CES 2015: Industrial Augmented Reality Takes Center Stage

AR is dead. Long live AR.

Photo: Stephen Cass

Just a couple of years ago, we were hoping that Google Glass might be the spark that transformed augmented reality from a laboratory curiosity into a consumer product. But the reception for Google Glass turned out to be lukewarm, and it never really seemed to take off.

This bad news for AR seemed to be confirmed at this year’s CES—the 160,000 or so attendees are generally the very embodiment of early adopters, and are particularly heavy users of any mobile technology that will give them an edge. Yet over the entire week, I have spotted a grand total of four Google Glass wearers (and one may have been the same guy twice). And unlike the glut of companies making me-too versions of wearable activity trackers or 3-D printers, I came across only one company making a product directly comparable to Google Glass: Topsky Technologies, which makes a US $400 Android-based wearable computer.

But CES also showed another side of the AR ecosystem, one targeted at industrial and military users—and one that appears to be much healthier. Osterhaut Design Group showed a $5000 industrial headset that got a good response. Unlike Google Glass, it doesn’t try to tuck its display away in the upper corner of the wearer’s field of view; the binocular system delivers graphics front and center. Flipping down a sunglasses-like visor blocks the wearer’s view of the outide world and converts the headset into a reasonable VR headset.

Simarly, Epson was showing off the developer version of its Moverio BT-200 Smart Glasses. Most importantly, Epson didn’t just bring the glasses; they also brought a bunch of third-party developers with working demos of augmented applications. While some developers were showing game and entertainment applications, the most impressive demos were from APX Labs, Augumenta, NGrain, and Scope. All were aimed firmly at enterprise or government users.

APX Labs featured Skylight, a geographically aware system that can help workers out in the field. In the demo at the booth, arrows popped up to indicate the direction of distant wind turbines. Once I was looking in the direction of a turbine, I could call up data on the turbine’s performance, and even call up video showing the turbine’s current state.

Augumenta has eliminated the need for voice commands (always tricky in noisy environments) with a system that can recognize hand gestures. I used it to play Rock, Paper, Scissors against the computer, but ultimately the technology will allow a wearer to see a keyboard or industrial controls overlaid on the palm of one hand and “press” them using a finger from the other hand.

At Ngrain’s demo, a scale model of a generator sat on the table. Once I put on the glasses, I could look at the model and highlight a particular part, causing a 3-D representation of that piece, overlaid on the generator, to pop up. This allowed me to see surfaces otherwise blocked by other components. The 3-D models tracked—albeit with some jitter—the changing perspective of the model as I turned and moved my head.

Finally, Scope showed a pump from a UAV. Looking at the pump through the Moverio glasses allowed me to watch a series of instructions for performing maintenance, with virtual tools such as a wrench overlaid on where they would be used on the real pump, plus an animation of the required motion.

Will these developments trickle over to the consumer side of augmented reality? A range of steady customers, willing to pay premium prices for functionality they can’t get any other way, may well provide the broad base needed support the development of the technology. Osterhaut is planning to offer a consumer version of its glasses for around $1000 sometime this year.

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