Exclusive: Augmented reality comes into focus at PTC
Sysmex employee demonstrates AR on stage at PTC Liveworx. (Credit: PTC)

Exclusive: Augmented reality comes into focus at PTC

Augmented reality is already worth $20 million each year to computer software and services company PTC, enabling it to define the kinds of projects that are delivering real value today for industrial companies, writes Jessica Twentyman.

Augmented reality isn’t just the stuff of blockbuster sci-fi movies or gaming fads like Pokemon Go. It’s a technology already in use in smart factories around the world, and countless other industrial companies have pilots underway.

That was the message from PTC executives at the company’s Liveworx event in Boston last week, where a number of customers validated the claims with their own accounts of using AR.

During CEO Jim Heppelmann’s keynote, for example, he was joined onstage by employees from defence, security, and aerospace giant, BAe Systems, which has created a visual training aid using PTC’s Vuforia AR technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens head-mounted display (HMD), to guide workers in manufacturing plants through the process of building a green bus battery.

In addition, attendees saw a lab technician from Sysmex America, a manufacturer of clinical laboratory equipment, being shown via an AR headset how to perform daily set-up procedures for machines that analyse blood.

That second example uses technology from Waypoint, a start-up recently acquired by PTC, which was launched out of MIT’s Media Lab. Waypoint will be integrated into PTC’s thriving AR business, which is worth around $20 million in annual revenues and is growing at 100 percent each year, according to Heppelmann.

“We saw the significant benefit that augmented reality could have for enterprises years ago, and the market is beginning to catch up and embrace the potential as well,” he said.

PTC’s Vuforia Group

Mike Campbell, executive vice president of AR products, PTC

At the Liveworx event, Internet of Business sat down with Mike Campbell, who heads up the AR business group formed earlier this year.

The group takes its name from the Vuforia technology that PTC acquired from Qualcomm in 2015, he explained, but its product line goes way beyond the computer vision SDK that the deal brought to PTC. Now named Vuforia Engine, it accounts for around one-third of those $20 million of annual sales.

“We recognised some time back that the market was getting pretty mature and that customers were beginning to see the value of AR. So what we’ve done is take the Vuforia brand name and elevate it, making it the name we use for all things AR at PTC,” he explained.

The lion’s share of revenues in the Vuforia business group, according to Campbell, come from Vuforia Studio and Vuforia View. Previously known as Thingworx Studio and Thingworx View, these products enable users to reuse 3D content and incorporate work instructions and IoT data into AR experiences (Studio) and view them through a universal browser that can run on phones, tablets, and HMDs (View).

Another, newer element of the Vuforia line-up is Vuforia Chalk, a remote assistance tool that enables technicians in the field or on the plant floor to be guided through tasks using digital annotation on their mobile device or headset by an expert based elsewhere.

Five key use cases

So where does Campbell see the biggest opportunities for his new group? In an analysis conducted earlier this year, he said, he and his team assessed around 100 different use cases for Vuforia technology, and were able to identify five broad categories.

The first two are service related. One is remote expert guidance, as provided by Vuforia Chalk. The second is augmented procedural instructions, whereby employees are guided through work tasks in which they must stick to standard procedures, as seen in the laboratory set-up example at Sysmex America.

Next come two manufacturing use cases. First is another augmented procedure, helping employees working on plant floor cells to assemble components correctly and in the right order, as seen at BAE Systems with the green bus batteries. Then there’s the use of Waypoint for conducting machine set-ups and changeovers when a new production run is about to begin.

Finally, there’s sales and marketing. “This is about being able to present a relatively complex product, here and now, in the room and at scale – without it needing to be physically present,” Campbell explained. In other words, potential buyers of a piece of manufacturing equipment could wear an HMD and see a virtual version of the machine in front of them in their own office or factory, without having to travel to see it, or it being transported to them.

“Across the board, we’re seeing a lot of interest in AR from companies of all sizes,” said Campbell. “What many of them are trying to figure out are the most obvious use cases that will bring the biggest value, which is why we conducted this research.”

“It’s very easy to look at AR and its capabilities and say, ‘We could do this, and this, and this – or maybe that,’ but actually, you really need to pick something that will deliver high value fast and get the ball rolling.”

Internet of Business says

That’s good advice, and it’s clear that the industrial deployment of AR has enormous potential to help workers do their jobs better, faster, smarter, and with fewer errors.

Meanwhile, the sales and marketing example is both clever and practical. With large pieces of equipment presenting a logistical challenge even before purchase, the ability to see new plants in situ, virtually, could be groundbreaking and cost effective.