Making augmented reality enterprise ready

August 19, 2016

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Christine Perey is the executive director of the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA), a member-based organization dedicated to widespread adoption of interoperable AR-enabled enterprise systems.

Christine Perey is the executive director of the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA), a member-based organization dedicated to widespread adoption of interoperable AR-enabled enterprise systems.

Christine Perey of the AREA organization shares the efforts under way to expand the potential and adoption of augmented reality solutions.

 

PwC: Christine, can you please tell us a little bit about the genesis of the AREA? Why was it created?

Christine Perey: The journey of the AR for Enterprise Alliance stems from late 2012. For three years, I had been working in augmented reality as a consultant to labs and research institutes. In late 2008 or early 2009, quite a few of us anticipated that AR [augmented reality] would end up having proprietary technology silos. At that stage, my thinking was that we just needed to advocate for interoperability between content preparation systems and content delivery systems.

More people were interested in the same, and it became a school of thought—a set of shared values that promote and advocate the benefits of interoperability to the most relevant and the largest audiences. In the context of those meetings in the fall of 2012, a group of people who represented the interests of enterprise AR began to show up. They were looking for solutions to a lot of different barriers, only one of which was interoperability.

After we met a few times, we discovered that the requirements of enterprise customers could be clearly defined and needed greater advocacy. We agreed that rather than going on our own paths and spending money separately, it would be more efficient and effective to pool our resources. We developed a mission and a narrative that described a vision that we all shared. That was the genesis of the AREA.

There were three types of organizations at the table, and they represent the ecosystem. The large enterprises interested in using AR—enterprises such as Boeing, Newport News Shipbuilding, and others—represented what we now call the customer segment. There were noncommercial organizations, such as IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] and EPRI [Electric Power Research Institute]. And the providers or vendors creating and selling the hardware and software solutions that make up AR are the third ecosystem segment.

PwC: Which technology developments are creating the most progress and promise in the advancement of AR solutions?

Christine Perey: A lot depends on how you define progress and promise. Off the top of my head, several emerging technologies are likely to have the greatest impacts for AR. Everything that has to do with 3D: 3D sensing, 3D rendering, 3D compression, 3D tracking, and so on. These are hugely important to AR experience design and delivery.

“We must have systems for higher-resolution immersive experiences. This will bring a great deal of value to AR.”

Another area is optics. We must have systems for higher-resolution immersive experiences. This will bring a great deal of value to AR. For instance, even the best solutions today don’t give you the ability to really have true depth perception. The images appear at about the same distance, at the arm’s length. They’ve optimized and said, “Well, you probably won’t be touching something that’s longer than the length of your arm, so we won’t focus as much on adding value or doing augmentations for objects that are five or three meters away, because you’re not touching those things.” Also important will be hardware components optimized for lower power consumption, because being mobile will enable many use cases and improve overall usability in many industries.

PwC: What are the key stumbling blocks for broad adoption of these technologies in enterprises today? Are these barriers likely to be addressed during the next two to five years? If so, how?

Christine Perey: For enterprise or industrial adoption, there are dozens of barriers. They broadly fall into three categories:

  • Communications: Most people have not had their aha moment with AR. Getting them to that moment when they realize that they must have it, without creating hype or expectations that the technology cannot meet, is a serious issue that the AREA is working to address. Many problems in this category of barriers are due to misunderstandings and people confusing the terminology. For example, AR and VR [virtual reality] are not the same and share only some attributes yet most people lump the two together.
  • Technical: This group of barriers is the largest. They stem from many fundamental problems. For example, lack of integration with any existing tool chains makes development difficult to scale, too expensive, and so on. There are issues with quality, usability, weight, and resolution. Many issues are related to the transition from existing mobile platforms to smartglasses or head-mounted displays. There are other technical issues with connectivity between the physical world, the display, and the digital world. More technical obstacles are related to security and ensuring that all the highly sensitive information a company wants its employees to use while performing a task is not exposed.
  • Financial: We do not have clear methods of estimating ROI [return on investment], for example, to say how much AR will cost or save once it’s deployed at scale.

PwC: Are there particular challenges with respect to authoring AR applications?

Christine Perey: In the processes of AR authoring, or publishing and delivery, the biggest problems are that there are too many technology silos. These problems result from the lack of interoperability. Developers must learn each new tool when it becomes available, and this approach is difficult to scale in terms of both skills development and cost, as there are fees for different libraries and SDKs [software development kits].

Another current constraint is that all AR experience authoring is basically handcrafted, which is not scalable. When AR experiences are another visualization method for any system—such as CAD [computer-aided design] and content management systems—we will need to have greater scalability, as we can build on top of other existing or future content authoring systems.

