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Augmented reality check

Business · 4 min read

Augmented reality check

Far from being the stuff of science fiction movies, Augmented Reality is part of our everyday lives. Some AR tools focus on fun, but others are boosting productivity in logistics and supply chain management.

“Check this out, grandpa!”  A six-year-old visiting his grandparents has a new party trick. He borrows his dad’s smartphone, switches to the Snapchat app, and sets up a selfie with Grandpa. Nothing new for Grandpa so far, who has been known to snap a few silly selfies to post himself.

“Now watch!” the boy says.

With a few taps on the screen, their smiling faces suddenly sprout dog ears and a snout – a Snapchat filter. The boy clicks the shutter, and the image of the two candid canines becomes Grandpa's new background image on his home screen.  Welcome to the reality of Augmented Reality.

Even if the dog filter is just a fun gag, it’s one of the most recognizable and utilized applications of AR. We might not even actively acknowledge it as such; when we switch on a light, we don’t marvel at the perfect functionality of an electric circuit and a tungsten filament. The same goes for the augmented reality superimposed on our digital screen. Far from thinking to ourselves that we are utilizing innovative technology to enter a contrived world of augmented reality, we open our mouths to activate the dog tongue lap – LOL!

When we cease to marvel at new technology and simply integrate it into our lives, it’s a sign we’ve embraced it. At face value, smartphones, televisions - even the printing press - are still remarkable innovations, though we have long taken them for granted.

AR is one of those technologies. Perhaps a novelty at first, the day is coming when we will not be able to envision our lives without augmenting our reality.

We’re already starting to see this. Apps that allow you to place virtual furniture in your actual house to see how it will fit, are replacing the aggravating practice of measuring space and driving to the store to see what has the right dimensions. We try on clothes without actually wearing them; a virtual outfit on your real body.

As useful as these applications of AR may be, they do not reach the level of technology we would use on a daily basis. Even the dog filter gets old after a while, making that particular use of AR fun, but not essential.

But there are cases where AR provides such a benefit that there will be no going back to the way we used to do things in boring, old reality. Engineers can gain much more detailed views of their work using augmented reality, and the uses of AR technology in the medical field is helping doctors perform more precise diagnosis and procedures.

Most of us know AR technology through smartphone applications, but the true technological leaps come in the hands-free variety through eyewear.

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This use of the technology means we can answer the question “what information would be useful to me right now based on whatever I’m looking at?” simply by adding the data to our existing field of vision on a pair of glasses.

Once we’ve posed that question, and we know it is conceivable to actually put this information onto a display that we wear, a whole new world of possibilities is available. Wouldn’t it be useful to have the ingredients to a recipe right in front of your eyes when cooking? What about a grocery list and directions to each item in the supermarket? It would save the endless hikes up and down searching for that last, elusive carton.

The latter example provided the inspiration for a pilot project launched by DHL in their supply chain warehouses. These warehouses are used by customers to store parts and other inventory items. A company that delivers car parts, for example, may have thousands of physical items on hand in a warehouse but may only need a few at any given time. Even the best-organized warehouses require a manual search and retrieval system to find these items, which involves comparing a ‘shopping list’ of items with their physical location in a warehouse.

"Digitalization is ... a reality for us and our customers"

Markuss Voss, COO, DHL Supply Chain

This process of finding and retrieving warehouse items is known as ‘picking,’ and DHL’s supply chain warehouses are full of picking staff who are the best at what they do. It’s hard to improve on a system already running efficiently, but warehouse workers at DHL recognized the potential of AR technology to make the picking process more efficient and so create a more automated warehouse.

AR-glasses can provide a picker with key pieces of information: what am I looking for (specific items are tagged with barcodes, which can be read by the glasses), where is it located (the most efficient path between stacks in the warehouse can be calculated and displayed), and where does it need to go (a picking trip may include items for multiple orders that need to be kept separate).

After international trials proved successful, the company has now made the 'Vision Picking' innovation in logistics the new standard.

"Digitalization is not just a vision or program for us,” said Markus Voss, CIO and COO at DHL Supply Chain. “It's a reality for us and our customers, and is adding value to our operations on the ground.”

The value is to the tune of a 15% increase in productivity and better accuracy. Simply by placing a pair of lightweight, comfortable glasses on the faces of picking staff and freeing up both hands, DHL has gained a permanent boost in production at low-cost and with little learning curve.

 “We are very satisfied and happy that the pilot phase went so well and that we can now say augmented reality technology is one of our standard offerings,” Voss added.

Success breeds success, and DHL is also looking into further applications of AR technology in its operations, including maintenance and calculating dimensions – essential, daily tasks in the supply chain process.

While Vision Picking may lack the fun factor of selfies with grandpa and his dog ears, business applications like these are what will make AR an undeniably important part of all our futures. 

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