Dr. Philipp Klimant

Dr. Philipp Klimant is a scientist involved in the Virtual Reality faculty at the Institute for Machine Tools and Production Processes at the Technical University of Chemnitz. He is head of department for Process Computer Science and Virtual Product Development. In addition, since April of 2013 he has been in charge of the central coordination unit of the Chemnitz advanced technology cluster known as “Energy-efficient Product and Process Innovations in Manufacturing Technology” (eniPROD). It is run by the Technical University and by the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Metal-working (IWU). His research focuses on Automation Technology, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, Machine and Plant Simulation, and Medical Technology.
Copyright photo: Dr. Philipp Klimant

Augmented Reality is the term used to describe the employment of computers to enhance the perception of reality. As a rule, it is the visual representation of information that can be superimposed onto an actual object with the help of smartphones, tablet PCs, smart glasses and the like.

Interacting with contents

March 2015

 

Controlling machines and processes without a computer or keyboard? Augmented Reality (AR) is intended to make this possible. Dr. Philipp Klimant of Chemnitz Technical University, Germany, shows us what this technology is capable of doing.

Most people nowadays associate augmented reality with playful add-ons, something used in furniture catalogs, for instance. Why is this technology more than a simple gimmick?

Because in everyday life augmented reality can help you with both small and big things in a practical fashion. For example, you are trying to locate the coolant hoses in your car’s engine compartment? Using the manufacturer’s app, you can find them by taking a look under the engine hood with your smartphone. AR links existing objects with virtual information and thus makes it easier to understand complicated issues – and simplifies everyday life. Getting back to the example in the original question: Doesn’t it make sense to know beforehand whether a piece of furniture is going to fit in your home or blend in with its color scheme without having to resort to a tape measure or color chart? With AR we can make a multitude of data available, arranged to suit the target group, so the user can interact with them.

Where are AR applications found in industry today?

Products are becoming increasingly complicated and we are generating more and more data. That is why AR is relevant in simplifying the complexity in all areas of industry, ranging from development to production, from logistics to training. For instance, developers can superimpose the results of a simulation straight on to the actual object and detect stress curves or distortion. Process data for production lines can be visualized right beside the machines, using a tablet PC – and tailored to the user’s requirements. The shift foreman and the operator will need to access different information. One will be interested in volumes, the other in whether program codes denote an error.

An aircraft manufacturer uses AR to check rivet connections. The operator runs his tablet PC over the component concerned; its camera compares the rivets and then reports any missing or divergent connections.

Are tablet PCs the last word in this respect?

Yes, these devices are currently ideal for AR. Tablet PCs are fully mature. They offer huge computing capacities, good cameras, loudspeakers and microphones, and a high-definition display. In addition, they are relatively cheap.

What other media are used?

Automobile manufacturers, for instance, utilize laser projectors. Apprentices can project an image of the underlying bodywork structures onto a real vehicle – and thus get a better idea of its structure. Line workers are shown – on the component itself – where the next spot weld is to be placed. A camera checks to see whether the job has been done properly and then moves on to the next weld point. In warehouse logistics, deliveries are recorded by smart glasses and then linked directly to the orders involved. Or packers are shown the best possible position for a component in a parcel.

What stage have we currently reached?

The hardware has already come quite a long way – with the exception of AR smart glasses. However, industry is currently in an orientation phase. Everybody is on the lookout for sensible ways to utilize AR, but on the whole we are still in the initial stages. There are not that many applications.

This is also due to security and data privacy concerns, since the technology could also be used to monitor people. The system does indeed check independently to determine whether or not a job has been done. On the one hand, this reduces the number of errors; on the other it provides a comparison between worker A and worker B. This is currently a major obstacle.

How do you deal with this problem?

A great number of studies will have to be performed first. At the same time, every enterprise will itself have to face up to the challenges associated with this subject and determine how to deal with it.

How can AR be used meaningfully in an industrial environment?

Products are becoming increasingly complex and, at the same time, work is becoming more global. This is where AR will play a greater supporting role in future. A developer with the necessary know-how who is located in Munich can, for example, directly demonstrate to a service technician in Shanghai what steps to take with a machine. There are no feasible solutions for this as yet. The topic is also likely to become of increasing interest to the training sector. The previous example drawn from the automotive industry is merely an initial approach.

In general terms, data visualization is going to become more common because we will have to cope with more and more data – both when working with machines and in our everyday lives. This ranges from control data for the machine, to data generated by developments, to environmental data such as the ambient temperature at which a component was manufactured. Linking this data in a sensible fashion, collating it to meet the needs of the target groups, and providing it at the right place and the right time will, in the future, be a core task of AR, even more than today.

In your opinion, what are the major technical challenges facing the introduction of AR so that it can be useful?

Intelligently linking huge amounts of data on a whole range of subjects in such a way that that we can use it to generate added value. And then making this added value visible by means of AR is one of the great tasks ahead of us in the future.

At the moment, AR data are flowing mainly in a single direction: We use the technology a good deal to display and highlight data, but very little when it comes to generating further data.

Perhaps in ten years’ time we will not be sitting in front of computers but will be controlling our activities by holographic displays and voice control right where the action is – just as in sci-fi films. However, this is still a long way off since there is still a great need for action in specific areas. There are several approaches but as yet no feasible solutions for industry.

What effects is this going to have on our everyday lives?

In the future, the private sphere is likely to coalesce with our work environment. Coming generations of smart glasses might let us phone our spouses, deal with our mail at work and show us when maintenance work is due on the production line. One of the greatest tasks will be to separate these coalescing worlds without generating security problems.

Are smart glasses the great gateway to linking humans with the networked worlds of machinery and IT? The catchword here is “connected industry”.

Yes, this is one of the key topics in developing connected industry: focusing on human-to-machine communications rather than machine-to-machine. Cooperation is of the essence in this respect. Humans will be doing complex assembly operations together with robots and both will be communicating and collaborating with one another. By this stage, voice control will have become increasingly important in addition to visual implementation.

Currently, AR is frequently associated with visual solutions, even though this technology touches upon all our senses. Why is this case?

In principle, AR is an audio-visual solution. Since we are striving to simplify applications, we shy away from activating more senses than necessary. For instance, tactile solutions are much more interesting for virtual reality solutions than they are for AR modes. In this respect, acoustic signals are a great deal more relevant as they can, for example, be used in voice-control. This is because the systems being applied – smart glasses, tablet PCs and smartphones – are already designed to cope with verbal commands. It is the aim of AR to interact with contents and not merely to display them.

When do you think a successful breakthrough is likely?

That’s difficult to say. If a year from now there are a few operational applications of this kind, then the multiplier effect will no doubt kick in and these solutions will spread fast. However, it could just as well happen that over the next five years we continue to advance just as we do today: with individual, isolated solutions.

What effects will AR have on people confronted with it?

Technostress has been on the increase for the past few years, but it is debatable whether it can be reduced by the data consolidation as is done by AR – or whether this will in fact contribute towards proliferation. This greatly depends on the individual involved and his or her affinity for technical things. If you have no contact whatsoever with tablet PCs and the like in your personal environment, then you are going to find it much more difficult to use these tools when they are introduced at work. On the other hand, however, AR does provide an opportunity to make your vocational environment more interesting and motivating. This is something that will increase in importance when it comes to competing for the best young management trainees.