For a long time, only technology enthusiasts were thrilled about Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. But today industry experts are convinced: the hype is now being followed by applications.
For just 25 cents, visitors were able to experience a historical milestone in the USA in 1962: the “reality machine” took them to another world. Those who sat down on the moving chair and put their head into the apparatus experienced a motorcycle ride through Brooklyn from the driver’s perspective. Real wind blew through their hair, the chair vibrated and tilted in the direction of travel. The Sensorama, as cinematographer Morton Heilig called his invention, is considered the first Virtual Reality appliance, a multi-sensory theater that enabled the audience to fully immerse themselves in the films.
But the futuristic apparatus never got beyond the prototype stage. “The Sensorama may have been too revolutionary for its time,” Heilig later stated in an interview, and he was most likely right. Because, for an innovation to be successful, the market timing has to be right as well.
And if you concur with the opinion of the IT market research company Gartner, the time has now come for Virtual Reality (VR). The company estimates in a study that, after periods of hyped expectations and subsequent disillusionment, Virtual Reality can be used productively within the next five years.
“The world is becoming more and more complex. VR and Augmented Reality (AR) can make certain subjects more comprehensible through innovative visualization, rendering them more tangible,” says Torsten Fell, board member of the First German Professional Association for Virtual Reality. The possibilities are wide-ranging: “I can physically grasp data and adapt them, thus making it possible to experience big data or to move digital twins of machinery.” Even though it will still take some time until the technology is widely used: “Companies that are gaining experience with the technology now will be a step ahead in the future, as they will already be familiar with it.”
Researchers and developers have been experimenting with the countless technical possibilities for a long time: firefighters simulate highly dangerous situations in training and doctors are using VR in studies to treat anxiety and pain. In a VR simulation of the St. Gotthard base tunnel, workers were trained to ensure smooth operations underground without costly downtime. And at RWTH Aachen, forest workers are safely and realistically practicing off-road driving with a wood harvester by means of a 3D simulator on a KUKA robot.
“We have started working with technologies in this field and are developing solutions for our customers, in addition to finding solutions for optimizing our own processes,” says Kerstin Höfle, IP and Strategy Manager at Swisslog. This enables customers to explore their future warehouse with VR glasses, observe how employees interact with machines, or test how access routes and cables can be optimally positioned.
Augmented Reality (AR), in other words expanding the real world with virtual objects, is also very promising. The first AR pilot projects with digital support for service technicians and remote maintenance are underway. The use of a headset like the Microsoft HoloLens allows users to see 3D projections in their real environment, such as additional product information or simulations. A large furniture store is using AR to help their customers see what the virtual sofa could look like in their living room.
“We enhance the real world with information, so to speak,” says Thomas Kirner, team leader for virtual commissioning at KUKA. Working with Virtual Reality has been part of his everyday life for many years. His team creates digital images of systems, and these virtual machines are then programmed. If everything works as intended, the software is used on real systems. This saves time and money and allows customers to walk through complex production cells that would be visually inaccessible in reality, and it enables them to get a detailed view of their system in operation. 3D glasses are not always needed. Frequently, a monitor suffices.
At first glance, people wearing the bulky, black headset look somewhat isolated, but in reality VR can facilitate cooperation, such as during joint project work in a virtual space while the teams are actually in different locations. It may even help employees work more creatively in the future. Because in the virtual world meetings can also take place in front of a breathtaking mountain panorama or on the beach instead of in a dreary conference room.