Most people are only aware of Augmented Reality (AR) as a means of entertainment on their smartphones. However, the technology offers a great deal more than hunting for Japanese pocket monsters or apps for interior decoration. In fact, it can be of real benefit to operators in a variety of industrial applications.
AR is a mix of virtual and actual reality. While Virtual Reality (VR) generates a complete simulation of an artificial environment, AR projects virtual information into the actual physical surroundings. During plant planning, for example, AR can be used to project a true-to-scale virtual model of a machine into the actual production facility. This is made possible by a range of technologies and devices.
Glasses and smartphones
Cyber glasses, such as Google Glass or Microsoft’s Hololens, are equipped with sensors and cameras. This allows the user to communicate with the projected layer via optical or vocal commands. The glasses have the advantage of allowing the wearer to use their hands. A variety of data and instructions can easily be called up during operation. On the other hand, the lack of comfort, especially for users with prescription glasses, and the often low battery life put the glasses at a disadvantage. Smartphones and tablets use apps to project additional information onto the image captured by the camera lens. Depending on the application, the wearer can actually interact with the projected objects. However, they have only one hand free to do so.
Instructions at a glance
Both printed and digital instructions usually have to be flipped through. This can be tedious and time-consuming. Especially in urgent situations, such as machine breakdowns during production, this downtime can be very expensive too. To avoid this, AR literally puts the instructions and information in the user’s line of sight when using smart glasses. The data either appears in response to the operator’s direct command or in accordance with his or her head movement. The projected information can range from specifications on how tight to tighten a screw to elaborate construction plans. Operators neither have to take their hands off the machine, nor do they need to leave the construction site to check the information in question.
Remote assistance is another key benefit of AR. Instead of sending a specialist halfway around the world to repair or service a machine on-site, the service technicians can simply assist the customer remotely via AR. They see exactly what the operator on site is seeing via smart glasses. In this way, they can project instructions or illustrate exactly what the problem is. Flipping through hundreds of pages of instructions and manuals while no actual work is getting done thus could be a thing of the past.
Specific infrastructure required
One of the downsides of AR is the fact that there are no standardised developing platforms yet. Therefore, programs that run on a device made by manufacturer X do not necessarily work on a device by manufacturer Y. In order for that to work, the program has to be altered or completely rewritten. Another prerequisite for viable AR is a sophisticated infrastructure. In the age of big data, AR’s use is dependent on the ability to handle and transfer the mass amounts of data necessary for it to work. If the bandwidth or storage capabilities are not sufficient, operators will soon face the harsh (un-augmented) reality of their data handling shortcomings.