By Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

Except for the scale model of the Milky Way galaxy floating over the coffee table, it seems an awful lot like a regular living room.

We’re deep in the bowels of Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, in a hidden nook of the campus that’s dedicated to showcasing the tech giant’s latest innovation, the HoloLens. This bulbous glass and plastic contraption is what’s strapped to my face and head at the moment, whirring softly as it projects a separate transparent—but slightly different—image in front of each of my eyeballs.

Working on the same principles of binocular vision that make 3D movies possible, the effect is as convincing as it is off-putting, and when I look directly at it, the spinning galaxy in front of me appears as real as the coffee table or the couch or the walls—which I can still see around me. I stand rooted to the floor for a moment before I remember that, unlike a 3D movie, this new HoloLens technology is fully immersive. Motion sensors and equipment that finely tracks my position in the room enable me to move around, beneath and even through the 3D image.

Within minutes I’m crawling around on the floor in my suit, my mouth agape and my tie dragging on the floor, all pretense of professionalism lost as I push the bounds of this new technology.

“It really had a profound effect on me,” says Noah Oken-Berg, Director of Business Development at Pop Art, Inc. and a participant in the Association of Equipment Manufacturers Thinking Forward event where HoloLens was showcased. “It’s like introducing a new color to your eyes that you’ve never seen. It takes a second to wrap your head around it.”

It’s those sorts of “ah-ha!” moments that D’Arcy Salzmann, Microsoft’s senior director of strategy for the HoloLens project, says are critical to help mixed reality technology cross the threshold from novelty to utility. Prior to our hands-on introduction to the HoloLens system, he told the AEM members-only Thinking Forward summit that it’s been his responsibility to help corporate partners conceive of and implement practical uses for this technology, which could change the way business is done across a number of industries—including equipment manufacturing.

“I believe this technology in five years will be as foundational to the operations of your business—the way you design, the way you build and the way you sell—as email, the camera phone and CRM systems are today,” Salzmann says. “Whether we are successful at it or not as a company, mixed reality will be a big thing.”

Salzmann is quick to point out that mixed reality—a technology that allows virtual reality graphics to interact with the physical environment, from a user’s perspective—is still in its infancy. While the quality of the graphics is state-of-the-art, the limitations of the technology are evident in the limited field of vision within which the graphics are visible.

Still, when you consider how much more impressive modern smartphones are than their prototypes were 15 years ago, it’s easy to see how technologies like HoloLens could quickly be used to make businesses more effective, more efficient and more profitable. Salzmann shared these—and other—examples of companies that are piloting the technology in pursuit of a greater return on investment:

 Mining

At a gold mine in Mexico, management is searching for ways to more effectively guide their drill operators to veins of ore below the surface. Geologists have developed detailed maps of these ore veins, but getting them out of the ground is still a matter of brute force and guesswork, Salzmann says, resulting in inefficiencies that could be minimized with better guidance.

“The CEO of this gold company came to me and said, ‘We have a $100 million problem per year in our business,’” Salzmann says. “‘We send waste rock to the crusher to be processed. As a result, we are not getting efficiency from the shovel to the dump truck to the processing of the material.’”

Interfacing HoloLens with AEM member Trimble’s Connected Mine software package, Salzmann says he oversaw a pilot launch of mixed reality as a potential solution. “The question then becomes, if we put this device on an operator, can we get better accuracy than we get?” Salzmann says. “The answer, ultimately, is yes.”

Logistics

Amazon has already proven that order fulfillment is a business model ripe for disruption. In an effort to stay ahead of the curve, Salzmann says one aftermarket shock absorber manufacturing company is piloting HoloLens as an aid to make workers in its warehouse more efficient.

Equipped with a mixed reality headset, each employee’s work queue is managed by a supervisor as orders come in. The HoloLens guides them via the most optimal route through the warehouse to the exact parts they need, and the headset scans and processes orders as they add them to their carts.

“You might think this is a novelty, but I’ve been to this plant. Every single shock absorber is packed in an identical box. They all look the same,” Salzmann says. Not only does the technology make operations more efficient and accurate, he says, but workers are more engaged by the “gamification” of a menial task, competing individually and in teams to achieve the best scores on the warehouse floor.

Training and Service

Certifying airplane mechanics is an expensive process that takes many weeks, requiring workers from around the world to travel to centralized locations and study with experts in specialized facilities. But with mixed reality, one aviation manufacturer is exploring the possibilities for modernizing these decades-old practices.

“The people who build these airplanes have no interest in having a gaggle of engineers come in and crawl all over the assembly line for the sake of learning how they work,” Salzmann says. “If I want to bring just the landing gear into the classroom and take it apart, there’s no practical way to do that.”

By digitizing the schematics of its planes, the manufacturer could provide some of its training to maintenance crews via mixed reality. Simulating the operation of various parts this way allows instructors to provide students with a look at “impossible perspectives” of hidden equipment, like landing gear folded up inside a plane’s nose cone, and training could even be conducted remotely, saving the company on travel costs.

The Future of Mixed Reality

Salzmann laid out other use cases for HoloLens’s mixed reality technology, including sales, marketing, engineering and design, and explained how Microsoft is working with corporate partners to explore other potential uses. He stressed that manufacturers shouldn’t just view mixed reality as the latest technological gimmick, but rather the next step in the evolution of how people interact with computers.

Within the next three to five years, Salzmann predicts mixed reality technology will become more common in corporate settings, followed by a tipping point of adaptation by consumers. Among the AEM members present at the recent Thinking Forward event, many said they could envision uses for the technology in their own businesses.

“We have some initiatives with our clients around 3D digitalization of what’s happening on machines for the purposes of increasing usability, and this feels like the next milestone in that space,” says Karl Robrock, the co-founder of Automation Resources Group. “There’s a very direct application for this, yet so many different directions we could take it.”

Just this week, Microsoft announced that its speech recognition software had surpassed the average accuracy of human transcribers. This is a key milestone in the development of one technology that enables users to interact with HoloLens, which takes most of its cues via voice commands and gesture sensors.

Those who scoffed at the notion that a computer could be useful without a traditional keyboard or mouse have certainly eaten their share of crow since the launch of the iPhone. But Salzmann says the relationship between machines and users is not done evolving.

“The iPhone suddenly changed the way you used technology,” Salzmann says. “But that’s what you see with each shift in the adaptation of new technology. First, it’s primarily a device for nerds, then for business, then for everyone.”

 

D’Arcy Salzmann was one of several speakers at AEM’s Thinking Forward conference in Redmond, WA at Terex Genie and Microsoft headquarters. The next event (all of which are free to AEM members) will be at Volvo in Eastern, PA, and will feature author and globally-recognized authority on disruptive innovation Luke Williams, who will challenge participants to disrupt the norm in their markets and their businesses. LEARN MORE.

Dusty Weis is AEM’s strategic communications manager, covering the impact that new and emerging trends and technologies will have on the construction, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Email him at dweis@aem.org or follow him on Twitter @dustyweis.

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