How Augmented Reality Will Change the Way We Work

The DAQRI Smart Helmet and the Microsoft Hololens have been tested at construction sites and water treatment plants

12 December 2016

Industry is a test bed for AR’s capabilities. Workers on construction sites, in water treatment plants, and elsewhere are trying smart helmets and headsets that can display step-by-step instructions to help them fix faulty machinery. And they can communicate and share what they’re looking at with colleagues, and ask their advice, even if they’re thousands of kilometers apart.

These are just some of the benefits of wearables like the DAQRI Smart Helmet (DSH) and the Microsoft HoloLens headset.

HANDS-FREE

It can be awkward to repair or recalibrate a piece of complicated machinery while holding onto an operator’s manual to read instructions. AR helmets from DAQRI will overlay the instructions on the machinery, freeing up the worker’s hands. “This reduces the time it takes to complete a task and cuts down on errors,” says Paul Sweeney, vice president of sales and general manager for the Los Angeles company.

DAQRI’s 4D Studio software uploads 3-D models of machinery and interactive instructions for its repair to the DSH. Customers can add training videos, along with images and text from other manuals.

Safety lenses in the helmet double as a screen for the graphics. The Smart Helmet also has an embedded camera and transceiver so the wearer can contact and chat with a colleague in another location. This Remote Expert feature lets the wearer connect with a colleague via voice over Internet Protocol and share what he’s seeing through the other person’s computer.

Instead of GPS, the device uses Intellitrack technology, a location-based service that combines visual information from the front-facing camera, a 3-D map of the job site, and an internal sensor that detects a person’s movement to keep track of where the helmet is in relation to its surroundings.

Also, thermal cameras in the DSH can visualize for the wearer the temperature of the surrounding area. That view can help predict equipment failures before they happen because, notes Sweeney, many machines “run hot” before they break.

Several companies, including Emerson Electric, a software and service provider in St. Louis, and Parker Hannifin, an engineering firm in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, are beta-testing the helmet, which costs US $15,000.

VIRTUAL COLLABORATION

Microsoft HoloLens headsets can make their wearers feel like they’re in two places at once. It allows them to see their surroundings while 3-D holographic images of walls, machinery, and equipment are projected in front of what they’re viewing.

I tried out the $3,000 headset at this year’s Augmented World Expo, courtesy of Scott Aldridge, leader of the innovation group at CDM Smith, an engineering and construction company based in Boston. The group is exploring possible applications for AR and VR devices for its customers.

The headset lets people seemingly walk around and through a 3-D model of, say, a construction site or manufacturing plant, or even a virtual blueprint of a proposed building. I walked through a model of a water treatment plant projected by the headset. Even though I was walking around the Expo’s press room, I felt like I was inside the facility.

HoloLens wearers can use gesture control (a wave or a pinch of their thumb and forefinger in front of the headset) to get a bird’s-eye view of the building or zoom in and “step inside” a room and see its walls and machinery.

They also can bring up and apply a virtual measuring tape. Just look at the corner of one wall, trace a line to the next corner, and say the words “create measurement,” and the tool measures the distance between those two points. The virtual measuring tool is especially useful for customers planning to install equipment in a new building: They can create a hologram to scale of a large piece of equipment destined for the building, and make sure it fits where they want it to before they pay for a crane to haul it in.

If two or more people are wearing the headsets uploaded with the same 3-D model, they can communicate with one another through embedded microphones and see each other as holographic avatars, even if they’re in different locations.

“We’ve had as many as 12 participants in a dozen different locations working together inside a model using our HoloLens communication and collaboration application,” Aldridge says. “Even if you don’t have HoloLens you can participate from a laptop and be represented in the environment in avatar form.”

In my demo, Aldridge’s avatar was a faceless yellow figure wearing a hard hat. I could even see what he was looking at in the virtual room, because a dotted line went from his avatar’s face to a piece of equipment. This feature can make colleagues thousands of kilometers apart feel as though they’re in the same space, figuring out together the best location for, say, water pipes.

In addition to the HoloLens, Aldridge’s group is exploring similar industry applications for other devices, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive virtual-reality headsets. They also plan to try the Playstation VR headset and Meta One AR smartglasses once those are available.

“We believe that mixed reality experiences will empower the next generation of collaboration in industry, going far beyond what today’s video conferencing and screen sharing programs can provide,” he says.

This article appears in the December 2016 print issue as “How Augmented Reality Is Changing the Way We Work.”

This article is part of our December 2016 special issue on digital senses.

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