PTC Sketches Vision of Augmented Reality for Big Companies

Augmented reality, like its sister technology, virtual reality, is still in its infancy and has yet to live up to the hype. For many consumers, the most salient example of AR to date was a high-profile flop: Google Glass.

AR boosts a person’s experience of the surrounding environment through computer-generated elements, like images superimposed on a screen, that blend the real world with the virtual one. The experience can be delivered by high-tech glasses and other wearables, or simply through a smartphone or tablet screen. Gaming and consumer marketing are among the most prominent arenas for the technology so far.

But augmented reality could be poised to have an impact on another area: enterprise businesses, particularly the design, manufacturing, and maintenance of physical products. At least, that’s the vision that was presented Thursday at a flashy event in downtown Boston put on by PTC (NASDAQ: PTC).

“AR is already changing how we play,” said PTC chief executive Jim Heppelmann (pictured above). “It’s about to completely disrupt the way that we work.”

Over the past 30 years, Needham, MA-based PTC built a billion-dollar business mostly focused on computer-aided design software and helping to manage and service products. More recently, PTC has tried to reposition itself as an Internet of Things (IoT) company. It has spent about $500 million since late 2013 to acquire companies that help develop software to connect devices (ThingWorx, Axeda, and Kepware), and help manage the flow of data from connected devices (ColdLight).

PTC branched into augmented reality with its $65 million purchase of Vuforia from San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) in October. More than 20,000 developers worldwide have used Vuforia’s software to create more than 25,000 AR apps for phones, tablets, and smart eyewear. But while those apps have mostly been used by consumer brands like McDonald’s, HP, and Samsung to market their products, PTC used Thursday’s event to showcase how it’s applying Vuforia’s technology to manufacturing and servicing products in the field.

PTC invited more than 100 people to the event at the Revere Hotel, which was also broadcast online to more than 14,000 people worldwide, including Vuforia developers. The gathering featured demonstrations by several PTC customers, including Sysmex, a maker of diagnostic products and clinical lab testing devices; energy management company Schneider Electric; and Austrian motorcycle maker KTM.

KTM employees showed how AR software on a tablet could guide a technician to fix a problem with a bike. Text at the bottom of the screen gave step-by-step directions explaining which parts to unscrew and remove in order to reach the malfunctioning part. Then it explained how to troubleshoot the issue. Along the way, computer-generated images of the various parts were superimposed over the live image of the motorcycle being displayed on the screen.

AR will “allow technicians to perform service faster, even with none or little experience with our bikes,” said Jens Tuma, KTM’s head of customer service. “It will help us deliver a more consistent level of service around the globe.”

If such technology can make it easier to fix problems with machines, it should mean manufacturers and customer service providers can “send fewer technicians on fewer and shorter service calls,” Vuforia general manager Jay Wright said.

The software could also reduce the need for, or even replace, printed user manuals, Wright said. “It will also decrease the need for training,” he added.

On the manufacturing floor, AR could be used to guide workers through their tasks, Heppelmann said.

And as industrial machines get connected to the Internet, AR programs could create a digital dashboard tracking the status of each device and notifying staff when, say, it needs a new battery or requires maintenance, he said. This would allow a factory manager to more conveniently keep tabs on machines’ health while walking the manufacturing floor. “Why put IoT dashboards back on a computer screen in the office?” Heppelmann said.

There are still kinks to be worked out. For example, PTC said it has tried to make it easier to create and drop in the content needed to make AR apps useful (think digitizing the information in a printed product manual).

AR programs also need a trigger so the software can recognize a physical product and call up the related digital content. To that end, PTC announced a new Vuforia feature called “VuMark,” essentially a new type of bar code for devices. A VuMark can be designed to incorporate a company logo, while also encoding data like a product serial number or URL.

Despite Google Glass’s struggles, PTC executives remain bullish about smart eyewear—technology that likely must come into its own in order for augmented reality to fulfill its potential.

“The Google Glass idea was brilliant. It just doesn’t work,” Heppelmann said, citing poor battery life and overheating issues.

He sang the praises of other smart glasses, particularly those made by ODG, which were used in the event’s demos. While Google Glass only provided a “tiny display in the corner of the eye in a fixed position,” Wright said, ODG’s R-7 smart glasses display 3D content that “appears aligned” with the person’s real-world surroundings.

“In the next 12 to 18 months, we’re going to see an explosion of breakthrough wearable devices such as glasses, goggles, and even helmets” from companies like ODG, Oculus, Epson, Microsoft, and others, Heppelmann said. “I think that the devices are rapidly improving and we’re all going to forget what Google Glass was when we see all these new ones.”

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