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AR and VR Proponents Say Commercial Applications Are Now a Reality

After being billed as technological novelties for the best part of half a century, attendees at the recent AR & VR World event were confident that augmented and virtual reality products now represented sound commercial investments.

Photo: Reality check: Will augmented, virtual, mixed or actual best boost your business? (Shutterstock.com)
Reality check: Will augmented, virtual, mixed or actual best boost your business?
Photo: Reality check: Will augmented, virtual, mixed or actual best best boost your business? (Shutterstock.com)
Reality check: Will augmented, virtual, mixed or actual best boost your business?

AR & VR World, part of the umbrella IT show, TechXLR8, welcomed delegates to London's Excel exhibition centre for, apparently, the only UK event dedicated solely to the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology. While there was a small number of exhibitors hawking the very latest in virtual virtuosity, the focus was very much on the high-level of speakers that had been lured to London for the course of the three-day show and the accompanying seminar programme.

Despite the multiple agendas of the attendees and the enlightened self-interest of many of the speakers, one question above all dominated proceedings – have AR and VR finally moved on from being mere technological novelties, with their practical commercial applications at last being recognised?

Answering most definitely in the affirmative was Tom Szirtes, Founder of Mbryonic, a London-based AR/VR content producer. Maintaining that the two simulation systems have reached something of a tipping point, he said: "VR and AR are now creating new communication opportunities across a number of markets, including education, healthcare, marketing and technology."

Citing particular benefits in staff training and enhancing operational procedures, Chris Freeman, a Technical Fellow of Sheffield University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), said: "We transform overall industrial and economic performance by making step changes in productivity, increasing competitiveness, developing new products and processes, and training new talent and skills, with both AR and VR now playing an expanding role within that."

At present, AMRC's associates include such giants of the engineering world as Boeing, Rolls-Royce, McLaren Automotive, BAE Systems and Airbus, as well as a number of less high-profile businesses. As part of its current focus, the Centre is exploring new approaches to data access arrangements (DAA) and evaluating the applied use of AR and wearable technology as part of its Factory 2050 research programme.

Arguing that every tech-minded business should now have in place a strategy focused on Mixed Reality – a fusion of the physical and the cyber environment – Chris Hardness, a Technical Solutions Professional with Microsoft, sought to introduce delegates to one of the computing behemoth's latest innovations in the digital business sphere – the HoloLens. Said to be the world's first self-contained, holographic computer, it gives users the facility to engage with digital content and interact with holograms in their immediate environment.

According to Hardness, the system has been designed to provide remote assistance, as well as having applications with regard to space planning and virtual conferencing. Explaining the thinking behind this particular innovation, he said: "We set out to create an application that would help frontline workers share what they see with an expert, while remaining hands-on, enabling problems to be rapidly solved on a collaborative basis."

The system is apparently already in use in a number of sectors, including manufacturing, healthcare and education. The HoloLens Commercial Suite retails at US$5,000, with the Development Edition available for $3,000.

Photo: Optis: Prototyping perfected.
Optis: Prototyping perfected.
Photo: Optis: Prototyping perfected.
Optis: Prototyping perfected.
Photo: ZeroLight: Virtual driving force.
ZeroLight: Virtual driving force.
Photo: ZeroLight: Virtual driving force.
ZeroLight: Virtual driving force.

A more mass-market approach to VR was on show on the stand of ZeroLight, a Newcastle-based automotive visualisation specialist. Looking to wow punters with its recent work for BMW, Joseph Artgole, the company's Associate Managing Director, was giving browsers the opportunity to experience the VR work the company produced on behalf of the German luxury-car manufacturer.

Outlining its rationale, he said: "We are making the BMW M Drive Experience available to delegates to show how this kind of VR digital experience can enhance brand engagement, in this case through a driving simulation. We originally created it to give prospective BMW customers the opportunity to drive any of BMW's signature M vehicles around Europe's most iconic race tracks – albeit virtually."

A quite different application of VR within the automotive sphere was on offer from Optis, the French virtual prototyping specialist that was recently acquired by ANSYS, a US-based engineering simulation developer. Outlining the role VR can play in simplifying the prototype design process, Sales Representative Sebastian Anne said: "Virtual prototyping has now made substantial inroads into the automotive industry. Our lifelike virtual mock-ups cut the cost of the design process, as well as allowing products to be brought to market more quickly."

Claiming both commercial and recreational applications for his company's new Theta V 360 camera was Adrian Uden, Marketing and Product Co-ordinator for Tokyo-headquartered Ricoh Imaging. Priced at about $500, it's thought to be within the reach of general consumers, enabling them to capture fun 360-degree images and social media-friendly video.

Highlighting its more business-like benefits, Uden said: "It's an excellent tool for estate agents, for instance. It's ideal to use when creating a virtual tour of a building and allows users to sync and share with third parties in real time as they proceed through various rooms."

Moving on to wearables and there was no doubt that the must-have digital accessory, among exhibitors at least, was enhanced eyewear. For its part, Epson, the Japanese electronics conglomerate, had a wide range of optical products on show at the event.

Among the most sought out was the company's Moverio Smart Glasses, which Marc-Antoine Godfroid, the company's soundbite-friendly New Market Development Director, summarised as offering "a whole new way of seeing the world". The range actually offers several new ways of seeing the world, with individual models optimised for particular applications.

The BT 300, for instance, has been developed with the fast-growing drone market in mind. Bringing AR to see-through glasses, it's on offer for an entry level $770. Moving up the cost scale, the BT-350, designed for commercial use in cultural and entertainment environments, weighs in at $1,000, while the high-end industrial BT-2000 series will set you back some $2,300.

It was a chance assignment that brought Xperteye, the development arm of London-based AMA (Advanced Mobile Applications), into the smart eyewear sector. After building its reputation in the gaming and smartphone apps segment, in 2014 AMA was commissioned to create a pair of smart glasses for use in the first live transmission of a surgical procedure between France and Japan.

Taking up the story, Étienne Guillemot, AMA's Chief Executive, said: "That was the springboard for Xperteye. On the back of it, we launched a medical division and began to pursue tele-medicine product development."

Rounding up the e-enabled eyewear on offer was New York's Vuzix, with its Blade AR glasses. Clearly not a fan of the soft sell, David Lock, Director of Operations of the EMEA Region, said: "There are no smart glasses in the world that can compete with the Blade. It's the biggest change in personal technology since the PC."

Lock's confidence may stem from the fact that Vuzix has, reportedly, overcome a number of the problems that sank Google Glass. In particular, the Blade glasses are said to connect directly to the user's mobile phone via the lenses, regardless of whether the phone is in a pocket or bag, enabling the wearer to stay in constant communication without having to resort to accessing their mobile device. While the developer's take on Blade is currently available for $999.99, the company hopes the mass-market model will sell for less than $500.

Photo: Cutting Edge: The Blade, the best in class smart glasses.
Cutting Edge: The Blade, the best in class smart glasses.
Photo: Cutting Edge: The Blade, the best in class smart glasses.
Cutting Edge: The Blade, the best in class smart glasses.

AR & VR World 2018 took place from 12-14 June at London's Excel.

David Wilkinson, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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