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The Future Becomes Reality

Augmented Reality Research

Imagine being able to look at a car’s engine—almost as if you had X-ray vision—without lifting the hood. Or asking a handheld device how you can fix an oil leak even if you have no idea what you’re doing. Now extrapolate that to jet engines or oilrigs, the complexities of which can be mind-boggling to novice technicians or those tackling new problems. By using augmented reality (AR), however, those novices can quickly become experts.

“Say your dishwasher breaks down. You order a part but don’t know how to install it. So instead of hiring an expert to do it for you, how cool would it be if you had AR glasses that would guide you through the process?”
—Tal Drory, senior manager, Multimedia Analytics, IBM Research

At IBM Research in Haifa, Israel, Tal Drory, senior manager Multimedia Analytics, and Dr. Ethan Hadar, manager of Cognitive Vision and Augmented Reality, are helping businesses and consumers alike take advantage of AR to conduct complicated technical tasks without having applicable experience. This skill will help companies and consumers save money, create safer working environments and become more productive and efficient.

IBM Systems Magazine (ISM): I guess we should start with the obvious question: What is augmented reality?
Tal Drory (TD):
Essentially, augmented reality is a technology that allows us to augment the field of view of the person we’re assisting. For example, imagine you’re looking through a video camera of a mobile device at a retail shelf in the store. You see the reality in your field of view of the device, but that can be augmented with additional information, such as detailed product descriptions, promotions or even personalized information: You like this one; you’re allergic to that one; you bought this previously. Other ways to augment reality can involve playing audio or using speech to provide information, but the main mode that people usually mean when speaking about augmented reality is augmenting vision by overlaying that with specific information.
EH: I would add that augmented reality is a way to extend and expand people’s vision. It gives normal people with regular eyesight additional capabilities, sort of like Superman’s X-ray vision. For example, it can be used to see the internal elements within an engine by “looking” through the engine cover.

ISM: What’s the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality (VR)?
Virtual reality is where you don’t augment reality—you wear a VR headset and what you see through it is almost always not related to the reality that surrounds you. You’re not seeing anything beyond what’s projected to you in the VR headset. With AR, you see the reality with additional information overlaid on your field of view.
EH: Many people are mixing virtual reality with augmented reality. There is a borderline technology called “mixed reality” that we also deal with. The X-ray vision example is actually mixed reality; we’re adding virtual things on existing reality. Imagine you’re looking at your car and wondering what it might look like if you changed the color from white to red and changed the tires from this version to that version, and added a spoiler to the back of the car. You put on your AR glasses, run the software and see what it could look like. The car is real— you can actually touch it—but the wheels and the spoiler aren’t.
TD: If I had to draw the line, I’d say that mixed reality and AR are one side, which is broadly speaking AR, and then you have VR, which is completely virtual.

ISM: How can this type of technology benefit businesses?
Let’s focus mainly on the industrial setting: maintenance, repair, assembly lines. Technicians—we call them “cognitive technicians”—can use our AR-based solutions to be more productive, more efficient, work more safely, and to have the work guided. Imagine a novice technician is in the field and needs to change a piece of equipment while it’s raining. This technician doesn’t want to read or doesn’t have access to the user’s guide. They have smart glasses on them or a mobile device, and then they have an expert at the back end who, via augmented reality, can guide the technician in his or her work, step by step. There might even be a cognitive system in the back end, not a human expert. This is just one example where this technology can help technical workers become more efficient.
EH: Our research is conducted with actual customers in real industries with real problems. These may involve manufacturing, equipment assembly or maintenance and support. Industries are facing several challenges.

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at



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