Over the last couple of years, the software service provider has made a number of strategic acquisitions to position itself at the forefront of both augmented reality and IoT. Last year, it acquired Vuforia and its augmented reality (AR) technology platform, and in 2014, PTC was acquiring ThingWorx and Axeda, both companies bringing key IoT connectivity and data management solutions.
Heppelmann started with a simple demonstration, showing a dull empty automotive dashboard, and suddenly bringing it to life with different sets of digital dials by simply looking at it through a tablet’s video screen.
“In the future, with AR goggles, you could bring your personalized dials and dashboard interface in any car you buy” he said, inviting the audience to take a fresh look at things.
“Even before AR glasses become commonplace, the explosive adoption of smartphones and tablets is already taking AR to the mainstream”, he noted, “and we need applications to bring value, to augment the analogue world with digital content”. Consumers are mostly exposed to AR through companies’ branding or advertising efforts, but augmented reality will revolutionize the world when we apply it to the enterprise, the CEO said.
Heppelmann showcased some interesting examples, such as that of sports motorcycles manufacturer KTM already using AR to speed up service and repairs in the workshop.
During a live demonstration, an untrained technician equipped with a tablet looked at a 690 Duke motorbike for which some faults had been reported by a customer. Using a dedicated maintenance dashboard, the technician was able to run a quick diagnostic indicating which parts had to be checked.
Then, pointing the camera at the real bike, the AR application highlighted the faulty parts in 3D, pointing out their location on the bike while providing guidance for their disassembly and repair. Such an application not only helps technicians make the repair, but it ensures a more consistent service across the enterprise.
Machinery maker Carterpillar is another company already making use of AR to help field technicians carry out maintenance and repair.
In fact, AR could make any machine servicing more proactive, you could even get real time feedback from objects or from the products being serviced.
Combined with predictive data analysis, you could notify the customer that maintenance is required and with such guidance, the end-user could perform the maintenance task himself rather than having to wait for a technician to be dispatched.
“Who loves to read user manuals? Who needs them?” asked Jay Wright, Vuforia’s Senior VP and General Manager, “In the future, no-one!” he concluded, presenting the future of personal contextual assistants, moving from today’s 2D help screens to 3D augmented reality.
Wright described the three steps in which Vuforia, boasting over 25,000 commercial applications, more than 200K registered developers and over 230 million app downloads, brings AR to life.
“You’ve got the Vuforia engine which is like a digital eye that identifies things in the camera’s field of view and tell the app what it sees and creates the digital overlap of AR images.”
“As a developer, in order to create AR content, you must first choose a target that triggers the AR app. Then you must author the AR content, either with PTC or third party CAD tools and then you must stitch these things together.”
But for a smartphone, tablet or smart glass to identify and launch the relevant AR content, it needs some cues. Today, this is often implemented via a QRcode that the user must scan in order to be directed to the right app.
“Who wants a QRcode in their design?” asked Wright, pointing the tag as aesthetically unpleasing. Instead, the general manager unveiled the VuMark, an AR tag format able to sport any shape with graphics in its centre, only wrapped by a subtle coded contour itself surrounded by a customisable border. “The VuMark lets users know where to look”, he explained, revealing that Vuforia’s engine was now Android, iOS and Windows 10 compatible.
In fact, the VuMark is already being used extensively by Lego to bring digital interactivity to its line of Nexo Knights toys, as Wright illustrated with promotional video clips from the toy manufacturer.
These technicalities served as an introduction to the big announcement coming next.
“AR has an enormous potential to overlay digital content over real objects, however, it comes with its own challenges” pointed out Mike Campbell, PTC’s Vice President.
“Imagine a world with 50 billion connected things, and imagine the millions of Apps necessary to interact with these objects”.
“We’re already beginning to see an explosion of purpose built Apps for connected products. Think of a refinery with tens of thousands of connected pumps and valves and then all the possible service, maintenance and control Apps that could be developed. Or imagine a factory with hundreds of different machines, each one of them with specific data valuable to different people”.
“In a world with so many smart connected thing, how are people going to know what things they can interact with and what App they need to access the data? How will they keep all these Apps up to date?”
“The answer is definitely not an App for everything” Campbell emphasized, before announcing Project ThingX, an expansion of PTC’s IoT platform that according to him, is set to revolutionize the way Apps are delivered.
To be delivered by this summer, ThingX (short for Thing Experiences) will consists of three major blocks, namely ThingBrowser, ThingServer and ThingBuilder.
Similar to a web browser but for AR, ThingBrowser will be a unique App for people to interact with objects, simply looking at their surroundings with a tablet or smart glasses to identify which objects they can interact with (based on the VuMarks entering the field of view of the camera) and only bringing up the data relevant to them (maintenance instructions or marketing info for example).
ThingServer will manage the different experiences that can be served for a given object, dynamically loaded the different content options available depending on the person’s access rights (being an accredited technician or from the general public).
Then ThingBuilder will consist of an easy to use AR content creation environment, with a library of drag and drop CAD elements that can be decorated with the information to put forward, or even data streaming from the things themselves.
Campbell ran through a short preview of ThingBuilder, taking as an example a smart server from Schneider Electrics for which he quickly created interactive AR data feeds. He then published the new content to ThingServer for it to go live.
Now, it is not clear yet how the company will encourage today’s smartphone and tablet manufacturers to implement ThingBrowser and how it plans to raise consumers’ awareness beyond the enterprise world to reach defacto AR browser status. At the time of writing, the company was not able to comment if it would release ThingBrowser open source for developers to disseminate.
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