January 5, 2021
In 2020, the workforce went remote to an extent never before seen. This was, of course, due to the global coronavirus pandemic, which forced companies to adapt to working from home starting around March. Many expanded their use of immersive technologies or began using XR for the first time to enable remote business operations, from business meetings to design collaboration and training. 2020 will go down as the year augmented reality remote support went mainstream and people began seriously discussing the virtual workplace of the future.
Top Use Cases
Countless companies adopted augmented and virtual reality this year for remote support, remote collaboration, remote design, remote training and remote sales. Wearables also found their stride as a tool for contact tracing and enforcement of social distancing in the workplace. Here are some of the most newsworthy use cases:
RealWear’s HMT-1 and HoloLens 2 were popular devices this year: In January, French car manufacturer Groupe PSA rolled out the HMT-1 for vehicle assembly technicians, followed by Italy’s largest gas distributor, which opted for the HMT-1Z1 with OverIT’s field service software in February. Undoubtedly both companies benefitted from this timely AR adoption when the pandemic hit, as did Shell and Total S.A., which was the first to adopt Microsoft Teams on RealWear in the energy industry.
HoloLens 2 was a top choice for remote support/communication, from Gimò, which partnered with Kognitiv Spark to bring the tech to South American miners, to ASML (to install and support semiconductor equipment) and Mercedes-Benz (to help diagnostics and repair work).
Speaking of Mercedes, the automotive industry (as usual) was a huge adopter of AR/VR in 2020. Most of the use cases involved design visualization, from Volkswagen using AR to design production lines for its new electric vehicles to Toyota evaluating vehicle ergonomics in VR with Unreal Engine. VW and Ford have been using VR to design cars for years, but this year Ford designers took their headsets home to collaborate remotely during lockdown, as did Pininfarina car designers. KIA Motors likewise adopted Varjo XR-1 plus Autodesk VRED to speed up global design reviews; and GM used VR to develop the 2022 GMC Hummer EV, duplicating traditional workstations at employees’ homes to make it happen. As you can imagine, Porsche’s Tech Live Look AR program shined this year, and Volvo’s mixed-reality simulator (which utilizes a full-body Teslasuit) is helping to make driving safer. Audi also turned to HoloLens 2 for logistics planning.
Remote Support & Training
It seemed like everyone from the Oil & Gas sector to Finance bet on XR during the pandemic: Among the companies that adopted or expanded use of AR smart glasses and MR headsets for remote support were Unisys (Vuzix M300XL Smart Glasses), BID Group (PTC Vuforia), BHP, Nestlé, IBM, Renault Trucks and Siemens Energy (Librestream’s Onsight platform). Immersive technologies proved critical for tackling operational challenges brought on by Covid-19: Clorox used Vuzix M400 Smart Glasses for remote audits when personnel couldn’t travel, while Balfour Beatty used Vuzix Blade for inspections and client meetings from the jobsite. PepsiCo designers were sent home with 3D printers and VR headsets to finish reimagining the classic 2-liter bottle, and AECOM used shared VR (Igloo) to work with Wessex Water on a €50M water treatment center reconstruction project in the UK.
Training was another big application for 2020: Brazilian mining company Vale partnered with NORCAT on an XR training program; Aggreko accelerated its efforts to create equipment training experiences using Scope AR’s WorkLink platform; and Rolls-Royce expanded its use of VR for customer training. Boeing is using Varjo VR-2 headsets to prepare for the Starliner’s first crewed flight, while BP partnered with Immerse to create a global VR training program that tracks learner progress. Ford techs learned how to service and maintain the electric Mustang Mach-E without access to a physical model, Ericcson trained staff for its new 5G Smart Factory in Texas, and Fidelity Investments remotely onboarded over 140 employees—all thanks to VR. Finally, KLM is using Oculus Quest 2 for Business for cockpit training and HTC Vive Pro for flight safety training (among other use cases).
Limiting Risk of Exposure
XR certainly played a part in keeping workers safe throughout the pandemic by enabling remote operations (and even helping boost production of much-needed ventilators), but technology worn below the neck also protected workers, especially essential industrial workers. From dockworkers in Belgium wearing bracelets made by Rombit to enforce social distancing to JLG piloting the KINETIC Reflex device’s new real-time proximity alert feature, “pandemic wearables” by Proxxi and others were a thing in 2020. Some of these devices were already in use for fall detection, ergonomic feedback, etc. (More on the adaptation and development of pandemic wearables below.)
XR & Wearable Solutions
Let’s start with some of the bigger players. It was a tough year for Magic Leap: The company’s valuation fell dramatically due to slow sales followed by layoffs, a renewed focus on business and enterprise, and the replacement of CEO Rony Abovitz. Thanks to a “$350 million lifeline,” Magic Leap will work to reinvent itself in 2021. (In November, it was announced that PTC’s Vuforia suite is coming to the Magic Leap 1.)
At the beginning of the year, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips were already in over 30 AR/VR headsets. In August, the company signed a multiyear deal with Ultraleap to bring hand tracking to XR headsets based on the Snapdragon XR2 chip. At EWTS 2020 in October, Qualcomm announced that membership in its XR Enterprise Program (XEP) had doubled since its unveiling at EWTS 2019; and in December the company announced its 2021 flagship chipset Snapdragon 888.
