Can augmented reality help with our tech shortage?


Facebook thinks we’ll be able to put on a headset and see a great combination of computer-generated images in our real-world surroundings. Meanwhile, General Electric sees a technician wiring a control box guided by line-of-sight instructions overlaid on the task by augmented reality (AR). Both are already working in the realm of AR and see its future potential. A fascinating question for today’s marine industry is: can AR close the tech shortage?

Now before you get too optimistic, it’s notable that AR isn’t our answer yet and its timetable is unclear. Still, with the rapid pace of digital technology development now, one can’t deny its possibilities are real and it is, therefore, interesting to understand AR’s promise.

First, one common confusion is the difference between AR and virtue reality (VR). Both get lots of hype. Both promise big growth. Both seek to immerse the user, though in significantly different ways. So what is the difference?

VR is an artificial, solely computer-generated simulation or recreation of a real-life environment or situation. It immerses the user by making them feel like they’re experiencing the simulated reality firsthand by stimulating their vision and hearing. But VR isolates the user from the real world into a completely fabricated situation.

AR, on the other hand, keeps users continually in touch with the real world while interacting with virtual objects around them. It layers computer-generated enhancements atop an existing reality in order to make it more meaningful through an ability to actually interact with it.

More specifically, AR is developed into apps and used on mobile devices to blend digital components into the real world in such a way that they enhance one another. AR technology is moving forward fast. You’ve seen it in action as score overlays on televised NFL games, pop-out 3-D emails and photos or text messages on mobile devices. Tech leaders are also using AR to do things with holograms and motion-activated commands.

So, as it stands, AR is outpacing VR with several products already on the market. Note the rise of AR hardware devices from Google in the form of Glass or Microsoft’s recent $150 million purchase for wearable computing assets.

When it comes to a work or production situation, AR is already improving employee performance. That’s according to Magid Abraham, chairman of Upskill (delivers software for AR smart glasses) and GE chief economist Marco Annunziata. They claim Upskill’s technologies create a partnership between humans and smart machines and can augment workers’ abilities. The result, they say, is “dramatically improved performance, greater safety and higher worker satisfaction.”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they assert that “wearable AR devices are now being used in manufacturing and industrial settings and can boost workers’ productivity on an array of tasks the first time they’re used, even without prior training.” They cite an example of a side-by-side comparison of a GE technician wiring a wind turbine’s control box using the company’s current process and then doing the same task while guided by line-of-sight instructions overlaid on the job by an AR headset. The device improved the worker’s performance by 34 percent on first use.

Similarly, a study conducted by Boeing showed that AR improved productivity in wiring harness assembly by 25 percent. And, at GE Healthcare, a warehouse worker receiving a new picklist order through AR completed the task 46 percent faster than when using the standard process, which relies on a paper list and item searches on a workstation. Additional cases from GE and several other firms show an average productivity improvement of 32 percent.

Imagine an increase in productivity in a marine dealership’s service department, rigging process or an online parts service. Such an increase would certainly help offset the shortage of techs. And while getting AR for dealers is in the future, the tech shortage will be as well.

Abraham and Annunziata contend wearable AR devices will deliver the right information at the right moment directly in workers’ line of sight while leaving workers’ hands free to work without interruption. Techs won’t need to stop and flip through a paper manual or engage with a device or workstation. AR could also reduce errors because the display provides explicit guidance overlaid on the work being done. Workers need only follow the detailed instructions directly in front of them. And, should they encounter a problem, they could even launch training videos or connect by video directly with remote experts and share what they see through their smart glasses to get real-time assistance.

In some ways, it all seems like something out of Star Wars. But this technology isn’t sci-fi. It’s real. It’s expanding and improving fast and it’s fun to think about what it might do for a marine dealer in the future. Certainly, as the industry attacks the tech shortage today with many good programs, this kind of advanced technology will more than likely be a major player in a solution down the road.


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