Future Cinema

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Augmented Reality and manufacturing


Factory Work Takes A Videogame Turn

By Benjamin Sutherland
Newsweek International

Jan. 30, 2006 issue – Computer graphics usually appear on screens.
Craig Wyvill, a researcher in optics engineering at Georgia Tech in
Atlanta, prefers to display his on dead, plucked chickens dangling
from a monorail. In noisy poultry plants, workers who trim defective
parts from chickens currently receive cutting instructions via complex
hand gestures from an inspector up the line. But now, Georgia Tech is
replacing gestures with graphics superimposed directly onto chickens.

The technology known as augmented reality, in which images and data
are projected onto goggles, windshields or other objects, is quickly
moving beyond videogames and laboratory demos. The killer app is
turning out to be boosting the productivity of factory workers by
displaying “pages” of instructions and technical diagrams in front of
them while they work.

More sensitive electronics are allowing the new systems to take on
more sophisticated tasks. Georgia Tech’s poultry system, for instance,
incorporates cameras that can identify bruises, tumors, broken wings
and other flaws on the chickens. Computer-controlled projectors track
the birds by way of sensors attached to their feet and shine handling
instructions for the workers onto the carcasses. Wyvill says that
research done in GTRI’s mock poultry plant will save U.S.
chicken-processing plants at least $20 million yearly when the
technology is rolled out in the next three years.

One of the challenges in designing the new ARsystems is how to display
copious data in a way that’s not confusing. Manufacturers are coming
up with almost as many tricks as there are devices. Last August,
Metaio, a leading AR start-up based in Garching, Germany, began
selling Virtual Retina Display headsets, which beam a low-intensity
laser directly onto the retina in one of the user’s eyes. The user
sees “pages” of partially transparent, full-color graphics floating in
thin air. Using a wireless track pad and click button attached to the
waist, the worker can open additional diagrams and text instructions
as he progresses from one task to another. Another Metaio headset uses
a head-mounted camera and software to get a fix on where the worker is
in relation to the equipment around him. Then it beams images (say, a
virtual wrench) onto the spot where the next bolt needs tightening.

Germany’s auto industry is a big beneficiary of the new technology in
part because in 1999 the government established ARVIKA, a research
consortium of more than 20 engineering firms. Now these companies are
racing ahead with products. BMW, for instance, has made the
Intelligent Welding Gun. It uses four wall-mounted optical-tracking
cameras to generate graphics that show welders exactly where to apply
the torch. In tests, the gun slashed welding time by 50 percent, while
improving quality. Volkswagen is beginning to test AR see-through
visors in its assembly plants that display graphics written onto them
by lasers.

The technology is also making its way into inventory management.
Mitsubishi researchers are testing an AR system that displays
information stored in microchips attached to warehouse boxes. When a
worker aims a flashlight-size projector at a box, information about
what’s inside appears on the cardboard.

Some AR experts believe that the technology will boost manufacturing
productivity in high-labor-cost countries, allowing them to better
compete. As costs fall, the AR market is expected to expand to include
do-it-yourself mechanics, and it may blossom as a communications
medium for consumers. But first, it stands to give old-line
manufacturing some serious augmentation.

Mon, January 23 2006 » Future Cinema, augmented reality, emerging technologies