currently includes 10 proof of concepts with companies.
XR for social services training
While the ability to work hands-free from remote locales is a key driver for XR in industrial sectors, healthcare and social services are using XR to train employees, says Rori DuBoff, managing director of strategy and innovation at Accenture Interactive.
For instance, Accenture is enabling inexperienced caseworkers to receive training simulations through VR headsets. The content uses immersive storytelling and interactive voice-based scenarios to help caseworkers hone their people and decision-making skills. The goal, DuBoff says, is to get new staff up to speed with real-world scenarios as quickly as possible. And it beats hiring consultancies to help coach new hires.
“These use cases will continue to grow because the cost savings are tremendous,” DuBoff says. “These companies are taking incremental steps to get away from inefficient work.”
DuBoff expects XR use cases will proliferate as 5G emerges to eliminate the latency issues that thwart XR today.
The potential for XR is a big reason why Acccenture made a strategic investment in Upskill, a software maker that helps Boeing, General Electric and other companies deploy AR in business environments.
The consensus among experts is that XR will mature as technologies improve and become available at a lower cost — and as enterprises find ways to scale solutions to boost business value. While AR in particular will gain traction among front-line workers in industrial environs through 2021, market saturation is still years away, according to Gartner.
Organizations should prioritize development of product features, particularly on smartphones, that address high-value opportunities by identifying areas where AR experiences can improve efﬁciency for complex tasks, or with tasks that have high costs associated with waste and downtime, according to Gartner analyst Tuong Huy Nguyen.
Nguyen adds that companies should also create case studies to show how their solutions demonstrate differentiation by impacting efﬁciency, effectiveness and cost reduction.