Industrial applications for virtual and augmented reality are on the rise, but hardware limitations are holding them back

By Richard Quinnell, Editor for Special Projects, Technical

Virtual reality (VR) and its
sibling, augmented reality (AR), have long been popular with gaming
enthusiasts, but they also have a serious side. At this year’s Hannover
Fair
, the industrial uses of VR/AR were on prominent display but with
one hitch: High-quality application software was plentiful, but the headset
hardware for utilizing that software still needs work.

A variety of industrial
applications for VR/AR, together known as mixed reality, were on display at the
Fair. With VR, engineering collaboration was a major thrust. Companies such as Holo
Light
, for instance, offered Holo-View software for turning CAD
drawings into virtual holograms with which multiple users could interact while
wearing VR headsets. Techviz and Virtalis offered collaborative VR that used projectors with users
wearing 3D glasses to see the virtual device on any type of stereoscopic
display. Both allowed users to manipulate the virtual object, view cross-sections
and hidden parts, verify assembly clearances, make measurements, annotate the
image, and more.

Another common application for
VR involved education and training. Students could interact with virtual
machines on their own or in a full simulated environment to practice without
risk of injury or equipment damage. Training applications also utilized
augmented reality, superimposing instructional diagrams on real objects to guide
the student through the steps to be performed, pointing out and labeling the
location of key elements, and offering hands-free informative text and videos
for student review.

Providing workers with virtual context-aware information display and controls
is a prime industrial application of mixed-reality software. (Source:
Holo-Light)

Augmented reality saw numerous
other factory applications as well. One of the most basic was the use of AR to
provide context-aware virtual displays of data, such as temperature, motor
speed, power efficiency, and the like. The user only needs to look toward an
object to bring up its information in the AR display, hovering around the
object like word balloons in comic strips. Some applications also allowed users
to invoke menu options or activate basic machine controls in the mixed-reality
space simply by directing their gaze toward virtual controls.

Several AR systems aimed at assisting
humans in the assembly of complex systems. Rittal, which manufactures enclosure cabinets along with
supporting fabrication and assembly tools for populating those cabinets, was
showing one such AR system in conjunction with its sister company Eplan.
The system aimed to help in cabinet wiring and assembly by showing the
assembler both the description of the next wire to install as well as
superimposing its connection endpoints and routing path on the real object.
This allows users to follow a wiring assembly checklist without needing to look
away from the work area.

VR_Cobots-AR

Augmented reality can help guide workers through operations such as the
wiring of an electronics cabinet by pointing out the intended endpoints and
routing of the wires involved. (Source: Rittal)

Some AR applications blended multiple
objectives, such as collaboration, education, and assembly guidance. Innovae,
for example, offered applications that support maintenance and troubleshooting
efforts by combining a user’s real-world view with a “digital twin” virtual
object and then sharing that combined image with a mentor or expert, who might
be far away from the actual machine. This second user could then coach the
first on where to look and what to do, pointing out key elements by
highlighting them on the digital twin for easy identification. An AI system
could also be configured to perform the mentor role, helping a worker
troubleshoot by analyzing system interdependencies in the digital twin and
pointing out corresponding components for test and evaluation. (For more on
digital twins, see “‘Digital Twins’ enable machine simulation & maintenance, Industry 4.0” on EP’s
sister publication EDN.)

The multiple applications for
mixed reality on display at the Fair show great promise for enhancing
efficiency and reducing cost in industrial applications, but a significant
stumbling block was also evident. The convenience and power of the software was
not matched by the display hardware. Many of the systems on display used
headsets that were heavy, awkward, and uncomfortable to wear, making their use
tolerable for short stints only. Other systems depended on tablets or
smartphones as their display device, which, while more comfortable to deal
with, left the user with only one hand free.

Ideally, mixed-reality display
systems should be hands-free, comfortable to wear, totally portable, and would
feature long-enough battery life to operate for at least a full work shift
between charges. They should also provide high-quality virtual images in a way
that avoids user eyestrain, include cameras and position sensors to provide
context information such as where and at what the user is looking, and have
high-bandwidth communications with the network providing the virtual images and
object recognition AI. The displays should also be cost-effective to encourage
their widespread adoption. Most of the display systems being demonstrated at
the show fell short of meeting one or more of these requirements.

Vendors are actively working
to resolve these issues, however, and promising display systems were at the
Fair alongside the application software. Daqri, for instance, featured its
own smart glasses design in conjunction with its Worksense AR software. The
glasses have an integral headband and use a belt-clip computer and battery pack
attached via an umbilical cord to handle communications and data processing.
Lightweight (about 10 ounces), the glasses use transparent liquid-crystal-over-silicon
(LCoS) displays in front of each eye to provide stereoscopic AR on top of the
real-world image. The price is steep, though. The glasses, which come bundled
with the software, run at $4,995 USD.

VR_Daqri-AR-glasses

Vendors are working to overcome limitations in the current VR/AR goggle
generation, aiming to increase battery life, improve comfort, and lower cost.
(Source: Daqri)

Another display system on view
at the show at software company exhibits came from Vuzix.
The company’s M300 smart glasses, at a cost of $999 USD, are a bit more
affordable but not capable of providing stereoscopic images. They have the
shape of conventional (lens-less) eyeglass frames and present the AR image to
either the right or left eye on a tiny screen. The design incorporates both its
electronics and battery pack into the frames, although external USB batteries
can be connected to expand the operating time beyond the one to two hours that the
internal battery provides.

Still, the hardware available
for industrial mixed-reality applications is far from ideal. But as the value
of mixed reality gets proven by early adopters, the hardware challenges will
see increasing resources being thrown at them. The hardware may be weak now,
but the situation will undoubtedly improve as the ready and willing software
proves its value among its early adopters.

Check out these other articles in the Industry 4.0 Special Report:
Hannover Fair shows off the
factory technology of tomorrow
— Four key trends emerged from the
massive assemblage that is industry’s biggest annual showcase.

Robots are becoming more
helpful, easier to use, and friendlier
— At the Hannover Fair this year,
industrial robots showed both utility and coworker compatibility.

3D
printing gains industrial momentum
— Once relegated to prototyping and
hobbyist activity, 3D printing is evolving to address industrial requirements.

“Digital
Twins” enable machine simulation & maintenance, Industry 4.0
 — Marry EDA to the Industrial IoT to birth Digital Twins for system-level maintenance, simulation, and optimization.

Related articles from the ASPENCORE network:
Fear Not the Cobot
— Discussing the newest and perhaps most exciting
realm of industrial robotics: collaborative robots.
Meet the TI Robotics System Learning Kit — An exciting new university robotics kit and teaching tools from TI will help prepare future engineers for system-level design.