Dec 292017

PTC Vice President Victor Gerdes (left) and STC New England President Paul Duarte described and demonstrated Augmented Reality

The December program meeting, the Chapter’s first of the year—and by all accounts one of the most interesting of recent years—introduced Augmented Reality (AR) and its potential for transforming the way information is presented and consumed.

The program, “How Augmented Reality is Transforming the Way Companies Create, Sell, Operate, and Service Products,” was hosted by PTC in Needham, Massachusetts on December 13th. It featured PTC vice president of product management Victor Gerdes and Chapter President Paul Duarte (who also works at PTC). The program attracted both Chapter members and members of the public intrigued to learn more about the subject.

AR converts data and analytic information into images or animations that are then overlaid, using display devices, onto a live view of the world. Display devices can be as common as smartphones or, increasingly, dedicated devices such as smart glasses or head-mounted displays. Snapchat filters and 2016’s breakout game Pokémon GO are simple examples, but head-up displays are rapidly moving from military aircraft to automobiles. By integrating computers and IoT devices, AR can overlay “smart,” connected products with real-time statistical, performance, and status data, so that a user can look at a device and see (or hear, or feel) its current state. The display can be interactive: with appropriate hardware, the user can manipulate the display or even control the device.

Gerdes and Duarte offered an array of possible use cases. A plant manager can look at a production line and see current operating temperatures and pressures. A service technician can look at a component and call up animated, step-by-step maintenance or repair procedures specific to and current for that model. A datacenter manager can walk through the server racks and see which blade was reporting a disk failure.

Operator wearing an AR headset and interacting with a large piece of equipment; we see the display he sees, projected into the space by the equipment; he is interacting using one fingerPTC

Using an AR headset, a user can see and interact with the digital interface of a physical device

AR is of particular interest to technical communicators because it can transform the way many traditional classes of documentation are created and presented:

  • Technical sales and marketing collateral
  • Consumer product guides
  • Operator’s guides
  • Training guides
  • Service, troubleshooting, and repair guides
  • Work instructions

Gerdes said that AR is still in the early stages of adoption. Products created using computer-aided design or manufacturing (CAD/CAM) are directly convertible into AR displays by importing the files. However, tools for creating other kinds of content are not as far along. As with traditional forms of communication, AR requires a “cocktail of media” to effectively meet user needs, an area technical communicators have experience designing.

After describing AR and its potential, Gerdes demonstrated AR displays. Attendees found both the demonstration and the overall program impressive. Hardware writer Rick Lippincott said, “This was a great program topic!” Another web attendee added, “I thought the presentation was handled very smoothly, and you guys were very sensitive to your ‘home audience.’”

If you’d like to learn more about AR and see it in action, the Harvard Business Review published a series of articles in its November-December 2017 issue, collected as “A Manager’s Guide to AR.” The package includes instructions to download a demonstration app, available free the iOS App Store or Google Play, that overlays sample illustrations in the article (either printed or on screen) with interactive AR displays.

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