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A growing reality: AR at the edge

Need to quickly tackle a problem or train people on complex systems from afar? Augmented reality can prove invaluable.

Engaging augmented reality applications illustrate powerful ways of connecting the digital and physical worlds—whether that's placing a virtual sofa in your living room as part of an immersive retail experience or enabling predictive maintenance guided by real-time data and an overlay of step-by-step visual instructions.

Yet, the complexity of AR technology and the limits of some early applications can belie the simplicity of what most businesses want today: a way to quickly get remote colleagues and customers connected to geographically dispersed experts. The goal: to let both parties see what the other sees as part of coordinated and secure workflows. We're talking about pairing smart phones, tablets, and wearables devices with visual collaboration platforms to reinvent training and enable product experts to assist from afar. The aim is to more effectively enable remote inspection, repair, and maintenance of products already deployed.

Please read: Five ways industrial companies use augmented reality to drive efficiency

Think of it as looking over someone's shoulder to collaborate or get training without being together on site. Such a shift has potential for massive savings in travel time and expenses. It's also a way to minimize downtime and keep business going when travel is simply not possible—a reality the world is now all too familiar with.

Thanks to continuous innovation and more accessible product offerings, industry experts have high hopes for AR, in both the consumer and business space. According to a report by Grand View Research, many industries, including retail, manufacturing, healthcare, and education, are quickly adopting AR technology; the market is projected to reach more than $340 billion by 2028, growing almost 44 percent per year.

Please read: Gaming the future

Most companies are in the early stages of adopting AR. IDC's Worldwide CIO Agenda Predictions 2021 survey found 45 percent of respondents were in either an early deployment or early pilot stage, while only 18 percent were in the midst of limited or full rollouts. Remote support dominates the AR landscape, with 43 percent of respondents citing such use cases, followed by employee training (39 percent) and knowledge capture (33 percent).

Think big, start small, get ROI

Creating and deploying advanced enterprise AR applications presents challenges. One of the challenges has been to show how hands-free, head-mounted devices like Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass Enterprise Edition, and RealWear HMT-1 can use AR experiences to solve real business issues. Consumer virtual reality and AR applications have historically set a high bar for immersive user experiences but have been costly to develop. While there are packaged AR platforms and products, as well as the Unity open source gaming engine that many use to build DIY AR applications, creating and updating AI/AR models can be expensive.

Many companies in industries such as manufacturing and aerospace are excited by AR's potential yet concerned about serving up intellectual property and other crucial enterprise information to the cloud. This has been a requisite for many AR applications powered by real-time data and video AI models. That is why, for both performance and security reasons, enterprises are frequently turning to edge computing for AR solutions.

Please read: Connected workers at the industrial edge: Improving operations and worker productivity with AR

As with many technologies in earlier phases of adoption, quick-win projects that demonstrate early ROI are key to larger scale adoption. AR is providing provable benefits in several areas:

Remote troubleshooting. The IDC survey found that manufacturers lose more than 14 hours a week due to employees searching for or re-creating information that can't be found. With AR, workers on a plant floor, at a wind farm, or on an oil rig can ask questions of remote experts to complete complicated procedures and help troubleshoot potential problems. Case in point: Using smart glasses and a video collaboration platform, a large energy company paired technical experts with plant floor operators to examine faulty equipment and provide real-time remote assistance and specific feedback. The AR-enabled remote support was crucial to the plant's ability to minimize downtime and keep operations running smoothly.

Please read: Managing IT infrastructure remotely

Other organizations that have put remote support to work have reported significant ROI as well. The ability to see things in tandem can significantly reduce the time it takes to come to a common understanding of an issue.

Remote quality assurance inspection and guided assembly. Equipped with hands-free, heads-up displays or tablets, operators working on an oil rig or another industrial asset can use AR for training directly in the work environment, reducing the need for in-person classroom training. AR capabilities can also help engineers and plant floor operators compare production output to original design specs, verifying that the right parts are being correctly assembled, confirming inspection, and flagging any potential quality issues.

Training and knowledge transfer. Making remote expertise more widely accessible—an area AR facilitates—will remain important as manufacturers regroup for the post-COVID era. Specifically, these pragmatic AR use cases can help businesses maintain continuity of operations and customer support in the face of ongoing remote requirements as the nature of work continues to shift.

Please read: Could augmented humans and wearables be coming to a cubicle near you?

AR can also provide a cost-effective way to scale hard-to-find expertise to far-flung employees and transfer valuable institutional and technical knowledge to and from workers in the field and among various product groups. Typically, many handoffs must occur to funnel intelligence about a particular support problem back to the engineering groups—if the insights ever make it back to them at all. With AR, remote engineering teams can experience problems directly and have access to snapshots, recordings, and pictures of work in progress. As such, they can issue systemic fixes more quickly and even make adjustments to subsequent product designs.

Closer to the edge

Many companies ready to take the leap with AR aren't able to do so because they are restricted in their ability to share data in the cloud. While they can use visual collaboration tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams for standard communications, they can't leverage the same cloud-based technologies for sensitive enterprise workflows such as training, maintenance, and remote support due to concerns about data privacy and data sovereignty.

Performance is another barrier for AR applications using cloud-based collaboration tools. Advanced applications such as real-time video or image analytics can be stymied by latency issues.

AR systems that can tap into edge computing resources can address issues of data privacy, sovereignty, and performance. Such systems can take advantage of workload-optimized compute resources near the point of access and behind firewalls, which offer an extra layer of security along with guardrails for data privacy protections.

Please read the report: Edge computing yields deeper insights, faster

Instead of waiting for all the technology pieces to fall into place, businesses would be well served to consider the benefits of AR when building out their three-year plans. Already, companies using AR to solve today's remote collaboration problems are benefitting in ways not possible in a pre-AR world.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.