If you spend any time looking out on the horizon for technologies that show real potential for positive impact, it’s hard to find any more intriguing than augmented and virtual reality. The promise is mostly understood, but success in execution up to now has been limited. Killer use cases are still to be determined.
Between the two, virtual reality (VR) has a broader foothold due to its head start and established presence in gaming and entertainment. The past couple of years have seen substantial gains in resolution, elimination of latency and in un-tethering of the experience. Augmented reality (AR) is just getting started. It’s a much more difficult proposition in terms of hardware and user experience. Headset device challenges in optical field of view, contrast, size, weight, battery life and a lack of effective ways to interact with holographic images have so far limited uptake of the technology and have dampened developer momentum.
However, we believe the evolution is going to be rapid, and that AR technology is poised for significant breakthroughs in the coming years. Enterprise use cases are leading the way, as the hardware limitations are easily overcome. There is a great deal of opportunity in one particular area to use AR: product design and development.
Through experimentation in our team at Radius Innovation & Development, we’ve already seen tangible examples of what AR brings to our creative process in rapid visualization, accelerating time-to-market and in adding new dimensions to the way we collaborate. With emerging technologies like additive manufacturing, a part can undergo 19 design iterations in the time it would take for one iteration using traditional development methods. Adding AR as a tool in the prototyping mix can seize even more potential.
Here are five benefits we’ve seen from augmented reality today and some thoughts of future value:
Visualization is the core activity in the design process. In the early stages of development, product and user experience concepts are typically envisioned and shaped through sketching and CAD modeling. Designers are very effective in using these tools to create. But on paper or on the computer screen, their concepts are disconnected from realities of scale and spatial context.
AR allows us to pull the idea out of the screen and drop it into the real world at full scale. We’re then able to walk around it, or walk within it, and get a far better feel for form, proportion and relationship to the environment. We can visualize in higher fidelity much earlier in the process, with a dramatically lower level of investment when compared to other forms of rapid prototyping.
It's one thing to be able to move the design out of the screen; it's another to see it within the actual context of use. Here, we’ve seen tangible benefits of AR in helping to assess concept alternatives. Recently, we used AR in the design of a product for loss prevention in retail. To support our Phase Two design selection with our client, we were able to load CAD models of the five-foot tall devices into the AR headset, drive to a local store and drop each hologram into the environment. Here, we could capture video walking around the product, observing and understanding the presence of each concept in the context of the space and the ongoing activity surrounding it. Very powerful and very useful in selecting the right approach!
Virtual collaboration tools have been around for years, each with varying degrees of effectiveness. Augmented reality offers us another means to sharing in real-time. We currently have Microsoft HoloLens headsets in our global studios and have been experimenting to understand the potential. Here, we see the ability to pull in a broad range of stakeholders to review in-progress, virtual assets in a more natural way than ever before. In the instance of the retail device, we were able to review our full mechanics assembly outside in and inside out. With AR we could stick our head inside the holographic model and see all internal details in their fully assembled state.
AR can streamline development, especially when paired with other prototyping methods. We believe in a flexible process that employs a variety of tools at different times. Early in our process we can explore a broad range of options, visualizing through virtual means. This dramatically reduces our investment and allows us to tweak and iterate at a rapid pace. As we narrow the field of concepts, we bring in 3D printing, sometimes in combination with virtual assets in AR. On one project, we combined 3D printing of a curved display element, overlaid with an interactive UI simulation via AR. With this mixed reality prototype, we were able to test our concepts with expert users and gain valuable insights far earlier than traditional processes allow.
Ultimately, the greatest impact we’ll see from AR will be its capability to revolutionize the way that people physically interact with the technology in their lives. Many current AR executions simply put holographic screens up in space, leveraging the known touch-screen paradigm. We believe that with the strides we’re seeing in sensor technologies, optics, spatial sound and machine learning, more imaginative solutions will soon surface that will make the interaction with information and objects much more human, simple and intuitive. It will involve all of our senses in a more natural, effective and engaging way.
Although AR’s value in the mainstream consumer space may still be years away, enterprise applications in manufacturing, industrial, maintenance and healthcare are already showing a lot of promise. In our view, the value of AR has already landed in product creation and development. We’ve seen tangible benefits that will only continue to improve as we explore and refine the tool.