VR/AR – are they important in business? Interview with AIDAR’s co-founders.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are just a few buzzwords that some years ago most of us would associate with science fiction movies. Today it is more of a “practical technology” genre and companies like AIDAR play an important role in it. How does it look from your perspective? Where are we today with VR / AR solutions?
PM: VR and AR technologies have functioned mainly in the gaming world. But recently they have shown that they can fit into businesses. One of the main factors accelerating this process was the pandemic, which dramatically changed the ways in which many industries operate. Most notably, it has changed the way we work and how companies interact with their clients. Let’s take a look at a simple thing – during the pandemic, the manufacturing, and office workers could not be present at work due to quarantine or had to follow lockdown regulations that deprived them of any movement thus making the exchange of goods and resources from country to a country difficult. Businesses were faced with a pressing need to find a solution that would allow companies to run errands and solve problems without having employees to be physically present. The pandemic became a powerful catalyst for the development and deployment of many new technologies.
MC: Let’s not forget that VR technology was already present in the 1990s. However, the devices required a cable connection to a network. They were large, and not very practical, as a result, however exciting the concept was, it was a disappointment. It was only in the last 5 or 6 years, that the technology has advanced to the point where it can be widely used and simply enjoyed. And this became the basis for solutions applied also into business.
Technology giants are investing billions of dollars in software and hardware related to the VR/AR world. In software, the technology cycle is much shorter, and significant innovations are presented every year, but in hardware, we had to wait longer for this development. The last two years showed a huge acceleration. And as Przemek pointed out, the pandemic has forced technologies into common use and made companies introduce technologies that they hadn’t thought of before.
PM: That is true. We are witnessing gigantic progress in the hardware that supports these technologies, and issues such as short battery life, which is one of the key elements affecting the efficiency of this equipment, are now being successfully addressed. If we look at Microsoft’s Hololens 2 glasses, this is hardware at the level of a top smartphone, which often exceeds the capabilities of an average desktop computer. So now we are dealing with a device that has amazing capabilities for processing high-quality video and sound and is equipped with a long performance battery life.
The accuracy of these devices and their ability to reproduce reality in 3D has also changed enormously, which is very important for the solutions that AIDAR provides. The controllers that we use to operate goggles have changed from joystick-like devices to gloves, and recently even gloves have become redundant because the glasses are able to recognize natural hand gestures. This is a significant innovation as recognizing such gestures, highly advanced algorithms related to the so-called Machine Learning are needed. Additionally, the equipment is getting smaller and lighter, so the ergonomics of its use are on a higher level. To sum up, we can say that the users’ experience with such glasses is incomparable to the one they had 10 or even 5 years ago.
In the 90’s, Stanislaw Lem wrote about the prematureness of the internet in the context of its proper use. Do new technologies need to “mature”?
PM: Of course, new technologies need to mature, both in terms of hardware and software. In the case of the factories that we specialize in, the hardware must be ready for the various challenges associated with the environment in which it is used. There must be adequate network coverage, internet stability, and, consequently, adequate infrastructure, which must be safe and stable in these factories so that the equipment can work smoothly. In addition, our VR/AR solutions should operate in a closed environment to prevent any possible external attacks. In times when company’s know-how is its most valuable asset, proper protection of client’s data is essential for us.
Besides, usually, the case with new technology is that the first stage of its introduction is extremely difficult because clients need to be made aware that such solutions even exist and that they can be useful in their everyday business. They can cut costs, and simplify and automate processes. At first, customers don’t see that using mixed reality can be crucial to ensure the continuity of the company’s operations and make their business resistant to various factors and random events in the future. They need to know that.
MC: In the case of innovation and convincing a client to try something new it was a very demanding journey at the beginning especially demonstrating a vision, but thanks to that we gained experience and were able to take a closer look at customer concerns and learn how to address them. We were able to find companies at an early stage and convinced them to try these solutions – a leading premium car manufacturer and a global leader in beverage and food packaging.
I want to emphasize that we haven’t simply sold the technology to these companies, we showed them how to use VR/AR technology to solve their business problems and reduce business risk.
