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How to tap into the AR/VR explosion

By Jonathan Girroir • 
September 24th, 2020

Any discussion of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) could reasonably start with the question of “Why should I care about this?”

We’ve all probably seen AR/VR demonstrated at a trade show or other setting, and it looks exciting enough — but is it really going to affect the manufacturing industry?

The answer is yes.

AR/VR adoption is growing, and not just in areas like entertainment. The real growth over the next few years is going to be for industrial applications, with more than half of spend occurring there by 2021. In the automotive industry alone, half a trillion dollars is projected to be spent on AR/VR platforms in the next few years.

Given this progression, the question logically shifts from “Why should I care about AR/VR?,” to “How am I going to be able to support this type of platform?” and “What type of workflows are going to be important to my customers, and what can I do to build applications in that space?”

As engineering software companies grapple with these questions and start to develop their own AR/VR solutions, they’ll need to keep a few considerations in mind.

What kind of data can you work with?

Any good AR/VR application starts with good data access. Getting CAD data into the application, however, is a challenge — as is re-authoring it in a way that you can put it onto an AR/VR device or headset.

Not only that, in the AR/VR space, there are specific formats that are desirable for building out 3D scenes and imagery. FBX is one such format; glTF is another.

Headsets made easy
When it comes to VR, there are a number of headsets on the market, each with different quality in terms of performance, frame rate, ability to offer a full field of view, and other factors. Currently, the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift are leading the way for hardware that can support industrial applications.

Even though the Vive and the Rift are different pieces of hardware, you can interact with them in the same way — for example, getting information about location and the hand controllers — through something called OpenVR. Developed by the folks at Steam — a game technology company — OpenVR is an API and runtime that allows access to VR hardware from multiple vendors without requiring that applications have specific knowledge of the hardware they are targeting.

A tip around headsets, then, is to make sure you’re designing your application to connect in to OpenVR. In doing so, you’ll be giving your application the best odds at supporting the most popular hardware on the market.

A second tip concerns performance. While 30 -50 frames per second might be acceptable on a desktop, it will quickly make any headset viewer nauseated. A high response rate of 80 -100 frames per second is required. Not only that, but each frame has to be rendered twice, once for each eye. Make sure your application has a strong enough graphics foundation to quickly process and render even the largest visual models to ensure optimal performance.

AR use cases are multiplying
From a hardware perspective, AR is a different beast than VR, because almost everyone already owns a piece of AR hardware: namely, a smartphone.

When it comes to industrial applications, how is AR being used in this mobile context?

If you’re doing a retrofit or renovation, you can overlay what’s going to be built and compare it to what exists currently. You can even do mark up and measurements, using a mobile device.

Educational use cases are also more common. Increasingly, people are building content around maintenance and training. The ability to virtually show a technician how to install or service something in the real world — with 3D, or even 2D context overlaid — is powerful.

Parallel with this expansion of use cases, large tech companies are increasingly bullish on AR. Microsoft, for example, is investing heavily in AR with their Microsoft Hololens headset. Notably, the HoloLens 2 -announced earlier this year — isn’t focused on entertainment and media: it’s entirely focused on industrial applications. This focus is ‘unsurprising after Microsoft’s November 2018 announcement that they would supply the U.S. military with up to 100,000 HoloLens headsets, in a deal worth $480 million. There are many settings — from a military zone, to a construction site, to the factory floor — where users don’t have access to a traditional computer, but still need digital context, and the HoloLens offers a way to easily overlay that digital context in the real world.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google each offer their own AR software development kit (SDK), and Apple has purchased a series of small AR companies. Their position is that being able to mix digital content with the real world is, in very short order, going to be as much a part of life as smartphones already are — and software companies should be ready to respond to that new reality.

The AR/VR space is rapidly advancing, moving well beyond its entertainment industry roots into the industrial space. Manufacturers are poised to benefit from the new workflows that AR and VR provide. By keeping a few key considerations in mind, engineering software companies will best be able to support their customers and meet their needs with well-designed AR/VR applications in the exciting days that lie ahead.

Originally published at on August 21, 2020.

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