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Augmented reality in the enterprise - moving from pipe dream to use cases?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 8, 2016
Augmented Reality (AR) is not what I expected to write about at an Internet of Things show. But AR took center stage at the LiveWorx keynote. Was this keynote sex appeal, or are the use cases real? That's the question I pursued.

Caterpillar - live AR field service demo

I didn't plan on becoming a Virtual Reality fan boy, I really didn't. But my encounter with YouVisit persuaded me: with a rigorous focus on the practical, there are some viable use cases.

At LiveWorx 2016, my skeptical mind is being pried open further, not by Virtual Reality but by its more accessible cousin, Augmented Reality (AR). AR's accessibility is bolstered by a simple fact: it can be used with already-adopted technology, such as iPads.

AR was front and center at LiveWorx, with PTC's announcement of Vuforia Studio Enterprise. Building on their Vuforia acquisition from last October, the Vuforia Studio Enterprise includes new 3D data and authoring tools. With the not-so-modest goal of democratizing augmented reality development, PTC bills the Vuforia Studio as "a powerful new tool for authoring and publishing augmented reality (AR) experiences for the enterprise."

But what do customers think? PTC has been working with a number of them in a beta/proof of concept capacity. I heard from several during LiveWorx, starting with a live AR demonstration at the day one keynote from Caterpillar. Terri Lewis, Digital & Technology Director at Caterpillar Inc., demonstrated AR's impact on field service equipment maintenance and repair.

Using an iPad to maintain/fix equipment:


The field service worker can follow on-screen instructions to help with troubleshooting:


No fancy/absurd looking headsets, no change in field service equipment. Just the utilization of existing gear to solve a problem. On LiveWorx day two, an AR panel discussion, which included a customer, a partner, and two PTC Vuforia executives, dug in further.

What are the best use case candidates for AR?

Early pilots are (mostly) focused on discrete manufacturing and field service. However, Mike Campbell, EVP Vuforia Studio, cautions against beginning AR with one use case in mind. He advises customers to take a broader look at their strategic initiatives. Can they use AR to increase customer satisfaction or reduce service management or training costs?

Campbell cited the example of a customer that wants to use AR to visualize the results of a manufacturing inspection procedure directly onto the affected part. In other words: figure out what's important to you, and evaluate if AR can make it more productive.

But Campbell cautions companies to avoid grandiose ideas that aren't a good match with what the technology is capable of today. This is where an experienced AR partner who can help with sandboxing comes in. Campbell said he was approached by a school that wanted to take stakeholders to a new construction site, and show them an AR-powered, panoramic view of what the entire new campus would look like. That's not a feasible use case today for Vuforia. "AR is not a panacea," he warned.

How do you build a business case for AR?

Dominic Hand

Given that most AR projects are pilot phase, where do you turn for a business case? Panelist Dominic Hand, IT Director, Engineering, at Ingersoll Rand has been down that road (Ingersoll Rand is part of the beta program for Vuforia Studio).

Hand said that his team has been monitoring AR since BMW began a use case in 2007. In 2007, AR was "very expensive and time-consuming." But in 2016, the tools are more accessible: "The tech has come a long way... When PTC was able to demonstrate it, we got on it." Hand noted that designing an AR experience with Vuforia was faster than building a CAD model.

Hand's team started with field service inefficiencies. He cited the example of an HVAC control panel for remote monitoring, a beta project. Sending out a service tech typically means sending out a seasoned specialist. But they intend to use AR to allow them to send out less experienced service techs. This is a big issue as service technicians get older. Hand says they have an "aging workforce" of older service techs who find it difficult to climb ladders and lift heavy equipment. But they can potentially guide younger workers remotely, using AR tech to walk them through the process.

Markku Hollström, VP IoT for Elisa, cited AR's training and documentation benefits:

You can make service processes so much easier to understand - You don't need manuals any more - the service manual business is dying because of it.

For Hand, building a good AR business cases involves three steps:

  1. Proving the bottom line - compare the new AR process with existing one - how will it save resources and time?
  2. Tell a story the business can understand - give the business a story from the point of view of the service tech or factory worker, describing how their job will change for the better.
  3. Demonstrate the tech in action - show the business and service techs the technology. Demonstrate it in action to show the ease of learning/ramp-up.

What are the barriers to AR adoption?

The panel acknowledged barriers to adoption. Jay Wright, SVP and GM Vuforia, asserted that the technology is ready. Hand, thinks the AR tools are ready for pilots now. But VR tools aren't ready yet. Vuforia Studio supports VR, but Hand sees a "lack of really good VR tech."

VR/AR, he says, needs to be as unobtrusive as a pair of glasses, rather than a bulky distraction to those wearing the gear (and those around them). He's "eagerly awaiting" better VR tech.

Culture change is another barrier. Hand pointed out that "cool" technologies can create their own barriers to acceptance. Wright hit on the same point - the AR's "cool factor" can invoke buyer skepticism. No CIO wants to get caught holding the receipt for sexy tech that sits on a shelf. But Wright noted that for AR, culture change should be easier than some of the device adventures of the past, e.g. trying to get field workers and salespeople to use clunky PDAs:

Getting people to understand the feasible business cases that will create value is the challenge. I lived through this with field force automation and PDAs. This generation of AR is a little different than that. When you took away a clipboard and gave field workers a laptop, it wasn’t necessarily more fun for them. Sure, it was better for the back office, but not for the field worker. When you deliver something in AR, it is such a fundamental Aha! for the worker, it will make culture issues a lot less difficult than in the past.

My take

Before I took this piece live, I had a chance to talk with Wright about why he is so convinced that AR tech is ready. He believes that Vuforia Studio changes AR by allowing companies to "leverage" their existing 3D assets (from Cleo, etc). Another key: making these 3D authoring tools accessible to content authors with no development experience: "We knew what a barrier 3D content creation was. We wanted to make it really easy to get your existing content assets into AR... We just delivered a big piece of the puzzle." The market will decide whether he is right.

The AR tech may be ready, but "hands-free" tech isn't there yet - not for AR, VR, or "mixed reality" combos. But he thinks eyewear is going to happen:

Everybody wants to get there. Because at the end of the day, all these people do their jobs with their hands. If their hands are on a tablet, they aren't doing their jobs. In the next year-to-18 months, we'll know real well which of these are suitable for tablets, and which require eyewear to go. The rest of those will be contingent upon eyewear becoming deployable.

Wright acknowledged that vendors must set customer expectations over what is currently feasible - something that PTC made an effort to do in smaller group settings. The Caterpillar stuff on the keynote stage was very cool, but it's the kind of pilot project that will be even more persuasive operating at productive scale. That's what PTC will need to achieve at next year's U.S. event. That will help answer the ROI question that we can't really address definitively today.

We're used to consumer tech busting down the walls of the enterprise. But AR/VR flips the script. Wright:

We're definitely going to have a successful industrial device before we have a successful consumer device. It was easier to go consumer first with apps on a smart phone, but now when it's hardware-dependent, it's going to be driven by industry. The coolest new stuff in AR is going to happen in an enterprise and industrial context first. The consumer use will be proven out and evolve from there.

Robert Scoble with AR eyewear


Perhaps that's because the fashion bar is lower on the plant floor than it is in our public lives - at least for most of us :)

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