Industrial opportunities for augmented reality
A recent Institute report, The labour market shift, identified a lack of training and looming automation as significant threats to Ontario’s labour force. These issues can be tackled with the adoption of a new technology. Augmented reality (AR) is shaping up to be the technological revolution of the workplace. Not only does AR have the potential to lower the cost of training and work to combat job automation, it could also enable unprecedented levels of accuracy and productivity.
What is Augmented Reality?
AR may be better described as mixed reality: the mixture of the real world and a superimposed digital work. AR is commonly information visually overlaid on the natural environment in order to provide more information to the user. Examples of AR are not always as futuristic as they might sound. The digital yellow first down line seen during live broadcasts of football, first broadcast in 1998, is generated by a computer system to enhance the experience and understanding of viewers.
What areas are currently being influenced by Augmented Reality?
AR has recently achieved mainstream commercial success. Some of the best known and most accessible examples of AR rely on the user’s cellphone and camera. The cellphone app Pokémon Go is an international phenomenon with over 752 million downloads and US$1.2 billion in revenue. This app augments the user’s phone to display and facilitate interaction with animated creatures in the real world.
Similarly, Google Translate translates text displayed on a phone’s camera. The image displayed on the phone is updated live, replacing all text from the selected language with the one the user understands.
AR implications for the labour market
AR brings with it immense potential for productivity growth in Ontario, especially within the manufacturing sector. AR will soon find uses in many aspects of manufacturing, ranging from the training of new workers to guided repair of machinery. Manufacturing employees could use headsets that guide them through each step of their tasks, increasing both speed and accuracy. These headsets are already a reality – Microsoft offers their HoloLense and Epson has their industrial Moverio line among others. These headsets can detect and highlight the relevant parts and equipment necessary for the current step of the task. Additionally, 3D overlaid animations will be superimposed, guiding the user through their next action. Finally, each step in the process is checked and validated by the camera and software to ensure no step is missed or completed incorrectly.
AR may find application as a training and information tool that reduces the base skill level and costly training required for new workers. With detailed instructions being provided to the worker, even complex tasks can be broken up into achievable segments. It would merely require the ability to follow one instruction at a time under the guidance of the AR system, providing experiential training. Adoption of AR technology by Ontario’s goods-producing industries could reinvigorate them and improve their unit labour cost (cost of labour per unit of output) against regions who are slow to adopt this technology.
Other industries outside of physical manufacturing will also find uses for AR technology. Medical professionals could soon utilize digitally overlaid medical scans to assist with everything from complex surgery to finding veins for IV. X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs could all be superimposed on the patient, allowing surgeons to see “through the skin.” This advancement will improve doctors and surgeons' understanding of ailments and increase the accuracy with which incisions can be performed, improving success rates and recovery times.
Can AR help combat the job destroying effects of automation?
The use of AR can also help combat the destructive effects that continued automation will have on the labour market. Companies that produce on a smaller scale or with high degrees of variability could find human labour coupled with the use of an AR device more cost efficient than an assembly planted dominated by automated processes. Given the large upfront cost of robotics compared to an AR enabling headset, there may be a greater scope for human labour in manufacturing than previously expected.
Finally, AR could also relieve some of the need for expensive field experts. AR enabled headsets allow field technicians to video call an expert and let them diagnose complex problems by seeing and communicating through the headset. Being able to access an expert remotely eliminates the need for paying for an expert to travel to the site itself. AR will reduce the total number of experts needed along with their labour costs. The average skill level required for these fields should decrease in the short term, with displaced workers moving to other fields and productive uses.
Only a few companies have thus far adopted the technology that will reshape how workers interact with and perceive their workspaces. Ontario has the opportunity to be an early adopter of this technological advancement and capture significant market share through improved productivity and efficiency.
Written by Chris Mack
Photo credit: djvstock, iStock