How companies are using augmented reality to build as well as sell things
MG Motor India's studio in Bengaluru's Residency Road is unique. It is small, just 500 sq. ft., and possibly one of the very few car showrooms in India without a car. Instead, it uses augmented reality (AR) tools to give potential customers the feel of MG cars. The customers get to customise technical aspects such as variant, transmission and fuel type, and even define the look and feel of the vehicle with over 70 accessories. "Traditional retail, due to spatial restrictions, cannot achieve such hyper-personalisation. This enhanced engagement will translate into increased conversion of enquiries into sales, better profitability and higher productivity. The dealers can minimise operational expenditures as they don't have to manage inventory," says Gaurav Gupta, Chief Commercial Officer, MG Motor India.
MG Motor is a small example of what is turning out to be a huge trend - use of AR by industries as diverse as oil & gas (HPCL/GAIL), manufacturing (Schneider Electric), real estate (Lodha Group) and retail (Urban Ladder, Pepperfry) to run plants efficiently, build/design projects, sell things and even carry out routine maintenance work more efficiently. AR is also helping healthcare providers plan complex surgeries.
AR enhances the viewing experience by superimposing computer-generated content - image, video or sound - in the real world, viewed through hardware such as smartphones, tablets and special glasses and headgear. According to Statista, the worldwide market for AR, is forecast to rise from $3.5 billion in 2017 to over $198 billion in 2025. "The AR market in India alone will be around $1 billion taking into account the opportunities in the consumer and enterprise space," says Hemanth Satyanarayana, CEO, Imaginate, a seed-funded extended reality start-up based in the US, with offices at Hyderabad and Bengaluru in India. AR is often clubbed with VR (virtual reality) and is graduating towards extended reality (XR). The latter includes all real-and-virtual environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and wearables. "AR and VR - collectively classified as XR - are transforming our connection with information, experiences and each other. However, XR as a concept is in its infancy in India and most solutions seem to be at the proof of concept stage," says Saurabh Bhatnagar, Managing Director, Manufacturing, Accenture Strategy. However, this is changing fast.
"AR helps users enhance and better visualise information. In oil & gas and aerospace sectors, it is being used to train people to run complex engineering parts. In real estate, it is being used to enable potential buyers to experience the spaces. It is also used during construction where, using the image of a particular site sub-section such as complex wiring or piping, the AR tab can give a step-by-step instruction on what action to take next," says N. Chandramouli, CEO, TRA Research.
Take Schneider Electric. The company's factory in Bengaluru has integrated digital tools such as AR to give operators visibility into operations and maintenance, driving a 10 per cent reduction in time taken to repair critical equipment. A common application on shop floors, especially in industries such as aviation and oil & gas, is use of live data and predictive maintenance using visuals that keep tabs on the status of the machinery. "Schneider Electric's smart factories in Hyderabad and Bangalore are equipped with EcoStruxure Augmented Operator Advisor - an AR application which offers real-time information at all times. This application improves operational efficiency with AR - enabling operators to superimpose the current data and virtual objects onto machine, cabinet or plant," says Javed Ahmad, Senior Vice President, Global Supply Chain-India, Middle East & Africa, Schneider Electric India.
"Use of AR in industrial sector for troubleshooting will transform the rudimentary servicing procedure and pave the way for Industry 4.0 revolution. AR servicing applications for devices measure parameters of gas and fluids in machinery and so on," says an ABB spokesperson. This helps the engineer in troubleshooting and involves identification of device through Quick Response (QR) codes provided in the device or image recognition, identification of error by decoding QR code and presentation of solutions through AR.
Oil & gas companies in many West Asian countries are using AR to increase productivity and safety. Those carrying out maintenance use remote servicing capabilities that connect technicians with technical experts using in-call AR on the device's screen. "As conventional AR devices and hardware cannot be operated in most classified zones in a refinery due to risk of explosion, special explosion-proof wearable hardware is used in such cases ," says Raman Talwar, Founder & CEO, Simulanis. Working on similar lines, New Delhi-based Simulanis has developed applications and content which help companies such as HPCL and GAIL train employees and carry out remote assistance and troubleshooting/repair. In oil & gas, Shell is using AR in geological data visualisation in collaboration with researchers worldwide. Simulanis has been building interactive and immersive AR-VR-MR/XR applications for industrial training across manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceutical, FMCG, automotive, automation, oil & gas, engineering and construction, paints, power, energy and chemicals, to name a few.