In Aidar.Service, our remote support and service solution ensures that augmented reality service manuals can be created independently and remotely and that our client can use remote support from day one of the implementations. And in Aidar. Skills, our product for training employees in VR, makes sure that customers can create and update training scenarios themselves, even those who are most technologically advanced, without our external participation.
PM: Yes, what Marek says is really important, because we have a very coherent vision of what we can offer to our clients. We understand their business and we know what they can achieve by implementing VR or AR technology. The coherence of this vision lies in the fact that we can provide a solution that does not depend on a particular hardware manufacturer. We can also advise which technology should be used for what purpose in the company. When we discuss with a client the implementation of a VR training system and the creation of the so-called digital twin, we first determine in which technology we want to do it as the needs and ways of using these solutions by the client’s employees are different. After that, we choose which of these two technologies will be best suited for this specific client.
Let’s talk about what can be achieved by using VR/AR technologies.
PM: Last November, Microsoft released a very interesting report on the use of these technologies in business. According to the report, manufacturing companies that implemented mixed reality solutions on HoloLens 2 glasses, reduced employee training time by as much as 75 percent! The report also states that by using remote support and service solutions, they saved an average of $3,500 thus avoiding the physical expert visit, which is the cost of purchasing one HoloLens 2 glasses that will let many people work for many years. As you can see, there is an incredibly fast payback.
The report also provides an estimate of the average annual machine downtime avoided with AR. Microsoft indicates that for its clients it was between 240 and 320 hours per year. L’Oréal, reports that AR has halved the time it used to take to diagnose and repair machines in their factories.
For one of our customers in the manufacturing industry, the number of errors that occur during assembly, after implementing VR solutions has fallen by more than a third, which clearly translates into a big decrease in costs.
I’m very impressed by this data, because it shows that this technology is not something “nice to have”, but a very useful tool to speed up processes and cut costs.
Speaking of cost – is VR/AR technology expensive?
PM: Expensive in comparison to what? For example, we can consider the cost of solving the factory’s downtime, and please remember that a production line shutdown can cost even hundreds of thousands of zlotys per hour. So if we can train people who will then be able to react earlier to the breakdown of machines, and if we can connect our Aidar.Service platform with maintenance and prediction systems on the customer’s side, knowing when something specific may break down in this factory, we can secure the risk of such downtime and the risk of paying much more for errors and problems that do not have to occur in this factory at all.
Can you say something more about your implementations – what kind of business problems does VR/AR technology solve?
PM: In the case of the leader of the automotive market, the problem we had to solve was as follows – a new factory was being built in Poland and there was a need to train many new workers. The goal was to introduce them to their daily production routine in the most efficient and smooth way.
We transferred the engines, which were to be assembled in the factory, into the virtual world, created virtual stations for all production processes, and started to train people before the real factory. Real machines and components for future engines, were even up and running.
This way we solved the burning issue of training efficiency because, in order to train 1,000 or 2,000 people from scratch to the ability to fully build and assemble a car engine, we didn’t have to use machinery that was just being built or use real components. Besides, remember that in the real world, the number of training stations is usually limited, which is a bottleneck in the training process that needs to be done to start regular production. To successfully train a few thousand people you need a lot of time and a lot of semi-finished products to practice on. In VR, once we create the training environment, our only limitation is the number of VR glasses.
We have as many replicas of that one physical test station, as many glasses we purchase, and employees can train parallelly at their own pace from anywhere in the world. As we can see, technology perfectly solves the problem of putting the factory to full production readiness very quickly, much faster than by using standard training methods.
MC: I would like to emphasize that apart from speeding up the training, there are also lower operational risks and lower costs. Employees who undergo training do not destroy components or parts, do not have accidents, and also experience less stress, related to the risk of making a mistake. This also eliminates the need to wait for one’s turn to learn at a given station or machine, because in virtual reality many people can learn parallelly and can repeat one lesson as many times as needed. There is also no competition factor between employees and no fear of being ridiculed for doing things slower – so everyone learns in the comfort of their glasses and the absorption of knowledge is much higher. In addition, in VR we have full concentration on the activity, we do not have our phones, colleagues, and other distractors. Virtual reality definitely changes the approach to education and activating long-term memory. It makes knowledge stay in the trainees’ minds much longer.
