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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Enterprise Drives Augmented Reality Demand Steven Keeping

Consumer products garner the headlines, but industry is likely to drive AR commercialization

While many things that Google comes up with seemingly turn to gold, Google Glass wasn’t one of them. According to Forbes magazine, the company’s augmented reality (AR) headset will go down in the annals of bad product launches, because it was poorly designed, confusingly marketed, and badly timed.

The voice-controlled, head-mounted display was meant to introduce the benefits of AR—a technology that enhances human perception of the physical environment with computer-generated graphics—to the masses but failed. The product’s appeal turned out to be limited to a few New York and Silicon Valley early adopters. And they soon ditched the glasses and returned to smartphones, when buggy software and distrust of filming in public places became apparent. Faced with a damp squib, the glasses were quietly withdrawn.

However, the company shed few tears over its aborted foray into AR-for-the-masses, because it gained valuable experience. Armed with that knowledge, Alphabet, Inc. (Google’s parent company), has brought Google Glass back, only this time geared toward factory workers, not the average consumer.

Some would argue the first-generation device never really went away. Pioneering enterprises—initially, overlooked by Google Glass marketers—used the consumer product to project in new ways. For example, AR was used to animate instructions, which was found to be an effective way to deskill complex manual tasks and improve quality. Further, head-mounted AR raised productivity, reduced errors, and improved safety. A report from Bloomberg even noted that some firms went to the extent of hiring third-party software developers to customize the product for specific tasks.

Enter “Glass Enterprise Edition”

Such encouragement resulted in Alphabet’s launch of the “Glass Enterprise Edition,” targeted for the workplace and boasting several upgrades over the consumer-focused product, including a better camera, faster microprocessor, improved Wi-Fi, longer battery life, plus a red light LED that illuminates to let individuals know they’re being recorded. But perhaps the key improvement is the small module design of the electronics allowing easy attachment to safety glasses or prescription spectacles, making it easier for workers to use. While employees are much less concerned about the aesthetics of wearables than consumers, streamlining previously chunky AR devices improves comfort and, hence, usability.

According to a report in Wired, sales of the Glass Enterprise Edition are still only modest, and many large companies are taking the product on a trial basis only. But that hasn’t stopped Alphabet’s product managers from sounding bullish about the product’s workplace prospects. “This isn’t an experiment. Now we are in full-on production with our customers and with our partners,” project lead Jay Kothari told Wired.

Alphabet isn’t alone in realizing AR is a little underdeveloped for the consumer but practical for the worker. Seattle-based computer software, hardware, and services giant, Microsoft, has also entered the fray with HoloLens, a “mixed reality” holographic computer and head-mounted display (see Figure 1). And Japan’s Sony is tapping into rising industrial interest with SmartEyeGlass.   

Microsoft Hololens

Figure 1: Microsoft’s HoloLens is finding favor with automotive makers such as Volvo to help engineers visualize new concepts in three dimensions. (Source: Microsoft)

Focus on Specifics

With its first-generation Google Glass, Alphabet repeated a mistake all too common with tech companies: Aiming for volume sales by targeting the consumer market. While that was a strategy that worked well for smartphones, it hasn’t proven quite so successful for wearables.

The consumer was quick to realize the smartphone had many specific uses—like communication, connectivity, and photography—whereas the smartwatch, for example, seemed to just duplicate many of those uses while bringing few useful features of its own. For instance, a smartwatch’s fitness tracking functionality has little long-term use; most people can tell if they’re fit or not by taking the stairs instead of the elevator and seeing if they’re out of breath as a result.

But where smartwatches will really take off is when they offer specialized functionality such as constant glucose monitoring, fall alerts for seniors, or in occupations like driving public service vehicles, where operators benefit from observing notifications without removing their hands from the wheel.  

Similarly, early AR did little more for consumers than shift information presentation from the handset to a heads-up display—useful, but not earthshattering enough to justify shelling out thousands of dollars. In contrast, freeing up the workers’ hands by presenting instructions directly in their line of sight is a big deal for industries where gains in efficiency equal greater profits. 

Impacting the Bottom Line

Organizations driven by enterprise are excellent at spotting where a new technology like AR can address specific challenges, especially if the result impacts the bottom line. Robots were added to car assembly lines because they automated tasks where human error led to safety issues; machine-to-machine wireless communications was embraced because it predicted the need for maintenance in advance of machines grinding to a halt. In both cases, AR reduced costs by eliminating the need for skilled workers.

German carmakers Volkswagen and BMW have experimented with the technology for communication between assembly-line teams. Similarly, aircraft manufacturer Boeing has equipped its technicians with AR headsets to speed navigation of planes’ wiring harnesses. And AccuVein, a portable AR device that projects an accurate image of the location of peripheral veins onto a patient’s skin, is in use in hospitals across the U.S., assisting healthcare professionals to improve venipuncture.  

Elevator manufacturer ThyssenKrupp has taken things even further by equipping all its field engineers with Microsoft’s HoloLens, so they can look at a piece of broken elevator equipment to see what repairs are needed. Better yet, IoT-connected elevators tell technicians in advance what tools to are needed to make repairs, eliminating time-consuming and costly back and forth.

Too Soon to Call

It is too early in AR’s development to tell if this generation of the technology will be a runaway success. In the consumer sector, the signs aren’t great. Virtual reality (VR), AR’s much-hyped bigger brother, is not exactly flying off the shelves. A recent report in The Economist noted, for example, that the 2016 US sales forecast for Sony’s PlayStation VR headset was cut from 2.6 million to just 750,000 shipments.

And although VR’s immersive experience might have some applications in training and education, enterprise applications will do little to boost its chances of mainstream acceptance. In contrast, AR’s long-term prospects are dramatically boosted by the embrace of various industries. And, in the same way that PCs, Wi-Fi, and smartphones built on clunky, expensive, and power-sapping first-generation technology to become the sophisticated products we use today, commercial investment in the technology will ensure AR headsets will become more streamlined, powerful, and efficient—and ultimately much more appealing to the consumer.

AR’s interleaving of virtual and real worlds to improve human performance will become a compelling draw for profit-making ventures, profit-retaining concerns, and the public alike. It’s reality, only better. 

For more on the future of AR see Mouser Electronics’ ebook Augmented Reality.

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Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.

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