Microsoft partnered with RealWear to bring its Teams software to more users (just in time for coronavirus) and saw a massive increase in remote assist on HoloLens 2. The company also announced the launch of new capabilities for Power Apps, a low-code/no-code platform for digitizing business processes and (now) building MR applications.
In October, HTC launched the Vive XR Suite, a bundle of five enterprise-focused VR apps for remote productivity. Earlier in the year, the company launched a series of Vive Pro Eye bundles for enterprise and in August shifted the focus of the Vive Cosmos Play headset to “businesses and institutions.” HTC also updated the Vive Focus Plus to include a VPN and device management tools.
HP, Valve and Microsoft unveiled the HP Reverb G2 headset, an impressive VR headset with noticeably high resolution, inside-out tracking, spatial 3D audio, natural gestures, and more. Though consumer-focused, HP plans to launch an Omnicept Edition of the G2 for enterprise and developers sometime in 2021. The headset will measure muscle movement, gaze, pupil size and pulse for incredible user insight.
2020 also gave us the Oculus Quest 2, which sold faster than the original and helped make VR more mainstream; and at Facebook Connect we saw a glimpse into the future of work in VR with a preview of “Infinite Office.”
In other headset news, ThirdEye announced mass shipping of its $1,950 X2 Mixed Reality glasses, Vuzix unveiled the $2,499 M4000 smart glasses, and Pico Interactive announced the Neo 2 and Neo 2 Eye VR headsets with 6DoF at CES in January. Lynx revealed the R-1 standalone headset powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 chip and capable of both AR and VR (still available for pre-order); and Lenovo and Pico collaborated on the Mirage VR S3, an all-in-one VR headset for enterprise with a 4K display and Lenovo’s ThinkReality platform. Nreal teased an all-in-one enterprise AR headset back in March, and we learned that Apple could release an AR/VR headset in 2022 followed by AR glasses in 2023 (earliest).
The $3,200, ultra-wide FOV VR headset StarVR One became available for purchase by enterprise customers in May, and Canon announced the MREAL S1, which could be described as a VR headset with passthrough AR, in October (no pricing or availability yet). In November, JVC revealed an enterprise XR headset with 120-degree FOV and 2.5k resolution per eye; while NuEyes Technologies announced the Pro 3 AR smart glasses for low vision, medical, training and enterprise the following month.
XR Workspaces & Support from Immersive Tech Companies
2020 was a good year for XR collaboration platforms: Microsoft Teams came to the RealWear HMT-1, Google introduced Google Meet for Glass Enterprise Edition 2, Spatial launched its VR meetings app on the Oculus Quest store, and Varjo partnered with MeetinVR to deliver photorealistic virtual collaboration for the most demanding enterprise applications. Holo-Light developed an AR workspace nicknamed ARES, which enables engineers and industrial designers to visualize, edit and share CAD data as holograms. Second to Spatial, companies like Arthur Technologies and Glue were featured in articles about the future of virtual meetings: In December, Arthur raised $2.5M for its VR collaboration software and Glue released Glue 2.0, a significant update to its VR collaboration platform.
XR companies, including longtime EWTS partners like Librestream and PTC, also stepped up this year to support businesses impacted by Covid-19: At the start of the pandemic, Librestream offered its Onsight remote collaboration software for free to businesses scrambling to ensure continuity; in August, the company again extended a hand to organizations impacted by Hurricane Laura. PTC likewise offered its Vuforia Chalk remote assistance product at no cost.
Not everyone has the luxury of working from home, so solutions were adapted and new ones developed to limit spread of Coronavirus in the workplace. According to one source, over 60 companies, including giants like Samsung, are offering wearables such as Proxxi’s Contact wristband and Nodle’s M1 clip-on in the fight against Covid. Triax Technologies launched Proximity Trace, a social distancing and contact tracing IoT solution. ProGlove pushed proximity sensing to its existing technologies like the MARK wearable scanner to alert workers coming within close proximity of each other. Fitbit launched the Ready for Work service to help employees self-track Covid-19 symptoms and employers log the results. Firefighters in Massachusetts have even been given biometric Oura rings to track indications of fatigue or illness.
On the fundraising front, Apprentice raised $31.5M for its AR platform for pharmaceutical, biotech and chemical companies; Librestream raised $24M to “expand Onsight’s footprint;” and Kinetic raised $11.25M for wearables that prevent workplace injuries. Transf raised $12M to bring VR training to manufacturing, while Mursion raised $20M for its VR training platform, which aims to improve emotional intelligence in the workplace.
In June, Bose shuttered its AR sound project. In July, Teamviewer acquired Ubimax. In September, Sarcos Robotics raised $40M to bring its Guardian XR exoskeleton to market. That same month, Ekso Bionics unveiled the Evo Upper Body Exoskeleton, a lighter, more comfortable exoskeleton offering the same amount of support as the EksoVest.
Overall, the pandemic has been both a boon and an impediment to the enterprise XR space, disrupting manufacturing and trade shows while also increasing demand for and use of immersive solutions across industries. In 2020, AR/VR for remote assistance, training and meetings allowed companies to support employees at home, eliminate travel, maintain productivity, safely serve customers, communicate with distant suppliers, collaborate across continents, and more. XR can no longer be considered an emerging technology; it has become a critical tool, creating an enduring shift towards immersive-assisted operations.
More from BrainXchange
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