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Two engineers looking a large component and adding digital overlays

The reality of Industrial AR

June 7, 2023

Augmented Reality (AR) first became prevalent in the gaming industry, bringing real-world scenarios to life for players in their armchairs. It’s now been widely adopted in various industries to add real-time data and additional visual elements to scenarios, and can bring many benefits to industrial automation in particular. Companies are racing to deliver new technology to bring Industrial Augmented Reality (IAR) to life in manufacturing and production plants worldwide.

In the month that Meta released details of its latest mixed reality headset, Quest 3, and Apple announced the Reality Pro alternative, we take a look at IAR in more detail and how our imaging products can support it.

What’s industrial AR all about?

Augmented Reality (AR) refers to a technology that overlays digital information, such as images, videos or 3D objects onto the real-world environment. It integrates virtual elements into the physical world, enhancing the perception of reality and providing users with an interactive and immersive experience. AR typically relies on devices like smart glasses, specialized headsets, tablets or even smartphones to deliver the augmented content. These devices use cameras, sensors, software and (often) AI to detect and track the user’s surroundings, enabling the virtual elements to be precisely positioned and anchored to the real world.

An engineer wearing a headset interacting with digital displays

Industrial AR brings these technologies into manufacturing, construction, logistics and even pharmaceutical sectors.

Primarily, Industrial Augmented Reality allows faster and more accurate process development. IAR enables designers to visualize and interact with 3D models of a process or product in a real-world context. They can overlay virtual prototypes onto physical environments, enabling better understanding of size, scale, and fit. This visualization aids in evaluating design options, identifying potential issues early on, and making informed decisions during the design phase.

IAR is also being seen as an increasingly important element in quality control processes. It assists by overlaying digital information, such as inspection criteria, onto physical objects. It can highlight defects, provide measurements, and guide users through the inspection process. AR-based inspection reduces errors, enhances accuracy, and increases overall product quality.

As an example, DHL have invested in IAR in their warehouse in Bergen op Zoom, Netherlands, to assist warehouse operatives pick goods more quickly and accurately. A pilot project concluded that the technology led to a 25% efficiency increase during the picking process.

Shelves in a warehouse with floating digital labels

Taking this one step further, researchers at MIT have developed an AR headset which they claim gives wearers X-Ray vision. Using RF signals to pass through objects and obstacles, developers say that hidden things can be located with a simple RFID tag, and users can be directed around a warehouse to correctly locate the out-of-sight item, apparently with 96% accuracy.

The metaverse reaches industry

The Industrial Metaverse sounds like the latest buzz word from high-flying venture capitalists keen to find a new project to throw investment at. However, the virtual world is becoming a reality in R&D facilities and factories. The idea of the industrial metaverse is an extension of the digital twin concept on a grander scale. Every aspect of the factory floor is recreated in a digital model, creating a safe, cost-effective playground for testing and simulation. AR is used to overlay additional data and allows engineers to design, test and validate new products and processes at a fraction of the time and cost that traditional methods require.

One well-publicized example of this is BMW’s creation of a digital twin of its extremely high-tech Regensburg plant which was created to optimize the production of electric drivetrains before the factory was even built. Using an NVIDIA platform called Omniverse, the BMW team could simulate the entire process including how employees would move around the factory and reach for tools.

FireBird technology supports Industrial AR

Active Silicon’s FireBird Camera Link and CoaXPress frame enable the connection of high-speed industrial cameras to a vision system, allowing very fast image and video acquisition from cameras placed in the real-world environment. This high speed is crucial for AR applications as it allows for immediate processing and overlaying of virtual content onto the live video feed.

In industrial settings, multiple cameras may be used to capture different viewpoints or angles. Frame grabbers offer synchronization features and real-time triggering, allowing precise coordination of multiple cameras. This synchronization ensures that the video streams from different cameras are aligned correctly, enabling accurate registration of virtual objects with the real-world environment.

Our FireBird CoaXPress 4xCXP-12 boards support the very fastest transfer over coax cables, up to 12.5 Gbps over 4 links, so a total speed of 50 Gbps is achievable. The FireBird Camera Link 80-bit frame grabber uses robust and reliable Camera Link connectivity to deliver data over industrial-grade cables.

The frame grabbers can seamlessly integrate with third party APIs using tools provided as part of our ActiveSDK software, allowing developers to improve their video capture capabilities within the AR workflow.FireBird 4xCXP-12PE8 frame grabber

Embedded vision for IAR on the edge

Another solution for IAR is embedded vision systems, which can leverage powerful system-on-chip (SoC) platforms or specialized vision processing units (VPUs) to handle the computational requirements of AR applications. Our embedded systems are optimized for real-time image processing and computer vision tasks, enabling accurate tracking, object recognition, and spatial mapping. They can be customized for any industrial application and support powerful edge processing for IAR platforms, enabling rapid and accurate AR rendering without significant reliance on cloud processing or remote servers.

Reality captured with an autofocus-zoom camera

Block cameras are a great choice for industrial vision systems to capture elements of the real world ready for digital overlays. Our Harrier AF-Zoom cameras capture and transmit high-resolution images and high-speed video and offer a wide field of view, image stabilization and low-light capabilities. Their compact size means they can be integrated into headsets or handheld devices and output options including 3G-SDI, USB, HDMI and Ethernet IP support compatibility with existing vision systems.

Bringing IAR to a factory near you

IAR is increasing in scope and practicality and industrial engineers should consider adding AR solutions to their R&D and planning activities. Take a look at our suite of computer vision products to see which might be suitable for industrial vision systems, or get in touch with our design team to talk through the options available.

To finish on a more frivolous note, we just love this – watch professional footballers trying their best playing in VR headsets – you can clearly see the amusing results of latency in the system!