VR and AR: From assembly assistance systems to learning in the virtual "metaverse".

FHTW experts Horst Orsolits and Maximilian Lackner have published a book that deals with the use of virtual and augmented reality systems in digital production. In an interview, the two experts explain how the technologies are used in industry today - and

Virtual and augmented reality are often associated with computer and video games, but the technologies are also becoming increasingly important in many areas of industry. The book "Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Digital Production" devotes special attention to this segment. In it, renowned experts from universities and companies in German-speaking countries demonstrate with their contributions the wide range of possible applications of VR and AR - from machine simulation to employee training. The book, which was published last year by Springer Gabler, was edited by Horst Orsolits and Maximilian Lackner from the Faculty of Industrial Engineering at the FH Technikum Wien.  "We deliberately gave the authors few guidelines in terms of the selection of topics and depth, and really wanted to create as broad an overview as possible of the two subjects here," says Orsolits, who heads the competence field (Virtual Technologies & Sensor Systems?). His colleague Lackner is head of the master's programs in Innovation and Technology Management and International Industrial Engineering at the FHTW. In an interview, the two experts explain why VR and AR are becoming increasingly important in production - and how the technologies will already be shaping our everyday lives in the near future.

Virtual and augmented reality are not new topics. The book you published shows: Both are currently gaining importance in many different areas of industry. Why is this topic "catching on" right now?

Maximilian Lackner: It always takes a certain amount of time for a technology to become established. That was also the case with 3D printing. Five years ago there was a huge hype, but actually 3D printing has been around for 30 years. There is a classic theory of how this works with innovations: There are the "early innovators" who are always right there with every new gimmick. And there are those who take a little longer to jump on. It's a similar story with AR and VR: The topic had to settle a bit until people realized what advantages the technologies offer. The development is also strongly related to the topic of digitization - companies have recognized that they have to do something in this area.

Horst Orsolits: I would like to highlight one more technical innovation as a "fire accelerator" for augmented reality: That is the development of the cell phone. Processor technology and lens and camera technology - both of which are essential for VR and AR - have advanced so rapidly that the price/performance ratio of the technology has also become interesting. Today, I can buy VR glasses for around 200 to 300 euros. I can use augmented reality conveniently on my cell phone. And the technology also provided a platform for software providers to enter the market in a big way and open up a new market. Bringing the application into the industrial context was then only a matter of time.

The book focuses on possible applications in digital production. Where are the most important areas of application here?

Lackner: I see it strongly in the area of training. Here, for example, you can accelerate the onboarding of new employees or communicate complex issues.

Orsolits: Training for both new and existing employees, or maintenance and repair are currently the most common areas of application in industry. As far as repair or assembly instructions are concerned, many processes can be supported digitally here. Studies show that processes in this area can be accelerated by up to 40 percent - if you no longer have to tediously look up which screw goes where next in the manual. This has already been relatively well received in industry.

What about the direct integration of VR/AR technologies into production processes?

Orsolits: Industry is still very wait-and-see. Series production works in series and is optimized through automation. However, assistance systems are increasingly coming into focus where companies understand that smaller batch sizes and more flexible production bring advantages on the market. There, it is possible to achieve significant reductions in changeover times. I know of some companies in Austria that use such assistance systems on the assembly line to show assembly personnel the position of parts such as an engine block directly via glasses or an augmented monitor.

The book also deals with virtual learning worlds. Has the Corona pandemic accelerated developments in this area, with online meetings now commonplace?

Lackner: I think that Corona has made many things more conceivable than before. As in the case of corporate tourism, for example: In the past, people always said that they had to go somewhere and that they absolutely had to be there. Now many have realized that this is not the case and that virtuality works well after all. That, of course, has given the whole thing a boost.

Orsolits: Corona was the accelerator par excellence for virtual learning, just as it was for digitization. For months, more and more virtual worlds have been emerging under the collective term "metaverse." Microsoft, for example, recently entered the market with "Microsoft Mesh" as a mixed reality platform for simultaneous, location-independent participation in meetings or events. Such multi-user VR environments, where people meet with multiple people in a virtual space to interact, are currently experiencing great growth. Spatial IO, one of the first companies in the field, is also well advanced. With this tool, you can hold meetings, design workshops and the like and create so-called 3D avatars: You are filmed and then see yourself in virtual space. This is another step in the direction of immersion.

