Mixed reality presents opportunities for manufacturers


Karl Sanford, application developer at OST, demonstrates the HoloLens mixed reality technology. Courtesy OST

Open Systems Technologies (OST) has a giant rocket ship and a purring orange cat sitting in its lobby.

These 3-D objects hover in the air and can be relocated around the room thanks to Microsoft’s HoloLens, a mixed reality headset OST has been testing for the past couple of months.

Mixed reality takes virtual reality technology to the next level by bringing digital objects into the physical environment, “bridging the physical and digital world.”

Karl Sanford, application developer at OST, explained the difference between virtual reality technology and mixed reality technology.

“VR is a technology that allows you to explore and interact with an entirely computer generated 3-D environment. It is an immersive experience that has seen a lot of enthusiasm with advances in technology. Similarly, mixed reality can view and interact with 3-D objects, but different from VR, objects come into your physical space as a hologram.”

Sanford said in the future with mixed reality technology, “you could be working on your actual car, while a 3-D mechanic could diagnose the car and show you how to fix it.”

Sanford said though it is not the only product on the market, HoloLens is leading the pack right now because it is the only system that is untethered.

While HoloLens still needs further iterations before it will be ready to change the world of manufacturing (and many other industries) as we know it, Sanford said there are plenty of ways he sees the technology being used already and several other future applications that are likely.

“A big area that some people are using it for is warehousing, specifically way finding,” Sanford said. “If you are a picker in a warehouse and you have a pick list, because the HoloLens isn’t tethered to a machine, you can go anywhere, and it’s aware of your surroundings.

“You could have a way-finding path that shows up in front of you that you follow to pick these things. It guides your path.”

Sanford said mixed reality also presents faster and more efficient opportunities for rapid prototyping, which currently relies on 3-D printing and VR, both of which have limitations mixed reality can overcome.

“If you have two people wearing HoloLenses you can share an experience of a rapidly prototyped 3-D image and actually have it appear in front of you. Mike (Lomonaco) and I could both be wearing them and see the same thing and be interacting with the same 3-D image through gestures and voice, versus 3-D printing, where you have to wait for it.”

Sanford said the area of diagnostics also will likely benefit from mixed reality. He said a HoloLens use case involving elevator repair shows some of the potential.

“If there is an issue with the elevator, it could alert a service technician — possibly across the country — and that person could get the data (from the elevator) streamed into a HoloLens. On their table in front of them, that person could see a 3-D representation of that actual thing, and integrating that sensor information from a real world elevator, they can then start to look at and diagnose a problem remotely before getting on site to help with diagnostics.”

Another possibility involves the construction industry. With the HoloLens, one person could walk around a construction space and leave notes via the HoloLens for a coworker, who could later put on the HoloLens and tour the space, finding all of the notes that need attention.

Seeing the notes in the actual locations in need of attention provides a much more contextual experience than seeing the notes listed on a tablet screen, he said.

Health care is another space where mixed reality technology is being explored. Case Western Reserve University did a use-case study involving anatomy education, Sanford said.

“Rather than a cadaver lab, you could create a 3-D body with as much detail as you want. Students could wear HoloLenses and have a shared experience looking at this model and being able to manipulate it, look at different layers and not have to go do a cadaver lab,” Sanford said.

Right now, with a starting price of $3,000, the HoloLens is out of reach for many every day consumers, but it’s a steal for manufacturers and businesses with strong R&D budgets, which is one reason Sanford believes the industrial and commercial sectors are starting to invest in the new technology and test its capabilities.

“Because this is so new, tech people are still figuring out how to use it effectively,” Sanford said. “How do we create an intuitive menu for people to play with and manipulate things, and how do we represent that well and usefully?

“There is a lot of experimenting right now and rapidly iterating around those design concepts to try to find that out. The people getting into it right now are framing the user experience and setting.”

But as the technology develops, Sanford believes there isn’t an industry it won’t touch. He talked about health care applications, including telemedicine, home entertainment possibilities and retail experiences as just a few other examples of where he sees this technology beginning to permeate.

“Microsoft is committed to 3-D, not just the HoloLens,” he said. “They see it as the future of computing. They are trying to position themselves to get consumers on board. As that initiative moves forward, expect to see some interesting and compelling user applications.”

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