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Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality technologies are evolving. They're not as sophisticated as Hollywood's portrayal, but they're still being used in the world of manufacturing.
Here's a look at how they're similar and how they're different.
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality (AR) layers a digital display onto the view of a user's physical surroundings. The screen in Tony Stark's Iron Man helmet is the perfect example. It shows important information -- such as how far away objects are, how high his altitude is or how fast an opponent is moving.
Augmented reality isn't just limited to the Avengers, though. Manufacturers are using AR to train workers and perform maintenance.
In the manufacturing setting, an augmented reality headset displays useful information, such as a machine's model and serial number, and its instruction manual and repair procedures. The AR headset can synchronize with a tablet or computer, enabling a supervisor to see what the worker sees and offer guided verbal instructions on how to use or repair a piece of equipment. The AR headset can even display animated instructions for performing a certain task or repairing a piece of machinery.
AR products like Google Glass were originally marketed for everyday use, but the general public found them jarring and awkward to see in "normal" situations, such as at a bar or sports event. While Google Glass doesn't have much to offer in social situations, it has potential as a manufacturing tool. In fact, Google Glass's second incarnation -- Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 -- is intended for manufacturing and logistics industries.
What is virtual reality?
Hollywood's version of virtual reality (VR) -- as seen in films like The Matrix and Ready Player One -- is a fully immersive, computer-generated world that perfectly mimics all the physical sensations of the real world. While we're a long way off from being able to experience taste, touch and smell in VR, it's still a useful -- if only partially immersive -- technology.
Virtual reality is a 3D computer-simulated environment that users can interact with either by clicking a mouse or using wearable devices, such as headsets and special gloves. While VR products like Oculus Rift are reinventing the world of gaming, they're also being used in manufacturing. Users can program computers to create models or simulate a factory's critical operations to gain insights into its efficiency. For example, workers can virtually recreate the manufacturing process and study it in the VR simulation to see if there is a more efficient way to run certain machines. This can provide valuable insight without wasting the resources needed to run the actual machine.
Manufacturers can use special VR headsets to analyze equipment, evaluate production processes and train workers. Manufacturers can also create a virtual model, or digital twin, of a specific product to monitor its lifecycle and gain insight into its inner workings. BAE Systems used this method to design Astute-class submarines. Aided by a VR system by Virtalis, BAE Systems created 3D virtual models of the submarine -- a less expensive alternative to creating physical models.
What is mixed reality?
Mixed reality (MR) takes augmented reality a step further and allows users to manipulate and interact with virtual objects and information. A mixed reality headset displays information that aligns or synchronizes with specific areas in their physical environment that users can then interact with. For example, an MR headset can project a virtual keyboard onto a desk that the wearer can then type with.
Like augmented reality, manufacturers can use mixed reality tools for training workers. For example, a technician wearing an MR headset can view a holographic image of a piece of equipment such as an engine and virtually take it apart to examine its inner workings. This saves the time, energy and tools that would be required to inspect the actual physical equipment.
The key difference is between mixed reality and augmented reality is the user's ability to interact with the digital display. For example, a technician wearing an AR headset can view the holographic image of the engine, but can't virtually take it apart.
Mixed reality is still in its infancy, but some manufacturers are finding use cases. For example, at aircraft manufacturer Airbus Defense and Space, technicians are using MR systems like HoloLens to test designs to see if they're ready to be manufactured or if they need more work.