AR system lets engineers show remote technicians what they're talking about
By Ben Coxworth
July 12, 2011
It can be very frustrating trying to fix something, when the person instructing you isn't there in person, but is instead communicating with you over a phone line - "Whaddaya mean, 'The silver cap'? Which silver cap?!" This is why engineers sometimes need to be flown in to factories or other places that use complex machines, to make repairs that simply can't be explained verbally. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics, however, have developed an augmented reality system that lets those engineers provide real-time visual instructions to distant on-site technicians ... and it can be done without internet access.
To use the system, the on-site technician would need a laptop computer with a rear-facing webcam. This would allow it to see the malfunctioning machine, without the technician blocking its view.
Each section of the machine would have a physical 2D barcode tag placed on it, which a program running on the computer would read via the camera. That barcode data would be sent through a standard telecommunications network, to the computer of the engineer providing the expertise. There, another program would apply the received data to a CAD image of the machine. Not only would a computer image of the machine come up on the engineer's screen, but it would be displayed from the same angle as the video image on the technician's screen. If the technician were to pick up their computer and move it around the machine, the CAD image on the engineer's screen would change accordingly.
Using a chat protocol, the engineer could then add pop-ups that would appear on the technician's screen, referring to specific parts of the machine (such as "I mean this silver cap, right here"). These pop-ups would remain visually linked to the same parts, even if the technician changed the viewing angle of their computer. Once they were done with a certain part of the machine, the technician could remove the corresponding pop-up from their screen simply by clicking on it. They could also talk directly to the engineer, via the phone line.
Because no internet access would be necessary, the system would be ideal for use in remote locations. Fraunhofer has developed a working prototype, and is planning on field testing it with industry users.
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