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For Thomas Caudell, it started with a desire to make it easier to build airplanes. It was 1990, and Caudell, then a scientist at Boeing, was trying to figure out how to help workers assembling long bundles of wires for the new 777 jetliner.

The standard procedure was to thread and bundle the wires along pegs on a board that was about 20 to 30 feet long, then take the wires over to the plane for installation. But to do the wiring correctly, workers had to continuously glance between an instructional sheet and the assembly, which complicated an already tricky job.

Caudell and his colleague David Mizell had an idea: what if they could give the assembly workers a see-through display that could guide them by superimposing lines for where the wires should go on top of the board? Trying such a thing with the 777 made particular sense, since it was the first jetliner to be fully digitally modeled before it was physically assembled, so there were already computerized images of its components.

Caudell and Mizell built such a system that the workers could wear on their heads. But, as with other early attempts to overlay the real world with bits of the virtual, it didn’t catch on. Caudell says that was largely because the head-tracking required to make the system work while people moved around wasn’t responsive enough, and wearable computers were nowhere near as powerful as they are today. However, he did come up with a term for this new kind of digital vision: augmented reality.

In the decades since, augmented reality has crept toward acceptance (see “Augmented Reality Is Finally Getting Real”). The arrival of smartphones, tablets, and head-worn computers like Google Glass—and improvements in the tracking technology that bedeviled Caudell and Mizell—are making augmented reality more useful, but it’s still far from commonplace because handheld gadgets aren’t that immersive and smart glasses are still pricey and awkward-looking.

But fashion and price don’t matter to companies eager for technologies to help their employees work more efficiently. The defense contractor Raytheon and the electronics maker Mitsubishi Electric, among other large companies, have been trying augmented reality in the workplace and out in the field. “Some companies are thinking, ‘Look, this is interesting enough, we’ll take some bets on it, we believe there’s a good chance. At least we want to have a first mover’s advantage compared to our competitors,’” says Soulaiman Itani, founder and CEO of Atheer Labs, which is making 3-D virtual reality software and glasses. The Mountain View, California-based company is working on some small pilot tests with companies—he won’t say which ones—to try augmented reality in hospitals, on construction sites, and in factories.

The augmented-reality software startup Daqri, based in Los Angeles, is also getting companies to explore the technology. Like Atheer, Daqri sees head-worn displays as the way we will eventually use the technology, but for now much of its focus is on smartphone and tablet displays.

Founder and CEO Brian Mullins demonstrated his startup’s technology with an iPad and a piece of paper featuring a basic diagram of the human heart. He placed the paper on a table, then instructed me to look at it on the iPad using a Daqri app. The app detects features on the paper through the iPad’s rear-facing camera, matches those features with associated 3-D images stored on Daqri’s servers, and keeps track of where the 3-D images should be in relation to the paper. The heart levitated atop the paper, pulsing slightly as cartoon blood pumped through it. Daqri’s software tracked my movement around the heart with the iPad, allowing me to see it from different angles and turn different functions on or off at will. I backed away from the heart to see how far I could go before it would start to flicker on the iPad’s display and got well beyond the door, which was 11 feet away.

This was still a far cry from something that would be useful on a factory floor, but I could imagine how Daqri’s software could make the leap, especially as wearable displays improve. Several companies, including the defense contractor Raytheon, are trying out Daqri’s software. Andy Lowery, a Daqri cofounder who is no longer involved in the company’s daily operations, is an engineering director at Raytheon and has used a 3-D model made by Daqri to show progress on a cylindrical signal-jamming device that will fit on the wings of Navy fighter planes.

Because the device, called the Next Generation Jammer, includes complex electronics, it’s hard to visualize, Lowery says. Modeling it with augmented reality software running on a handful of iPads that allowed viewers to walk around it, pop open doors, explore the insides, and highlight various subsystems was much more engaging than a normal 3-D model on a flat screen. “It gives you a much better feel for how it actually looks,” he says.

There’s also hope that augmented reality can make things easier for workers who are away from the office or the factory. Gabriel Weiss, who oversees augmented reality projects at Mitsubishi Electric, says the company is using software from augmented reality software company Metaio on Epson’s Moverio smart glasses to test whether air conditioner service technicians benefit from a three-dimensional overlay that shows them the components of the company’s most popular residential air conditioner. A YouTube video depicts what a technician wearing the glasses sees: basic cues about how to remove a fan and other parts depicted as virtual arrows, circles, and screwdrivers atop the physical object.

Weiss emphasizes that the test is meant to explore whether “it’s something the technicians want.” And indeed, getting workers to want to use the technology could be a challenge. Eric Mizufuka, Epson’s new markets product manager, let me try the glasses, which can be used only with an attached control unit about the size of a small hard drive. As with most other head-worn displays I’ve tried, I found the setup unwieldy and its method of showing images in the air around me difficult to navigate on the first try.

Tobias Hollerer, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies augmented reality, says getting people to accept the technology depends on factors that may not have improved as much as display and tracking technology have—namely, how users control the system, be it with gestures, voice, or something else entirely. “Obviously there’s a lag in deploying these technologies from when they became possible to when they became robust enough to actually be deployed in work flows,” he says. “But I think there is enough of a benefit in augmented reality to make that leap.”

Already, this is beginning to happen in the industry Caudell was hoping to augment back in the ‘90s. Mizufuka says Epson’s Moverio glasses are being used by some aircraft workers to simplify the mounting of components within airplane engines.

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Credit: Images courtesy of Epson and DAQRI

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, Mobile, Google, mobile, smartphone, augmented reality, iPhone, Google Glass, Atheer, wearable tech, Mitsubishi, Epson, Metaio, head-up display

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