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Augmented Reality Is For Real In The Enterprise

Google Glass got the hype, but a system used by Lockheed Martin shows how augmented reality will charge ahead in the enterprise.

Google Glass is gone for now, but augmented reality is far from dead. Companies have embraced augmented reality to help with specific tasks such as maintenance and inspections, and it seems that enterprise uses are set to keep growing.

At the recent CES 2015, augmented reality (and its cousin, virtual reality) were on display across the expo halls. The large Oculus booth had with one of the longest lines I saw all show, with people eager to try the Oculus Rift headset experience. But there were also smaller "partner" tables in hardware vendor booths, where application developers were eager to show what users might do -- are doing -- with the right pair of heads-up display glasses or goggles.

NGRAIN, based in Vancouver, was one such example. It has developed augmented- and virtual-reality applications on their proprietary platform for educational and industrial customers for more than a decade.

At CES they were one of the partner companies exhibiting at small pods in the Epson booth. There, they showed their system using the Epson Moverio BT-200 smart glasses, with an application developed on the NGRAIN platform that Lockheed Martin is using to speed maintenance on F-22 and F-35 fighter jets.

NGRAIN's augmented-reality app in use.
NGRAIN's augmented-reality app in use.

So is augmented reality still in the very early adopter stage? "I think that a year ago we were in the early adopter era," said NGRAIN director of product management Barry Po. "Coming out of CES I'm seeing a real shift from early adoption to a much more pragmatic technology." Po contends we're in the "second generation of glasses," and that business use-cases are moving at a much faster pace than consumer interest.

"Maintenance and construction are big areas," he said. "We can provide the information the worker needs whether they're using a mobile device or the augmented reality glasses. You can get information and step-by-step instructions right in the field on the display in front of you. You can get feedback on whether you're doing something right."

Lockheed-Martin's application is used on the F-35 and F-22 fighter programs for the company to do final fighter assessment and repair. An inspector looking at the fighter through the glasses sees part numbers and plans projected over the physical plane. The inspector then uses a handheld device to enter any defects or repairs.  

"We help them automate the visual inspection and repair of the aircraft," Pos said. "This is replacing the guy with the clipboard and piece of paper walking around the aircraft." Inspection teams can log areas for repairs as they stand by the aircraft, cutting time, effort, and errors since maintenance personnel don't have to take handwritten notes back to a desk and transcribe them from paper into an electronic ticketing system.

While NGRAIN's system is available on mobile devices like tablets as well as augmented-reality glasses, companies are making decisions about which platform to use based on the nature of the worker's task. "In many areas we work with people who have large maintenance checklists, and those are perfect for tablets," Po said. "In other cases where people are working on the actual equipment, then the glasses become more important."

The nature of the task has much more to do with the platform selection than does any consideration of technology maturity. "Obviously mobile devices are more mature, but I think the gap is going to rapidly diminish," Po said.

Similar systems to Lockheed Martin's are used by the US military, and the technology has been adopted by a number of universities and technical academies to teach engineers and maintenance workers how to design and repair complex systems.

These applications aren't likely to earn the wearer "glasshole" status at the local bar, but they are pushing augmented reality forward in ways that consumer-oriented gimmick apps have not. Energy, defense, manufacturing, and healthcare are, according to Po, industries deploying augmented- and virtual-reality technology today. Perhaps Google should shift its marketing gaze in the next version of Glass.

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
1/27/2015 | 8:34:49 AM
Re: Augmented Reality Is For Real In The Enterprise
As far as wearables are concerned, I've definitely been on board with the idea that there are more and better use cases for enterprise than there are for consumers for a while. It just makes sense - with a high barrier to entry, and the utility coming from not needing your hands (likewise for augmented reality), it's hard to see where that cost is justified for consumers. On the other hand, it's easy to see where it's justified for high-paid professionals who work in dangerous or demanding environments where they need their hands. I can't think of a better example than working on uber-expensive jet engines at Lockheed-Martin, especially if we consider a future where evaluations and repairs are carried out in the field, with varying weather conditions, etc., with the AR equipment. Just a few minutes could equate to hundreds of dollars saved, and in this case, much of that may be taxpayer money.

I found the mentions of the accompanying systems and automation by the people at NGRAIN very interesting as well. Talking about saving a trip back to a terminal really helps you see the value. It not only saves on time but cuts down on errors, and allows you to integrate other media like pictures or video, right in line with that data. They also mentioned that they have their bases covered with phone and tablet apps. Combine that with notions of IoT-type devices for both the consumer products collecting this data, and the ones consuming it (the people reading the reports) and you really start to get a picture of where the value comes in for having all this data integrated and in one place. The difference between taking down these notes in one minute versus two may not be that great, but when you add the ease of automatically having it all in one place in 5 or 10 years, you start to see the value.
Curt Franklin
Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
1/21/2015 | 3:38:28 PM
Re: Augmented reality gaining steam
@Pedro, I'm at FETC -- a very large educational technology conference -- this week. In the very first large presentation, augmented reality was a huge piece of the total technology landscape under discussion. There are some amazing educational applications being brought to market -- I truly wish they had been available when I was taking some basic classes (in chemistry, for instance).
User Rank: Ninja
1/20/2015 | 7:22:39 PM
Augmented reality gaining steam
It was a matter of time for augmented reality to find its niche and provide solutions that really matter in the private sector.  I'm sure other industry like aircraft maintenance and the car industry will look into the experience from Lockheed to see how such technology can improve their processes.  I do wonder whether other industries would be willing to invest in using this technology in their organization, would it be worth their effort?
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