"AR technologies have advanced the experience of human-to-computer interactions for changing the customer experience. We are experiencing it in our day-to-day conversations with customers. From proof of concept to live projects, many innovations have shown to the world that AR has good commercial value and future potential," says Sumit Sood, Managing Director, Asia Pacific (APAC), GlobalLogic. GlobalLogic has developed a solution called Guided Installation which ensures more efficient assembling operations in the construction industry.
Siemens Healthineers has been using AR for education and training medical staff. Now, it is looking further. "We are working to combine AR with our cinematic rendering technology to improve communication with referrers and patients and pre-surgical planning," says Gerd Hoefner, MD and President, Siemens Healthcare. For example, while studying parts of a patient's anatomy, they can zoom in, zoom out, enlarge, rotate and also slice through the regions of interest. The 3D/4D technology brings images to life.
With increasing number of businesses using AR, Mindtree has established an Immersive Aurora facility that gives opportunities to enhance customer experience across AR and MR touch points in Bangalore. In January 2019, the Kerala Start-up Mission had joined hands with US-based Unity Technologies to launch a centre of excellence for AR/VR and gaming.
AR has become a big platform to inform and engage customers in sectors ranging from automobiles to education, real estate to travel. Take Lodha Group. "AR gives us an edge as we take our business to a new level by meeting customers at their doorstep. The tool provides a detailed virtual tour of the property and the locality. We aim to integrate it with service providers such as packers and movers, home decor players and others to give buyers a seamless experience of moving into a Lodha property. Customers will be able to visualise the apartment and design the interiors, giving a new dimension to the property- buying experience," says Rahul Mahajan, EVP-IT, Lodha Group.
In construction, a lot of things such as 3D renders, elevation/floor plans, electrical looping/plumbing diagrammes and installation plans are created during the designing phase. These need to be referred to by members from different teams like suppliers, contractors and designers. "It is imperative that any change is communicated correctly to the right stakeholders as costs associated with not doing so are huge. We intend to operationalise the use of AR for this by late 2020," says Rohit Modi, Chief Technology Officer, Livspace. This means the different teams will be able to visualise the change made by any team and work out the changes required on their part in real time.
Even online furniture retailers UrbanLadder and Pepperfry are using AR to superimpose furniture in the room to help the buyer see how it will blend into the house. Lenskart is using it to help buyers try on spectacles in a virtual trial room.
AR has a role in marketing as well. Tagbin has a platform for designing experiential spaces. Recently, it created an experiential zone at the 50th International Film Festival of India at Goa. It has also created experience centres for BPCL, IOCL, GAIL and Myntra using AR. New Delhi-based Augtraveler has designed an AR app that helps users learn more about historical sites and monuments. Tata Motors recently used AR to help visitors experience cars at the Geneva Motor Show.
The Hardware Angle
Be it industrial use or consumer AR application, AR requires special hardware with cameras, sensors and apps for superimposing relevant content in real time as well as track real-time motion and movement. The hardware is divided into handheld devices such as smartphones, tablets and head-mounted displays, including smart glasses and headgears. "Most organisations are still using handheld devices because the companies already have them. Head-mounted devices (this includes glasses) are starting to get more traction because many organisations recognise the need for their workers to have their hands free for work," says Tuong H. Nguyen, Sr. Principal Analyst, Gartner. This depends on the application and the complexity of the application.
Among handheld devices, Apple's iPad is one of the widely used hardware for accessing AR apps across consumers and enterprises. The Vuzix Blade smart glasses use Waveguide optics to experience AR glasses, projecting real-time content for seamless integration of digital and real world for operations such as workplace instructions, quality assurance and maintenance. With Blade, users can choose between hands-free voice control or smooth touchpad navigation. Epson has a Moverio AR hardware with smartglasses for consumers and professionals and smart headset for feature-rich industrial applications.
Microsoft's Hololens is an MR headset that can project 3D holograms onto the lenses. "Today's AR devices do not have the right form factor for consumers. Rather than looking at small screens in our hands, meaningful data will be presented to us through lightweight, low-cost AR displays. Additionally, brain-computer interfaces and Natural User Interfaces will change the way we interact with future AR platforms," says Karan Parikh, CEO, Green Rain Studios LLP - a US-based real-time graphics studio.
Poorly designed experiences, high cost of solutions and hardware remain the problem areas. "Adoption, costs, content and talent are other issues of this industry. Since each is dependent on the other, unless there is larger adoption, the costs will not come down and the content will be expensive to create. Talent only gets attracted to where the future lies," adds Chandramouli.
The cost of developing an enterprise solution can range anywhere between a few lakhs to a few crores, depending upon the scale of the project. As the cost of hardware makes it expensive to implement, AR solution developers have started offering their services, including the solutions and hardware, as bundled propositions.
Expect an AR revolution when costs are really taken care of.