All this talk about the metaverse as an embodied internet had me thinking about the possible ramifications to the engineering and manufacturing fields. So, I decided to get busy and explore how immersive technology can reshape an engineer’s life as we know it.
Let’s start from the top. What are immersive technologies?
The best way to define immersive technology is as an amalgamation environment where digital content and the physical world meet. The realistic built-in setting allows users to explore and interact with assets in a new dimension. Two pop culture references to immersive technology are the movies Ready Player One and Free Guy. Both occur in the gaming world, with protagonists depending on virtual reality (VR) to traverse their journeys.
There are different immersive technologies. Know them!
Most of us are familiar with VR and AR (augmented reality). However, these are not the only types of immersive technologies in existence. Mixed reality (MR), haptics, and extender reality (XR) are also part of these fascinating brands of technologies.
VR is a computer-generated experience where users access an alternate digital scenery for entertainment, educational, and learning purposes. Entering a VR simulation environment requires the deployment of goggles or head-mounted displays (HMD) that allow visualization and movement response tracking.
A market niche where VR has been increasing in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic struck was the guided city tours. With the goggles on, tourists can walk through the streets of Florence or Rome, appreciate their architecture, and even visit museums without leaving home. The early success gathered the launching of innovative developments to bring a similar experience to the workplace. This means we are one HMD set away from being together at the same place and at the same time while physically apart.
VR is the most well-known kind of immersive tech, partly credited to the success of Oculus Rift. On the other hand, late-night shows like Jimmy Fallon’s entertain audiences and guests with VR Pictionary games. At that, extended applications in the gaming and theme park industries should come within five years.
Have you ever played PokemonGo or used a Snapchat filter? If you have, you have more experience with AR than you may think.
As you can tell by now, AR is the immersive technology to enable virtual content superposition into the physical world. Unlike VR, AR is not one hundred percent immersive, which means people can tell apart reality from digital figures.
IKEA Place is another popular AR-based application. Their app virtually places true-to-scale 3D models in a chosen space, so customers can see firsthand how pieces fit in. Similarly, Sherwin Williams enabled AR for wall color sampling. Both are terrific examples of how AR can enhance the design and decorative purposes, adding confidence to the whole online shopping experience.
MR is a subset of AR made more ambitious. In concept, it attempts to bring VR and AR under a single environment, building a 3D model of the real, physical world superimposed with virtual content. Holography and telepresence are key components of this still under development technology. Dynamics 365 and Microsoft HoloLens offer a taste of what to expect from MR.
Do you have a PlayStation? Then you will easily know what haptics is all about. Haptics stands out as a different kind of immersive tech. One that relies on the tactile sense to help users navigate a new virtual environment. You can think of it as an interface between humans and computer systems.
Sony’s DualSense wireless controller, Apple’s Taptic Engine, Apollo’s wearable wellness device, and Razer’s Nari Ultimate headphones are some of the most used devices developed through haptic technology.
Besides gaming, haptics has great use in the medical field, helping medical specialists recreate interactions with the body to better clinical research and practice surgical and nonsurgical procedures.
XR is an umbrella term used to create “reality-plus” environments where VR, AR, and MR collide. The ultimate pursuit is to immerse users in a virtual environment that adds to, or augments, surroundings with digital content.
City streets navigation through Google Maps and Zoom calls set with a virtual background are two common examples of XR utilization in routine tasks.
Are immersive technologies bringing changes to engineering and manufacturing?
It wasn’t long for engineering and manufacturing specialists to catch up with the dynamism and multi-dimensional outlook immersive technologies provide to their processes.
From a designer’s perspective, immersive technologies offer a stand-out opportunity to visualize and manipulate designs in 3D. From where designers can:
- Get a first look at how their product fits its purpose.
- Run deeper analyses that enhance critical thinking.
- Pursue design improvements that boost functionality, performance, and safety.
- Merge a design with physical components to better construction and installation procedures, saving time and sparing expenses where it matters most.
In the manufacturing industry, immersive technologies currently revolutionize:
- Training programs. Learning about operations, maintenance, and safety practices becomes fun and interactive. Engineers enjoy the mixture of didactic means with an engaging interface that feels more as if navigating through an iPad. So, everything’s more practical and less bookish.
- Remote technical assistance. Experts help troubleshoot production, construction, or safety issues in real-time.
I found great examples that illustrate how these applications serve engineering and manufacturing.
Industrial Applications of Immersive Technologies
Mercedes Benz transformed technicians’ support by enlisting immersive technologies to build a reliable communication system for technicians to assist dealerships 24/7.
Chevron trusts immersive technologies to lead incident-free refinery operations through remote expert assistance, aligning support from anywhere in the world under a minute, and real-time remote inspections of construction and facilities sites.
PBC Linear made progress in training new professionals using VR. VR enabled them to modernize a human-dependent process at risk of reaching a critical point caused by the retirement of their most experienced personnel, which translated into a shortage of knowledge in the maintenance team. PGT uses Microsoft HoloLens for a similar purpose with maintenance training.
Companies can also take advantage of immersive technologies to do 3D plant walkthroughs. This feature enables an in-depth accessory overview to protect their process’ integrity.
Overall, immersive technologies introduce new possibilities to engineers that ultimately elevate their craftsmanship.
Despite not being a massively used tech, projections suggest a staggering market rise in the upcoming years, surpassing $300 billion by 2025. Though this increase mostly traces back to the gaming industry, I foresee that the recent investments of Big Tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Meta will awaken interest in new sectors.
Engineers serving the design and manufacturing industries can only benefit from these habilitating technologies, as visualization resources lead to the creation of more refined and reliable products for the consumer.
For once, I’m genuinely excited to see what the future holds in this regard.