AR and VR bring a new twist to collaboration

From consulting with remote experts to meeting in virtual spaces, augmented reality and virtual reality apps are changing the way people work together.

vr perkins will insitevr building
Perkins+Will

Businesses are finding a wide variety of applications for augmented reality and virtual reality tools, from training to rapid prototyping to enhancing marketing materials. Add that demand to consumer interest in the technologies for entertainment, gaming, retail showcasing, and more, and it’s not surprising that IDC has predicted that the overall AR and VR headset market is set to grow from 8.9 million units in 2018 to 65.9 million units by 2022.

According to Tom Mainelli, vice president of devices and AR/VR at IDC, “A recent IDC survey of U.S. IT decision markers showed a huge percentage of companies testing both technologies, and we expect that appetite will only grow.”

Among the uses whetting companies’ appetites are collaboration and communication. VR gives groups the ability to go beyond video conferencing and place participants together in a virtual space, from a shared office to a popular travel destination. Blending the physical world with the virtual, AR’s “see-what-I-see” capability lets teammates in different parts of the world — or just in different buildings in the same complex — look at the same equipment and annotate or draw on what they see to share their knowledge.

Here are three examples of the kinds of collaborative activities AR and VR are bringing to the enterprise.

Shared spaces for collaborative design

One of the tasks in designing a building is making sure the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems don’t conflict with each other or with the building fabric and structure itself. Up until a few months ago, architecture and design firm Perkins+Will relied on taking the reduced-scale virtual 3D models of each system produced by the individual disciplines’ teams and combining them into a single “federated” model. The teams then examined the combined model using standard building information modeling tools such as Nemetschek Solibri or Autodesk’s Navisworks.

“Trying to navigate those tools and find where the issues are isn’t that intuitive,” says David Sewell, design applications manager in Perkins+Will’s London office. At the start of a project, when things are fluid and changing rapidly, there’s really no substitute for visual inspection, he says.

In early 2017, Perkins+Will started using virtual reality to show projects to clients and let them do a virtual walkthrough. Among the tools the firm has tested is InsiteVR. “It enabled us to share via the cloud, so we could have people in different locations all looking at the same model,” Sewell explains.

InsiteVR recently added a coordination feature, and that led Sewell and Perkins+Will to try using the platform for those early visual inspections. One test case has been a project in London, a commercial office building with some residential and some retail space. “We put the models together, brought in the team members — one in Italy — and literally walked through looking for potential issues,” Sewell continues. “For instance, we might get up on the roof and see a problem where structure hits the MEP equipment.”

vr perkins will insitevr structure clash Perkins+Will

Architecture firm Perkins+Will uses InsiteVR software to bring team members together to view VR building models so they can identify structural clashes in the early design stages. (Click image to enlarge it.)

InsiteVR lets team members call out such clashes, and the program uses voice recognition to turn the comments into text annotations directly on the model. “We now have all the issues in this app that sits on the cloud,” explains Sewell. “You can then export a PDF report with these annotations marked on it and with a little screen shot.”

The report is distributed to the design partners so they can work on fixing the issues found during the walkthrough. “When you meet next time, you bring the new models together,” Sewell continues. “Hopefully the issues that were there have been resolved and you can tick them off and move on to the next stage.”

Perkins+Will uses HTC Vive headsets, but, says Sewell, the fact that InsiteVR is cloud-based means that people can participate using any headset or even a laptop. “As long as you have an internet connection and the app, you can all participate in the conversation,” he says.

Sewell and the Perkins+Will team have been impressed enough with the VR collaboration process to plan to use it on all future projects. “We’re going to talk to our design consultants and our design partners and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do initial coordination,’” he says. “We’ll make it part of our day-to-day workflow, just like any other design tool.”

Expertise on demand for manufacturing

Among other products, semiconductor manufacturer Global Foundries makes the chips that go into VR headsets built by AMD. “If you come to our factory in upstate New York, you’ll see our systems in action,” says DP Prakash, the company’s lead on AI, ML, AR, and VR. “We’re not only using third-party applications to show what VR is doing in the world, we’ve been creating content with VR and using it for internal applications as well.”

That experience, though, has convinced the company that augmented reality is likely to be even more important than virtual reality for their purposes. About a year and half ago, says Prakash, “We realized that we need to consider AR in a factory setting.” To that end, Global Foundries established a strategic partnership with global software vendor PTC, which had acquired AR platform maker Vuforia a few years prior.

Vuforia’s product lineup includes an application for remote expert assistance, called Vuforia Chalk. Available for iOS and Android devices, Chalk enables an on-site technician and a remote expert to view the same machine at the same time and collaborate by drawing on the screen as they talk. Global Foundries has been evaluating Chalk’s feasibility for enabling technicians to get help from experts who might be in another building or even another country.

ar ptc vuforia chalk augmented reality app PTC

The Vuforia Chalk app lets an on-site technician get help from a remote expert. Both parties can see and annotate the same view of the system or product that needs to be worked on. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Prakash is enthusiastic about Chalk’s potential for helping his company’s bottom line as well as its performance. “It’s going to improve within-factory communications and factory-to-factory communications, and it will allow us to renegotiate how our vendor contracts are structured,” he says.