PwC: What hardware form factor are you seeing in AR adoption?

Christine Perey: Many had hoped that a smartphone would be a good platform for augmented reality. However, a smartphone is limited by screen size, computational power, battery life, and so on. I think people will do AR on smartphones for very, very short periods of time.

“AR further augments the capabilities of the human resources to be more effective in their work.”

In the enterprise, there is scope for AR on both stationary and mobile platforms. A stationary system can be either a tablet that’s mounted in a bracket or a projection AR system displaying information on a spot or zone. Stationary systems can be ruggedized and have continuous power. One problem is that you can’t hold a PC or tablet with one hand or two hands while you’re trying to do something else in the physical world. So the tablet is held on a bracket of some sort, and the user’s attention moves between the work area and the tablet. This scenario happens today.

The mobile scenarios, and there are hundreds of those, don’t lend themselves to anything where a person must hold a computing device in the hand as the work involves both hands. The user is engaged with the physical world in some way. The smartglasses form factor is ideal for this case, because they keep the hands free. Today many smartglasses use cases are held back by the conditions of the hardware, but hardware—and software—is advancing quickly.

PwC: The AR/VR ecosystem today is very fragmented. How and when will standards evolve?

Christine Perey: I think the jury is out. People love the concept of interoperability and documented APIs [application programming interfaces] and open systems. The reality is that many components still need a great deal of finessing. So far, we don’t know what the best systems are. For many of the components that will become standardized, it’s too early to reign in that innovation, especially at the hardware level.

On the software side, I believe we have a clearer agenda. I see a great deal of near-term potential for modular architecture. In our meetings, there’s a fair amount of head nodding and understanding: the use of modular architectures means that we can swap out algorithms or a rendering system or a recognition system or other modules such as tracking algorithms that are changing rapidly because of the pace of innovation.

For example, you may need to change the libraries depending on the environment, such as highly reflective surfaces or highly textured surfaces. It’s a different vision problem; it’s a different set of requirements. A single algorithm or system component might not be robust enough to satisfy requirements in all situations.

PwC: Which enterprises stand to benefit the most from augmented reality?

Christine Perey: Our members belong to 14 different industry verticals, from architecture and construction to oil and gas, utilities, and so on. These industry verticals have two things in common. On one dimension they are quite mature. So generally they are large, and a lot of companies are in the ecosystem together. Being mature also means operational efficiency is very important to them; a 1 percent incremental change in operating expense can produce a very high impact on the bottom line. They have big incentives to invest in technologies that will make an incremental improvement in their operations.

The other thing they have in common is that they’re extremely invested in the physical world. They own, operate, or work with physical infrastructure and assets, whether that’s machines, buildings, equipment, or products. Their business model depends on measuring, monitoring, and maintaining this physical world. They’re probably doing everything they can to optimize human resources and make those human resources really effective in their jobs. For these members, AR further augments the capabilities of the human resources to be more effective in their work.

PwC: Where are AR solutions a good fit within enterprise operations?

Christine Perey: One of the ways to invest in AR is to start in a particular component or assembly and in a particular phase of your product lifecycle, such as servicing. Once you’ve honed in on that, you will probably go to another part of the lifecycle, such as design, production, or sales.

In the broader sense, what happens in these lifecycle stages is common and occurs in many industries. We’re creating a database that will have hundreds of use cases. A person will be able to browse and search the database to find the hot spots, places where there are a lot of use cases. A particular phase in the lifecycle, such as manufacturing in one industry, might have more use cases. In another industry, the opportunities for impact might be greater in the service phase, and so on.

A lot of the industries that involve the physical world have this common attribute: they are moving things around. Logistics is something that most industries have in common. It is moving something—such as packages, raw materials, components, subassemblies, and finished products—in an optimized way from A to B. So, as you can see, the fit could be in many places.

The difficult questions today are where and how to begin the introduction of AR. If you begin with a process that requires a technology that’s more mature than we have today, the results will be poor. If you begin with a use case that’s too simple, the people will not find value. Initial use cases should be chosen to match the enterprise needs and the technology maturity.

PwC: How should AR solutions be deployed? Should workers use them when performing certain tasks and not when performing other tasks?

“I envisage augmented reality as a continuous system. It’s running all the time in the background and it comes up only when the user needs some kind of assistance.”

Christine Perey: I envisage augmented reality as a continuous system. It’s running all the time in the background and it comes up only when the user needs some kind of assistance. The experiences are produced in a very limited set of circumstances when the situation demands support because the action or the tasks are risky, rare, complex, or unfamiliar. When tasks are rare or complex, lack of adequate informational support has the potential to increase errors. I advocate that AR experiences be integrated to the continuum of work on hand and not an isolated activity.

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