Help Me Help You: Bringing Augmented Reality to the Data Center

A new AR app is helping businesses understand how to better use, maintain, service and upgrade their systems.

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Dell EMC

In an ideal world, machines would never break, nor would they need upgrading. In our world, this happens all the time. Back in the ideal world, we would already know how to fix or upgrade every tool, machine or device we owned. Yet, each of us has far too many devices to keep track of already for us to have perfect knowledge of each of them. These are the truths behind our pursuit to help our customers help themselves.

In any given data center, there are three main types of machines: servers (or compute), storage and networking. Within each of these categories, Dell offers ―at any given time ― dozens of options, and each with their own sub-options. Keeping track of how to service, maintain and upgrade each of them perfectly is challenging for even the most seasoned IT veteran.

In 2012, Dell launched the Quick Resource Locator (QRL) to help our customers self-maintain. The goal was to increase customer confidence in their ability to fix, maintain and upgrade their systems, all while doing it correctly to avoid any damage to the delicate electronics within. We accomplished this with videos, which helped greatly to visualize how each servicing procedure should take place. Over the years, we continued to improve the detail and clarity of these videos. However, a few obstacles remained.

  • Videos are linear and non-interactive. A user can at best pause, fast forward and rewind to view the steps of each procedure.
  • Complex systems are only shown from a single perspective. Sometimes, a tiny screw is all that stands between you and removing or installing a component, and that screw is down in a valley between circuit boards and sheet metal. Getting a camera, some hands and a tool all in frame with clarity can be a real nightmare.

Jump forward to the distant future of 2019, and Dell has now taken the next step in empowering customers to be more able and more confident in the data center. We’ve brought the fabled augmented reality to the data center.

What is AR?

AR, or augmented reality, is one of a group of terms describing digital ways in which we can enhance or replace what we see. Cousins to AR are virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). When lumped together, they are referred to colloquially as extended reality (XR).

  • With VR your entire view is typically obscured by a display that makes it seem as if you are somewhere else entirely, much like the characters in the pop movie Ready Player One (minus the body suit).
  • With AR, what you can see has some sort of graphics overlaid on top to ‘augment’ what you see. Instagram’s face filters are a perfect example of this.
  • And MR is just like AR, except that real-world objects with which you can interact are thrown into the mix.

AR Assistant

Dell created the AR Assistant app to help customers help themselves. The goal was simple: Create an AR app that customers could use on existing hardware to show them how to perform certain hardware servicing procedures, as if they had an assistant explaining each step.

First, a proof of concept prototype was created. For this prototype, we chose the Dell EMC PowerEdge R740 Rack Server, one of our most popular data center servers. As for the procedures, we looked at the most popular QRL videos and chose seven for the prototype. Ideally, we would have developed this on some form of AR glasses. However, we knew this would be useless to current users. So, we opted instead to develop it for iOS phones (and, in the future, for android too!).

The process to bring together this relatively new technology with our Quick Resource Locator information involved a steep learning curve.

  • Initially, we added the Picture-in-Picture video inside of AR. But then you had to turn the phone away from the product to see it. So, we moved it to the user interface (UI).
  • Also, when a user moved the phone closer ― to where it was unable to see the whole chassis ― the animations became jittery, losing their orientation.
  • The procedures are very specific and detailed.

Just making the UI feel right involved a spreadsheet with over a hundred comments on the look and feel of the app itself. So, our programmers revised the video placement and went through dozens of minute UI critiques, and they straightened out the animations so they no longer jittered.

Despite having seen the app developed for a year, each time I saw improvements, I still felt like saying “wow.” The result was more impressive than we had imagined. While an AR app that displays simple animations overtop existing hardware may sound drab, when you see it in motion, it is undeniably exciting.

Now, users can easily see which components they should interact with and what tools they should use ― from any distance and angle. It’s their choice.

What’s next?

Currently, we are developing smoother, more robust features that will make the experience even more seamless and powerful. However, the AR Assistant is just the beginning of Dell’s vision of an AR-enabled data center. As we research and develop other AR tools that future IT administrators and technicians can use, we are slowly creating an AR ecosystem that hosts not one, but many apps and devices that help our customers help themselves. Imagine…

  • A technician with AR glasses that can bring the health status and identity of all the servers they manage to life. These are hanging on virtual displays outside each system, so they can quickly locate and maintain their systems.
  • Or an admin who, with a simple walkthrough, better understands where and how data is moving through the data center, and what resources are being utilized.
  • Or even a “black out” data center, where the only time someone enters is to install new hardware or to upgrade the old… and they can do so without ever having to set foot in that data center… or ever having to work on the new system at all.

One day, we hope to see a data center rife with information that technicians and administrators can access in a literal blink of an eye to better understand how to better use, maintain and service their hardware and software.

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