June 9, 2016
Last week, I attended the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, CA. I walked through the large exhibit space, trying new devices and technologies and catching up with many EWTS sponsors and partners; and also sat in on sessions, always asking myself “What could an enterprise learn from this experience?” Here are some thoughts and lessons I came away with:
One. Something we already knew: The big opportunity for Augmented Reality today is in the enterprise
As Christian Prusia and Ryan Fink of Atheer reasoned: Enterprise is a better starting or entry point for AR because the pain points are high, the dollars are there to make a strong ROI case for use, and the form factor is much less of an issue.
In addition, we were already aware of the most promising use cases, including
- Step-by-step instructions (providing information on top of real-world objects)
- Remote assist, and
- Product visualization (for designing, building, and sales).
We might also refer to Atheer’s umbrella acronym FAST (Fix, Assemble, Survey, and Treat); or to this list of the most common industrial use cases for Assisted Reality by Ubimax’s Hendrik Witt:
- Materials management and logistics
- Production and quality assurance
- Field service and maintenance
Two. For enterprise, Assisted Reality is “where it’s at;” AR content is a big challenge; and expectations as well as use cases need to be aligned with reality
Are we truly ready for Augmented Reality in the enterprise? Arguably not just yet.
We need to be realistic. There is a problem of unrealistic expectations, which might be traced to those teaser HoloLens demo videos and other promotional material for new, near-to-market, and in-development devices. Don’t expect these technologies to feel incredibly real, or to trick your senses, or even to work perfectly. The real-life experience is exciting and promising but far from what we have been led to envision for AR. That’s okay, because that’s not what enterprises need right now–workers don’t need to be fooled by the experience; they just need the right information at the point of action or decision-making. That information doesn’t have to blend seamlessly into their reality; it just needs to be there where and when it matters, heads-up and hands-free.
Hendrik Witt said something along the lines of, “Let’s not speak about what is doable in the future but rather what is doable already today.” As far as choosing the best device for your use case, Hendrik remarked that there isn’t one; enterprises should focus on which ones currently work the best (hard to accomplish at an expo) and remember that as we travel along the spectrum from assisted to augmented reality, the devices and software become more complex and difficult to both implement and use.
The truth is that Virtual Reality is further along than Augmented Reality because AR is more complicated to pull off. What we see in videos is not yet a reality, and many of the most appetite-wetting devices are not ready for deployment today (price-wise, durability- and safety-wise, the technology hasn’t quite been perfected, etc.). But it’s not just that the devices aren’t quite ready; the content for AR isn’t there either.
Both John Nall of Appzion and Atheer’s Alberto Torres spoke to the content challenge: Simply put, most enterprises need help with content. While real-time operational data is relatively easy to generate and can be channeled from other sources; animations, step-by-step procedural information, and 3D visualizations of items typically have to be created “from scratch.” It is likely that the enterprise organization won’t have this content readily available because they have never needed it before now. The exception is architects and others in the AEC industry who already use this kind of complex data. Workers in other sectors, however, operate with very basic information and call in outside experts for help when they encounter a problem. For those end users, content would have to be found or created. This becomes a cost issue, since it is expensive to have content created specifically for AR situations, and this on top of the expense of the devices themselves.
Enterprises must therefore adjust their expectations when evaluating potential use cases. Yeah, HoloLens is really cool; it’s an advanced and novel piece of technology and a sign of even better things to come. But for a cost-conscious logistics company, the price of the device makes it hard to justify; and it is likely you won’t be able to realize your vision for the technology at this point in time, if only because it’s challenging to find the right partners (see below). Nevertheless, there are great business cases for monocular devices today.
My advice to enterprise decision makers (and something others hinted at over the course of the two-day expo) is to keep things simple. It’s no wonder that numerous enterprise organizations are currently seeing real benefits from introducing less immersive devices like Google Glass and the Vuzix M100 to their workforces; and that solution providers like Ubimax are so successful and enduring in this space. Stick to simple use cases taking advantage of the heads-up, hands-free nature of wearable technology. Minimize the technological complexity and focus (simply) on freeing up your workers’ hands by moving the task-based information and resources they already use from their hands or tablets to their field of view. Do this, and you will see results.
The solution side must also take a realistic approach with potential customers.
If enterprises have unrealistic expectations, then perhaps the solution providers in this space have somewhat romantic visions for their technology. A common piece of advice touched upon by speakers in the enterprise track of AWE was to focus on the end user experience, including understanding the end user’s environment and the context or scenario being evaluated for AR deployment.
As a developer, you should prepare for customers to have unrealistic expectations: As Barry Po of NGRAIN joked, “People believe they will put on a pair of glasses and become Tony Stark.” But more than that, you should really get to know the user. Appreciate that the kind of work that gets done in the field is often dirty, complex, dangerous, and thankless; and that workers just want to be able to do their jobs better/more easily. Ask yourself what a solution really needs – and does not need – in order to have an impact in the real world, whether on the shop floor or at the job site.
