Augmented Reality – The Next Frontier For A Competitive Advantage

Augmented Reality - The Next Frontier For A Competitive Advantage
By Raman Mehta

2016 was an interesting year in many ways. It was an inflection point where IoT, Cloud and AI started to converge together to lay the foundation for a new set of business applications. One of the most interesting developments where this convergence comes together is the field of augmented reality (AR for short).

AR’s older cousin virtual reality (VR) has been in existence for quite some time and had its origins in the gaming, entertainment and training (e.g. flight simulators) segments. VR is an artificial, fully immersive computer generated simulation of real situations or environments. It immerses the user completely by stimulating their senses and makes them feel that they’re having a first hand experience.

To experience VR, you need a headset from the likes of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear, Microsoft HoloLens or a plain old PlayStation VR headset. The pace of innovation in this space is astounding and these vendors are partnering with OEMs to provide associated computing power using GPUs and other modern hardware and sensory device breakthroughs. VR will continue to find utility in gaming, entertainment and training. At Stanford University, they’re also working actively in using VR to develop lasting behavior changes for social causes such as global warming by providing a first hand experience of issues like deforestation. The functionality and applicability of VR in the business world however continues to be limited as it’s a totally immersive experience and users are detached from the real world.

This is where AR comes into focus (pun intended). The crux of AR is on staying connected with the real world. AR is the blending of VR and real life. AR applications have virtual images that blend in with content in the real world. With AR, users are able to interact with virtual content in the real world, and are able to distinguish between the two worlds within the same experience. AR will have far greater applicability as it links the digital and analog worlds.

One of the very interesting AR use cases is in the connected vehicles space. An application developer can base the creation of AR content on the information collected from neighboring vehicles (vehicle to vehicle V2V) or roadside infrastructure (vehicle infrastructure integration VII). This information is then mixed with the instrument panel and GPS information and is displayed seamlessly on a heads up display (HUD) or transparent active windshield. The whole idea is to create a next generation of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that provide contextualized real time dissemination of digital content.

Smart factories driven with industrial IoT advancements also provide specific use cases where AR can add to competitive advantage of an enterprise. Imagine the importance of machine uptime in a 24X7 manufacturing operation. An AR enabled solution can enable the monitoring of plant assets from a virtual control room with real time sensor data that monitors heat, pressure, scrap and other key characteristics.  The IoT data can be visually overlaid with machine data such as schematic drawings, service steps and increase the efficiency and productivity of industrial facilities by enabling maintenance personnel to see the most pertinent sensor data in an AR view.

The AR applications in the medical field can be significant, and can change the way medical professionals interact with each other during a diagnosis or a surgery. A remote team of surgeons can get a first hand view of an ongoing surgery with all vital stats overlaid along with medical records such as an MRI on a heads-up display. The AR technology will also be of interest to architects and smart city planners who could create virtual 3D walkthroughs from existing 2D blueprints overlaid with construction equipment, people, interior decoration and other geolocation data.

The important step in getting your enterprise AR initiatives off the ground is to evaluate and select an AR framework. There are quite a few open source and commercial platforms that provide rich SDKs. The purpose behind selecting a platform is that you can focus on the features of your applications and the platform provides the capabilities like 3D object tracking, face tracking, visual search, camera calibration, content APIs and support for various marker types (e.g. square, QR code). The platform needs to have support to recognize image targets through a cloud data store as well as a local image store. This improves application usability as it can work both in connected and offline modes.

ARToolkit is a widely used open source platform among other features and it also supports the superimposing of virtual images on a live environment through a video or see through display. The Vuforia AR platform provides an ease of use where your applications can see a wide variety of items such as objects (including user defined), text and markers. It also works well with Unity which is a powerful cross platform 3D engine. Writing a 3D engine is intensive work, so these platforms allow you to use an existing 3D engine such as Unity by leveraging the platform’s SDK.

Keep an eye on Google Tango and Microsoft HoloLens as they’re working on an AR, VR and mixed reality ecosystem that includes AI, and advanced capabilities like fisheye and depth cameras, plus advanced sensory and perception devices. Tango is a platform that uses computer vision to give Android devices like Phab 2 Pro the ability to understand their position relative to the world around them. No longer is there a need to have a multitude of beacons for geoposition tracking. A Tango enabled device has a wide angle fisheye camera, a depth sensing camera, accurate sensor time stamping, and an SDK that enables app developers to use motion tracking, area learning and depth sensing.

Eventually AR is an interface paradigm shift that will completely rewrite how we will interact with everything. Just for the kicks, in the AR world it is ok to SLAM anything – it means simultaneous localization and mapping.

Think of the investment that your enterprise has already made on the adoption of big data, mobility and the enterprise cloud. Those investments have already placed IT to be on a path of success to leverage solutions that rely heavily on robust and agile infrastructure. By collaborating with your business leadership team, you can now create tremendous value for your enterprise by becoming early adopters of these emerging trends and be seen as an innovation leader.

Raman Mehta is SVP and CIO at Fabrinet, the first ever CIO for the company.