The development is still in its infancy, but it will definitely become a big topic in the next six months or year. We have already held such meetings with some students and I would like to present CAD objects of our students in this way soon. In the meantime, there are also extensions for mobile and desktop versions here, so it's no longer a compulsion to use VR glasses.

However, virtual/mixed reality is clearly THE technology here. In augmented reality there are a few attempts to realize holoportation. But this requires a complex scanner or several cameras at the desk. I could then "teleport" myself as a whole to my students' homes, where they could place me on their desks with their cell phones and follow the lecture. Technically, this has been solved to a large extent, but it is currently still mostly in the research area due to the high costs, available bandwidths and complexity in application.  

Where does the topic of VR/AR currently figure in research and teaching at the UAS Technikum Wien?

Orsolits: The field of VR/AR is huge - from the gaming industry to medical applications to the manufacturing industry, to name just a few areas. In the Industrial Engineering faculty, we focus on application-based use of the technologies in synergy with manufacturing, robotics, and industry proximity in general. In my opinion, these technologies have now also reached the maturity level to be used in the lecture hall or in distance learning. I'm already using AR tools in teaching to some extent now. I meet with students via Zoom, they then open the AR control and I explain to them how they can use it to control a digital model of a robot in augmented reality on the coffee table.

On the subject of integrating virtual technologies into teaching, I have just been approved for a research project by the City of Vienna. It starts in September and will run for three years with the goal of enabling virtual lab exercises and augmented reality experiences to make learning easier. For example, if we want to explain to a first-year student how a planetary gear works, we now have to squeeze understanding from our three-dimensional world into many 2D illustrations to do so. AR, on the other hand, allows the student to look at such a gearbox with a cell phone or with glasses, to disassemble it, to interact with it, and to view it from all sides. There is immense potential here for teaching.

How will VR and AR develop in the coming years?

Orsolits: I'm going to go out on a limb with my answer. Market forecasts assume growth of €125 billion over the next four years. The "Big 5" (Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google) on the West Coast of the USA are currently investing double-digit billions in AR and VR. It is a thoroughly realistic scenario that there will be platforms, similar to those in the movie "Ready Player One," where you log into something like a digital copy of the world. You can meet up with your friends in artificial environments, take part in meetings, or enter a virtual world and go shopping A few hours later, you have what you have chosen standing in front of your door. Amazon's logistics dominance makes something like this possible. I assume that this will happen, simply because it's a huge market. And as far as technology is concerned, the cell phone as a crutch that you have to hold in your hand all the time will disappear at some point. A patent from Apple suggests that much of the cell phone display will go to glasses. Apple will release such glasses this year or next. They will weigh 100-150 grams, similar to ordinary optical glasses, but the computing unit will still be the cell phone. From what we hear from Silicon Valley, we can expect that in three to four years, data glasses will have reached a level of comfort and quality that will make them practically indispensable in everyday life. 

Lackner: I would like to point out another important development in the area of services. Manufacturers want to sell not only a product, but also service. I believe that many service providers will have great difficulties. Manufacturers will say they train customers directly. The customer then simply puts on the glasses and the manufacturer helps with maintenance, troubleshooting and servicing. And the local dealers and service providers, service and support companies will be "cut out" of this, more value creation will be brought back to the manufacturer. Today, it's the case that many large corporations are taking advantage of this, but the mid-sized companies are not. That will certainly change.

Orsolits: I'll underline that right away. Imagine having glasses on at home that are AR-enabled and the coffee machine has some kind of problem. Now you're not far away from the coffee machine being able to communicate with the Internet. With the data glasses, I immediately get to see what the problem is, how to fix it again, and it's superimposed right over the coffee machines (e.g. Refill water here and an arrow on the water tank or check grinder with step-by-step instructions on how to service the grinder) If I need further help, I trigger an AR call to the service employee, who then helps me through remote AR support by adding instructions directly into my field of view (such as with arrows or highlighters) This will permanently change the service landscape at home.

Horst Orsolits

Horst Orsolits, MSc

Head of Competence Center
+43 1 333 40 77-6355
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Maximilian Lackner

PD DI Dr. Maximilian Lackner , MBA

Program Director International Business and Engineering
+43 1 333 40 77-8926
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