So spend time upfront understanding the user and the use case before customizing a solution. Go out into the field with the workers who would actually be using the technology. Peter Verstraeten of Proceedix said that human interaction is key: “To help people you have to walk with them.” You also have to listen to them, understand what they do day-in and day-out, find out their needs, learn to think and speak like them–all so that you can provide the right type of assistance or relief. But don’t assume that AR is the right assistance. It may not be ideal – in fact it may be downright impractical or even impossible – to use AR in some job scenarios and environments; and workers may not be as enthusiastic as you or I about the next generation of computing if it doesn’t truly make their lives easier.
You have to prepare for the worst when bringing AR into challenging industrial environments, for even when the technology fails to work (and it will fail), the worker still has a job to do and must be able to access the necessary information to complete the task at hand. An impressive AR experience may not be the answer; in many cases, animated video content would do the trick, or simply providing workers with access to basic PDFs and other images with key information in their heads-up displays. This is Ubimax’s forte: enabling organizations to improve critical workflows by providing instructional information in the form of abstract representations of reality in workers’ smart glasses. We’re talking simple flashing text or bright arrows and other signals in one’s field of view. It’s Assisted Reality with a minimal UI, perhaps not as fancy or complicated as AR but nonetheless impactful.
At the end of the day, AR is just a tool for workers. The goal is to get the end user to work right away, providing the information he or she needs to get the job done at the most beneficial access point and in the most helpful medium. That access point might be in front of their eyes (smart glasses) or it might suffice to use a tablet; the medium could be complex AR content or a list of instructions that was once paper and hand-held and is now digital, hands-free and coupled with voice and/or gesture control abilities.
Three. The enterprise AR ecosystem is disjointed
While some major solution providers claim to communicate, viewing themselves as peers, learning from one another, and working profitably with hardware manufacturers and other integrators; others are less connected, perhaps because they are newer or because they are located outside of the U.S. and Europe.
For instance, I visited the booth of an Israeli company that makes tracking and object recognition technology compatible with smart glasses. The demo was impressive but to bring their solution into the enterprise, the company rep told me that they would need a software developer. Are enterprises missing out on a potentially beneficial technology because this company has yet to establish itself within the enterprise AR ecosystem? And then there are companies focusing on the consumer market whose solutions could be adapted for enterprise purposes but aren’t even going down that road.
In addition, there is a disconnect between solution providers and end users, as well as among end users who could learn a lot from one another by sharing their experiences. Of course, these are the kinds of shortcomings a more intimate, enterprise-focused event like EWTS aims to address. As an enterprise end user attending a large expo like AWE, you have the opportunity to try out all these cool technologies but you also become sort of “lost in the crowd” when it comes to pinpointing viable solutions for your business or even finding the right person to speak with at each booth about your enterprise needs.
A common question enterprise decision makers have is whether to use generalized or specialized hardware and software solutions–customized solutions cost more but who is going to get them set up and running with a more “off-the-shelf” solution? Another concern they have when it comes to deploying AR is, of course, determining ROI. Rudi Schubert of the IEEE Standards Association told listeners that ROI is the first thing that comes up when running workshops with industrial companies. Decision makers need hard numbers to sell this new technology to their superiors but often the pilot projects aren’t long enough to make those calculations. And then there are issues concerning legacy systems and content: These decision makers need the product to be perfectly compatible with the company’s existing systems; they need comprehensive apps but are daunted by the prospect of having to gather, translate and convert all their existing content. And furthermore, who is going to educate their workers?
The individuals spearheading the AR campaign within a business often get one shot to prove their case to management. They can’t afford to go down wrong roads, to waste time with partners trying to sell them unrealistic solutions for their unique set of operations, or to choose the wrong use case or device off the bat. And yet a lot of industries/organizations don’t know what their requirements are; they struggle to evaluate the solutions out there or to communicate their needs. They don’t even know what they should be asking potential partners. Could hardware and software providers work more closely to create systems that work well – like a “killer” remote expert collaboration system – to relieve some of the burden on these enterprises?
There are also barriers to AR adoption within the end user organizations themselves. Severin Todt of Lufthansa Technik shared that it can take years to implement a new solution or way of doing things in the workplace. Often the greatest barrier is management itself – getting allowance from management to pursue a prototype – while workers are relatively easy to get on-board, as long as the technology improves their jobs.
Final note: Shelley Peterson of Lockheed Martin made an interesting comment during one of the Q&A sessions. Shelley will be speaking at EWTS, and her comment actually reaffirmed a lot of what we do here at BrainXchange. Shelley remarked that in thinking about how to use wearable technology at Lockheed, she looked to the medical industry, noting parallels between the medical and aerospace work environments. For instance, she pointed out that both industries involve a clean work space and the need to be hands-free for safety. Enterprise organizations trying to get a handle on AR and what improvements emerging technologies could hold for their businesses would do good to follow Shelley’s example, thinking creatively by looking at industries other than their own. It’s still the dawn of AR for enterprise, and cross-industry learning is critical.