As with many enterprises, Global Foundries’ standard arrangements with OEM vendors now include a service contract that guarantees an expert will be on site or available at all times. “If the tool ever goes down, the expert is there to fix it,” he says. “But 80 or 90 percent of the time, the tool is up, and the experts aren’t really doing anything for us. With this tool, we think we can have the vendor experts offsite, still have them available on demand, but renegotiate the contracts at a lower price.”

That can be good for the vendor, too, says Prakash, pointing to a vendor his company works with that is based in California. “The vendor’s problem is that their growth is happening in China, and they don’t have enough folks who want to go live there,” he says. “They’d much rather have their experts sitting here.” With a tool like Chalk, he says, the vendor can provide the necessary support without the expense and inconvenience of travel.

Such an arrangement will also improve all parties’ capabilities, Prakash believes. “In the process of remote assistance, the vendor teaches the people on the factory floor how to solve the problem, and next time they can take care of it for themselves,” he says. “And the vendors can provide assistance to many more companies as well.”

At this point, Global Foundries has done the groundwork of demonstrating the feasibility of using Chalk for remote assistance in its factories. “I would say we are beyond the ‘that’s cool’ stage,” says Prakash. “It’s almost getting to the point where using this tool is second nature. It’s becoming like FaceTime. Now it’s a matter of scaling it up and realizing the ROI.”

Virtual communities for healthcare organizations

Dealing with cancer, a harrowing experience at any age, brings with it a special set of challenges for adolescents and teenagers. “We’ve heard time and again that these patients struggle with feeling lonely, that they can’t relate to their peers,” says Dr. Asher Marks, M.D., Director of Pediatric Neuro-Oncology and of the Adolescent And Young Adult Oncology Clinics at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. “They just can’t find connections with people other than those going through the same thing.”

The hospital has psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers available for one-on-one support, Asher continues. However, the kids already have to go to the hospital once or twice a week for their treatments, he says, and to ask them to take even more time away from school, work, or their families to return more often — “it just wasn’t happening.”

Marks had been investigating several different options for group interactions, such as Facebook Spaces and AltspaceVR, but found that they were either too low on privacy or too high on distractions. In August 2018, he serendipitously connected with Foretell Studios, a subsidiary of VR and AR incubator The Glimpse Group.

Howard Olah-Reiken, Foretell Studios general manager and CTO of Glimpse’s Immersive Health Group, happened to be sitting in on a call with a team of people at Yale that included Dr. Marks. “We were talking about some of the training applications that Glimpse offers,” Olah-Reiken recalls. “Dr. Asher described the support groups they were trying to form. I took my Immersive Health Group hat off and put my Foretell Studios hat on and said our main focus was group VR experiences. We’re working with some other people for psychiatric and psychological work. So I let them know that not only did we have a platform for that but were already working on similar cases.”

vr foretell studios virtual environment Foretell Studios

Foretell Studios develops products that let people, represented by avatars, get together in virtual environments for — among other purposes — support groups and similar meetings. (Click image to enlarge it.)

“A lot of the larger companies toying with large social VR solutions seem focused on utilizing very robust VR systems,” says Dr. Marks. “For us, it was all about accessibility, low cost, and easy portability — something where someone could go to their bedroom, slap on a headset, and be in that support group.”

Foretell is still small enough that it can develop customized products that can run on a range of hardware. “We’re leaning very strongly toward all-in-one headsets here, Oculus Go being one of them and Pico another,” says Olah-Reiken.

The support groups haven’t quite begun yet. “From our end, this is a product that already exists, and we’re just talking about some customization,” says Olah-Reiken. But from the hospital’s side, there are many bureaucratic hoops to jump through for anything involving patients.

“We have to bring tech like this to an institutional review board,” says Dr. Marks. “That meeting went well — all the scientific and statistical aspects have been approved, with the only stipulation being some formal safety guidelines to be added to the protocol.” He’s also secured the philanthropic funding needed to complete the project, and he expects the project to get underway in the spring.

Is AR/VR collaboration in your future?

These three case studies aren’t outliers. “Collaboration is one of the most sought-after use cases for AR and VR,” says Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. VR lets teams work together without having to physically travel to the same place, as with the designer who joined the Perkins+Will walkthrough from Italy.

And in addition to real-time remote assistance, “AR is helping many companies centralize their technical expertise and even record the sessions so that they can be used for training at a later date,” says Urbani.

There are instances in which the new tools might be out of place, though, he warns. “One is when employees are consumer-facing, since there’s still some stigma around wearing a headset when dealing with consumers. Another would be when meeting in person or using traditional 2D collaboration tools would be a lot easier,” he says.

“Until VR can offer an experience that’s just as frictionless as a real-life meeting or a video call, it’s not going to be the ideal environment for collaboration,” he adds. But those solutions come with their own drawbacks — travel expenses, limitations in seeing all sides of a 3D object — that AR and VR circumvent. As the technologies improve, more companies will find that AR and VR make a compelling business case.

Read this next: AR in the enterprise: Tips for a better augmented reality app

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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