Seeing the future now

Following a four-year research project, augmented reality systems could be just months away from making their industrial debut. Jon Excell reports.

With the completion last month of Arvika, a four-year long collaborative research project carried out by a consortium of 18 industrial partners into industrial applications of augmented reality (AR), all partners agreed that the technology would soon be making a big impact on manufacturing.

Some would say it’s not before time. For the technology has appeared in so many films and visions of the future that it’s surprising to find how little it’s used.

AR, as it has long been visualised, uses a display, usually head-mounted, and a wearable computer to overlay or augment what the user actually sees with virtual information. It could, for example, be used to provide a car driver with travel information projected on to the windscreen.

Poor quality displays and heavy computers have held the concept back, but massive improvements in hardware performance have made its introduction more imminent.

Consortium leader Wolfgang Freidrich of Siemens Automation and Drives said he believes that the technology will be at its most useful in the areas of maintenance and service. He added that Arvika has actually spawned the first mobile augmented reality systems for industrial applications.

By way of illustration, at a recent demonstration in Nuremberg, an engineer used an AR system to help replace the valve positioning motor in a BMW 7 series car. The system used animated markings to indicate which screws on the motor unit cover were to be loosened, specifying, step-by-step, how to unscrew the small motor from its stays, loosen the contacts, and install the new part.

Friedrich said that around 12 of the partners involved in the project have implemented prototype AR applications and are currently deciding whether to go ahead and incorporate the process on their production lines.

The closest to achieving this is BMW, which has been experimenting with ARtechniques on a welding process for prototypes, and will be introducing the method later this year. ‘As far as I know this is the first example of AR being used in the in the productive phase of the car industry’ said Friedrich.

He added that that there are still areas to be worked on. For example, head-worn displays need to improve dramatically before they are embraced by an industry such as aerospace. Freidrich also identified the need for improved tracking methods. The systems developed as part of Arvika used marker-based tracking in which markers are placed in the industrial environment as a reference point for the augmentation rendering. Clearly, this is impractical in quite a few industrial settings, and Freidrich’s team at Siemens is currently developing markerless tracking systems.