Augmented Reality: More Factory, Less Fun?
Augmented reality (AR) has long been hyped as one of the next big things in consumer technology, and for good reason. Just about every tech industry behemoth — including Apple, Facebook and Google — is investing heavily in AR, which superimposes computer-generated images over a user’s view of the real world. In addition, Fortune reported that Disney is exploring AR-infused rides at its theme parks.
However, AR’s brightest future could actually be in the less glitzy but potentially highly profitable world of manufacturing. In fact, a recent CIO article pointed to the failure of Google Glass — an expensive, controversial and clunky attempt at a head-mounted AR display — as a sign that augmented reality may be a harder consumer sell than originally thought.
For AR proponents, manufacturing may be a safer bet. One promising sign is the interest in HoloLens, Microsoft’s powerful and pricey AR eyewear that has a self-contained holographic computer. The device allows wearers to view virtual objects and interact with holograms while seeing the world around them.
A number of large companies have announced plans to use HoloLens for design and manufacturing, CIO noted. Lockheed Martin technicians, for instance, are using HoloLens to design and study spacecraft models for future Mars missions. And according to Microsoft‘s Windows blog, global medical technology company Stryker is testing the AR platform to design operating rooms for multiple surgical disciplines without having to build complicated mock setups.
Similarly, aircraft builder Boeing is using AR technology to help its technicians visualize and navigate the vast numbers of wires that connect aircraft electrical systems, CIO reports. And numerous automakers, including BMW and Volkswagen, are testing hands-free AR systems that can improve communications between teams.
AR Means Business
Given its vast potential across myriad industrial and design environments, it’s not surprising that many industry watchers are bullish on augmented reality’s future in manufacturing. A recent study by research firm IDC estimated that the value of AR headsets will skyrocket from $209 million in 2016 to $48.7 billion in 2021.
Early generations of AR headsets, which CIO forecasts will cost well over $1,000, will be targeted at business users, not consumers, who are expected to embrace virtual-reality headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR and Facebook’s Oculus Rift before migrating to AR.
This doesn’t mean, however, that workplace AR won’t face a rocky path to acceptance. Sanjay Jhawar, president and chief product officer of RealWear, maker of head-mounted Android tablets for industrial use, says there are “four types of resistance” that keep companies from going all in on AR: concerns about hands-free usage, headset fragility, the need for protective equipment and a reluctance to invest in apps and content.
Early-generation AR products like Google Glass, for instance, haven’t been rugged enough for industrial environments.
“Industrial enterprise equipment that must be used for eight to 12 hours a day, every day, for three-plus years at a time — not for entertainment but for critical operations — [requires] engineering that is incompatible with thin and light glasses,” Jhawar wrote in his blog post for the RealWear site.