Industrial Augmented Reality promises remote support
Interest in industrial augmented reality is surging in 2020, potentially paving the way to broader mainstream use of the technology.
It wasn’t long ago, however, that the use of augmented reality (AR) in industrial environments seemed like little more than a trade show curiosity. The technology, which overlays computer-generated graphics on top of a user’s view, had potential for training or remotely assisting workers in plants and factories. But similar to virtual reality (VR), user acceptance and hardware capability were challenges.
While the concept of using the technology in industrial settings dates back to the 1990s, adoption of industrial augmented reality was limited. “Lots of companies have played with AR and VR,” said Alex West, senior principal analyst in Omdia’s Industrial IoT segment. “But in many cases, it was trialing. It wasn’t mass-deployed.”
Some of the most famous augmented reality applications come via the consumer sector. Pokémon GO and Snapchat lenses have won widespread followings in recent years. But the technology has seen significant failures as well. Google Glass, consumer-focused AR-enabled smart glasses, flopped in 2014, leading the company to focus on the technology’s enterprise and medical applications. Magic Leap, an AR startup that raised $2.6 billion in capital, has seen its valuation plunge 93% from $6.4 billion in 2019 to $450 million in June 2020, according to the Information. And industrial-focused AR company Daqri reportedly went out of business last year.
In the industrial realm, augmented reality’s entertainment links were a hurdle. A few years ago, industrial AR still seemed like a gaming technology, said Andrew Ellis, director of global information software technical consultants at Rockwell Automation. “You looked at it and thought: ‘This looks pretty cool as part of the Industry 4.0 technologies, but who is really going to use this?’” he said.
“I think that AR technologies are still effectively in their infancy,” said Randall Kerr, senior strategic account manager at Digi International. “Still, there’s no question that the capabilities of augmented reality are vastly greater than they were just a few years ago.”
This increase in capabilities has in recent years fueled new interest in augmented reality for industrial applications, according to analysis from ARC Advisory Group. In particular, industrial augmented reality has found growing traction with the surge of remote work. “There’s a lot of opportunities to do training using [AR and VR] technology where people don’t have to be in the physical facility,” said Richard Howells, vice president, solution management for digital supply chain at SAP.
Despite initial skepticism, a growing number of industry professionals are realizing AR’s potential, Ellis said. “I now position augmented reality data historians 25 or 30 years ago,” he said. (Data historians, which store operational data in a time-series database, have become commonplace and a foundation for many IoT analytics projects.) When it comes to augmented reality today, there are parallels from early historian adoption, Ellis added. “There is a fair amount of education required for users [concerning AR], and there has to be a clear path to value.”
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