What hype? Field service workers rapidly embracing AR/VR to democratize knowledge

You may not be lining up to buy the new Magic Leap One, but enterprise customers in the field service industry will be taking a very serious look

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To most consumers, Augmented Reality feels trapped in that nether world between proof of concept and demonstration of usefulness.

The word hype is daily heaved into headlines (guilty), and there's boring sport to be had in tracking the trackers of market disillusionment over mixed reality.

But enterprise customers are taking notice of AR/VR, and field service technicians, as I wrote recently, have become unlikely ambassadors for a technology that most agree will eventually permeate our daily lives.

To find out why the field service industry is so gung-ho about AR/VR, I reached out to Mark Brewer, Global Industry Director for Service Management at IFS, a global enterprise software provider. Our conversation has been edited lightly for ease of reading.

GN: Why is field service such an attractive sector for AR/VR?

MB: Field service is all about improving asset reliability and predicting failure before it even happens, while improving the customer experience and decreasing the costs of service. In an ideal world, live video and AR can be used to provide remote support to the customer, eliminating the need to dispatch a technician at all.

However, if a truck roll is required, augmented and virtual realities permit a service provider in the field to engage someone off-site into a firsthand projection of the project or scenario being handled in front of them.

This ability to tag additional knowledgeable team members, especially considering the increasing complexity of service products, enables a service provider to offer additional, valuable resources for a given project from a centralized source, at a lower cost and in a more efficient manner. In effect, AR and mixed reality can democratize knowledge, something that is especially important as the seasoned workforce ages and their knowledge can be relayed to the more tech-savvy younger workers.

GN: Do we have any sense how the technologies will affect time to resolution, which I understand is one of the most important metrics in field service?

MB: Two important variables that maximize output in field service are resource conservation and cost reductions, and AR/VR can improve time to resolution in a variety of ways. First, AR/VR technologies not only reduce training times for field technicians but also enables them to virtually assess the situation before or in lieu of being dispatched to visit the job site.

Should someone visit the site, the technology (AR especially) increases communication with the contact center and enables off-site team members to virtually assist as opposed to scheduling follow up visits if additional equipped workers are requested.

Lastly, AR/VR make extra tools and information available instantly through helpful projections, reducing the need to retrieve any forgotten materials or revisit manual instructions posted elsewhere.

According to a study by The Service Council on the feasibility of AR for the service enterprise, 41% of incomplete service visits would benefit from the use of live video or AR sessions. In a nutshell, the increased connectivity and more readily available tools improves time to resolution and expedites issues diagnosis without as many on-site resources.

GN: How widespread are AR/VR in field services right now? What are the companies who are moving forward with the tech?

MB: The same study by The Service Council found 72% of respondents were already using or evaluating AR, so the technology's deployments have proven to be widespread. One of AR/VR's most popular use cases in field service at this time is virtual guidance, which could range from holographic overviews to aid projects to broadcasting a frame so an off-site worker can join a project remotely.

DAQRI AR glasses have been used to help companies interact with 3D equipment models to perform service functions and assess equipment analytics. Likewise, Microsoft HoloLens has been used by Siemen's electrified freight transport eHighway system project to provide workers a virtual checklist, repair diagrams and remote access to off-site workers.

Another major use case of AR/VR in field service right now is employee training. AR specifically can record someone's workflow, provide a visual step-by-step run through of a process and remain accessible for future purposes.

The City of Los Angeles has used DAQRI AR to expedite the training of fire department team members on how to fix their broken headsets they use for communication purposes. Additionally, NASA has utilized AR technology to more easily instruct astronauts how to perform maintenance operations in space.

GN: Break down "field service" a little bit. In what industries specifically can we expect to see AR/VR take off in the short- to mid-term?

MB: I think there are a few industries we're seeing AR/VR technology play a larger role already. The first is manufacturing (industrial and high-tech), especially when it comes to assembly.

Virtual projections provide workers a visual layout of the various parts to be put together and by which tools to use for the building processes, on top of providing these same workers a free set of hands when they work with AR glasses.

AR virtual projections have also proven useful in the medical industry where projections onto connected mannequins can simulate medical scenarios and surgical procedures.

AR holistically is invaluable for facilities management and maintenance operations, but we're starting to see the automotive industry take AR in stride for these functionalities. Mitsubishi Electric launched an AR maintenance technology where technicians can determine the order of inspection steps for reviewing, and can then record the actual results by speaking.

Likewise, AR is being used in HVAC to virtually map out HVAC systems in order to more easily determine the next courses of action for a management or maintenance project, expediting operations with the non-manual preparational component.

Lastly, AR/VR solutions have assisted with training processes and the transferring of knowledge. Construction jobs are known to be some of the most dangerous professions according to labor statistics, so it's pivotal for workers in this industry to have as much training as possible before entering the worksite. In addition to virtually introducing workers to job sites and providing realistic simulations of what it's like to use necessary equipment, VR technology can mimic dangerous and unexpected situations that may arise on site, further prepping construction workers before being physically introduced.

GN: Give me a sense of some tech in this realm that's making you excited.

MB: Most solutions involve a combination of hardware and software. On the hardware front, it is essentially a choice between using wearable technologies like headsets or using tablets/smartphones. Some exciting innovations in hardware include DAQRI AR Headsets, Microsoft HoloLens, Oculus Rift and the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.

AR software comes in various forms, ranging from consumer-oriented and conferencing solutions used for live video, such as Webex and GoToMeeting, to more purpose-built platforms. We're especially interested in XMReality, SightCall, XOi Technologies and PTC Vuforia.

On top of these, we're excited by the idea of combining AR technology with the Internet of Things (IoT), which can consequently enable the Digital Twin. Whereby, a digital representation of a physical product can be generated, affording the ability to monitor how a unit is being operated and is performing all without ever actually visiting a site.

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