We’ve recently seen an increase in industrial companies embracing extended reality (XR) as a way to enable more productive and digitally connected workers. XR, loosely defined, is the blending of the real physical world with the virtual world. It can range from completely virtual environments to physical environments augmented by digital objects.
The increase in hype and marketing activities of products across the XR spectrum creates a challenge for leaders at industrial companies: How to separate technologies that can positively impact industrial operations from gimmicks?
Assisted Reality Within The XR Spectrum
- The XR Spectrum as defined by RealWear.
XR covers various levels of virtual environments, spanning from the physical to 100% virtual immersion.The two most well-known XR levels are augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
With augmented reality, virtual objects are mixed in with the real world in helpful ways. For example, at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, CA, there’s an all-white scale model of their campus. View this model through the camera lens of an iPad and the display paints colors, textures, 3d objects like trees, and even information about the building you’re focusing on, onto the model.
- AR at Apple’s headquarters (Image: Unsplash.com/Patrick Schneider).
With virtual reality, on the other hand, you’re totally immersed in a virtual world. Headgear is typically worn that covers the eyes and sometimes ears, and the intention is often to separate the user from their current real-world environment. “Wands” or other handheld controllers are often used in addition to headgear to allow the user to interact with virtual 3D objects within their immersion. As you’ve probably seen, virtual reality’s biggest application is currently within the gaming industry and, apart from limited enterprise use cases such as training, has not yet seen wide adoption in the business world.
- A VR system being used (Image: Unsplash.com/Laurens Derks).
Alternatively, assisted reality (sometimes styled aR – with a lowercase “a”) is often referred to as a “reality-first experience”, with digital aspects being a secondary consideration. Assisted reality allows a person to view a screen within their immediate field of vision, without needing to use their hands. Digital information is not overlaid onto the real world but presented in addition to it. Assisted reality devices typically come in the form of wearable headsets (such as RealWear’s head-mounted tablet or “HMT”) or as glasses (such as Google Glass) with micro-displays.
Assisted Reality vs Augmented Reality for Industrial Companies
A common use of augmented reality is through the user holding a device such as a mobile phone or a tablet through which to see overlaid graphics (such as the Apple example above). There are also certain devices, sometimes referred to as mixed reality devices, such as the HoloLens 2, which use transparent near-eye displays to achieve the same thing while allowing users to retain the use of their hands. Overlaid graphics are intended to be engaged with using gestures, like swiping or pinching, or through voice.
Assisted reality displays don’t overlay graphics but present them within a micro-display positioned close to the eye that uses optical wizardry to appear the size of a handheld tablet. This configuration is intended to allow users to focus on the physical world and simply glance at the display when needed – it’s the virtual as secondary to the physical. Controlling what is shown on the display is done through voice commands.
So which is better? For use cases we’ve seen most often in the industrial space, like inspections, guided work instructions, and maintenance job execution, it’s clear that users should be focussing on the physical environment as opposed to the virtual and that they need their hands for the task, well, at hand. We’d say assisted reality wins out in this regard.
- A worker using an assisted reality device (Image: RealWear).
This is probably the most compelling reason to use assisted reality as opposed to augmented reality – you want to declutter the worker’s environment, not introduce new virtual obstructions.
It’s a fairly simple consideration, but many of our customers consider it to be one of the most important.
Usability in Industrial Environments
Leaders at industrial companies are typically well aware of the dynamic, noisy and sometimes harsh conditions their workers operate in. As technology adoption within these environments has grown over the past few decades, seasoned industrial workers would have seen promising new technologies fail or be rendered unusable because they had not been designed for industrial use.
The question must therefore not just be: Is this technology useful? But: Is this technology useful within the context of industrial environments? While augmented reality is certainly generally useful, we haven’t seen augmented reality systems specifically designed for industrial use as their primary application. In addition, many of these augmented reality systems have limitations such as short battery life, insufficient noise cancellation for microphones, and poor performance in bright or very dark environments that show the industrial arena is more of an afterthought than a design first principle.
The XR spectrum is large, covering the physical world through to full virtual immersion. Points on that spectrum, in order from less to more immersive, include assisted reality (aR), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
For industrial companies looking to invest in practical, useful XR technology, we’d say that assisted reality wins when it comes to hands-free use, worker safety and usability in industrial environments. There is a place for AR and VR, we just don’t see those technologies as being mature for impactful use within industrial environments just yet.
JourneyApps provides a rapid way to build custom apps for RealWear® HMT, mobile and desktop. Auto voice commands are simple to set up and manage, we provide offline support out of the box, and deploying apps happens with a single click. Comes with prebuilt ERP integrations. If you are interested, please contact us to schedule a demo. You can also visit our RealWear page to learn more and subscribe for notifications about new blog posts.