Is the solution you’ve created for this particular factory applicable to other factories of this manufacturer? How versatile and scalable are your solutions?
PM: Yes, this solution can definitely be used in more factories of this manufacturer. This is because our product is a complex platform using VR and AR technologies. The most laborious and demanding thing is the initial phase of the implementation – transferring the real environment to virtual reality, creating models of workstations, or the entire production line. Once we build this environment, we have a tool that allows, in a very simple way with absolutely no programming, to build training scenarios just like Lego blocks. What is very important is that the employees of the production line do it themselves without our external participation. We only teach them the basics using the knowledge we build at the beginning. Another of our large clients, a packaging manufacturer, used exactly the same platform, which shows that you can successfully replicate this solution in a factory that produces completely different items.
What are the predictions for the development of VR/AR technology? What should we expect in the future if we invest in such solutions today?
MC: At the moment, in order to browse virtual content, you need appropriate tools such as a computer with average parameters or VR goggles. The latest models of goggles are already starting to resemble small and lightweight sunglasses, and their cost is also decreasing. However, I would like to draw your attention to another aspect of this technology – we can see that the content we created 5 years ago can be easily used on the most modern glasses, which confirms that standards have already been established and it allows us to continue the development of this technology in a very smooth manner, without losing what has already been done.
PM: The quality of AR/VR equipment is getting better and better. The movement displayed is more fluid, and constantly introduced improvements, enabling effective operation of the glasses in a wide variety of pollution or atmospheric conditions. Also, a problem with the labyrinth, which some people experience when they first use VR glasses, is already addressed. If we move, the image we see in the glasses moves with us at the right pace – so the problem of “motion sickness” has been eliminated.
MC: This is a very important aspect because a lot of people still say that VR technology makes them feel dizzy. They are unwell only because the representation of reality is badly done and not because the technology leads to it. The basic principle is that motion cannot be simulated if the user is at rest. If the content is prepared in the right way, it predicts movement only if the user will also move. There is no impact in the labyrinth. Audi is introducing VR goggles as part of their cars, which shows that it can be done well without causing any discomfort for the user.
How do you know if a company has already matured enough to use VR/AR technology?
PM: We need to answer the question of what are the challenges that the company faces and what are its business goals. It is only then we can assess, together with the client, whether AIDAR tools are able to meet these goals and challenges.
We always show our clients a broader vision of how to use these technologies, and we do this over the context of several years. All potential applications must be discussed based on the customer’s needs, both the here-and-now and the strategic ones.
It’s not difficult to implement VR/AR solutions into a company, the question is, what purpose does it serve? Does it help with the growth, does it shorten processes, and does it cut costs or increase ROI? If a company would like to train its employees in a safer, faster, more effective way, a nicer atmosphere, and at the same time create a knowledge base available from anywhere in the world and support employees remotely when an expert cannot be on-site, our solutions fit perfectly into these needs.
And where in the world this AR/VR support for manufacturing companies is growing in the fastest pace?
PM: The region that develops faster than any other is, of course, Asia. Year after year the market of AR/VR solutions for business is growing thereby more than 1/3 – which is a huge increase. In contrast, the world average, but of course calculated for developed countries, is about 20% of annual growth. The question arises – what about the Polish market? In Poland we have a really large number of factories, of course, some of them are subsidiaries of global concerns, but Polish factories have absolutely nothing to wait for and delay the introduction of new technologies. In my opinion, such implementations are not a discussion of “if” but “how soon”.
MC: Let’s remember that we are not looking for the so-called “hammer workers” for training or remote support because this type of work will be done for us by robots, but we are looking for people who can effectively carry out advanced, complex, and often difficult processes, and to do that they need to learn quickly.
PM: That is correct. Poland is no longer a country of simple manufacturing. We produce, for example, cars that are the world’s top of the top, we already live in times of extremely advanced tools and processes. However, we still do not have such a scale of implementation of the latest technologies as in Asia.
But this is changing because Polish clients are more and more open and aware.
PM: Yes, this is true. The development cannot be stopped. Of course, you can resist it, but the question is why would you if in the end it is supposed to simplify our lives and make our business more profitable.