Augmented reality, or AR, is no longer just a tool for consumer marketers and gamers. “It’s changing life as we know it, changing how we interact with things, including the things of the enterprise,” said Charlie Ungashik, chief marketing officer for PTC, in his opening remarks to the more than 200 journalists, analysts and VIPs gathered for the company’s recent ThingEvent gathering in Boston. Livestreamed online, the event also attracted more than 14,000 people around the globe from some of the world’s largest companies, including strategists, service leaders, application developers, product designers and software systems engineers.
The purpose of ThingEvent was to stake PTC’s claim in the emerging ‘Enterprise AR’ space, to explain why AR is such a game-changing technology for the enterprise, and to unveil a new set of PTC tools and technologies designed to ease the development and management of AR applications at scale.
“Products now exist in the digital and physical worlds at the same time,” explained Jim Heppelmann, CEO of PTC, referencing the digital twins that increasingly mirror the characteristics and performance of physical things in real-time. “Everything has converged except how we interact with things,” Heppelmann said. “Soon we’ll experience both the digital and physical worlds as one. It’s time to take a fresh look at things.”
Indeed, augmented reality is perhaps the clearest illustration of the power of the cyber-physical system concepts that underlie today’s enterprise megatrends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), its Industrial counterpart (IIoT) and Industrie 4.0. In short, AR involves the contextual projection of digital information directly onto an individual’s view of a thing itself. Enterprise AR, in particular, draws data from enterprise systems such as for computer-aided design (CAD), product lifecycle management (PLM) as well as real-time information being generated by the device itself, such as through sensors. Today, AR applications often superimpose digital information onto the camera display of a smartphone or tablet. Increasingly, however, AR is moving onto eyewear that allows the viewer full use of his or her hands. “While the future may be on our heads, it’s starting in our hands,” noted Jay Wright, general manager of PTC’s Vuforia AR platform.
AR’s first killer app
While maintenance and other service tasks are “the first killer app of Enterprise AR,” according to Heppelmann, any number of complex physical tasks performed by humans stand to benefit from the technology. Next up at ThingEvent, four PTC customers discussed how they were using AR to improve the performance of “thing-related” tasks:
- Jens Tuma, head of customer service for KTM, described how the off-road motorcycle manufacturer is testing AR to help deliver consistent, accurate maintenance on its bikes. “We see huge potential to address service challenges,” Tuma said. “We use AR to present clear information in the context of the product.”
- Steve Postma, enterprise architect for Sysmex, showed how both end users and service techs of its medical instruments could use AR to troubleshoot its medical analyzers. “Our goal is use IoT and AR to enable high instrumentation uptime for companies,” Postma said.
- David Yarnold, CEO of ServiceMax, discussed the field service provider’s realization that mobile product data access had the potential to truly disrupt service operations. “Eliminating unplanned downtime is clearly one of the greatest values to be delivered by the IoT,” Yarnold said. AR, in particular, helps the company’s service technicians to more quickly localize problems, ensure worker safety, accurately diagnose problems, and execute fixes with the highest probability of success, Yarnold said.
- Herve Coureil, CIO of Schneider Electric, demonstrated the use of AR to display the operational status – and a maintenance need – in a tablet view of one of the company’s uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). With the need for maintenance clearly flagged, an AR application then stepped him through how to replace a defective battery.
Enabling AR at enterprise scale
Underlying and enabling all of these Enterprise AR applications is PTC’s new ThingX suite, which also was unveiled to the public at ThingEvent. The three elements of the ThingX suite, ThingBrowser, ThingServer and ThingBuilder work in concert with the company’s new VuMark next-generation barcodes to make it far easier to develop and manage AR applications at the scale needed to deploy AR across an enterprise’s many things.
VuMark is a universal identification solution that can be used to recognize any unique object to deliver a specific AR experience while allowing the design freedom for a custom look and feel of the marker (see image). VuMark also provides a simple method for encoding data such as a URL or a product serial number and overcomes the limitations of existing bar code solutions that do not support AR experiences and can detract from a product’s appearance. (For more information on VuMark, visit developer.vuforia.com.) VuMark is expected to be released in spring 2016.
ThingBrowser is a single browser app that uses computer vision and VuMarks to recognize things in the environment around us, and then uses Vuforia AR technology to augment the right visual experience onto those things, depending on where the user is, who they are, and what thing they are browsing. ThingBuilder, in turn, is a codeless graphical authoring environment that allows virtually any enterprise or consumer user to author augmentable experiences using 3D CAD data combined with IoT and enterprise services. These experiences, once authored, are stored on the ThingServer, which is the heart of the ThingX suite. ThingServer manages all of the experiences that exist for various physical things and delivers, via the ThingBrowser, all of the relevant information and analysis from across an organization, from the product’s digital definition, to data about its operation and service history, for a particular thing that that’s being viewed.
“PTC is completely focused on delivering innovative technology that will cause everybody to step back and take a fresh look at the way we conceive of and interact with products,” concluded Heppelmann. “The customer demonstrations shown here at the ThingEvent are the tip of the iceberg of what is possible; we are at the beginning of incredible period where IoT, machine learning, and augmented reality technologies join forces with a new generation of enterprise solutions to cause us to rethink how we conceive, create, operate, service, and make money from products. It’s an exciting time for PTC and our customers.”