PTC Makes a Big Play for Augmented Reality
Roopinder Tara posted on February 03, 2016 | 10318 views
PTC explodes into augmented reality with its ThingEvent event in Boston, as Jim Heppelmann, CEO, explains their next big thing.
PTC explodes into augmented reality with its ThingEvent event in Boston, as Jim Heppelmann, CEO, explains their next big thing.

Picture driving a car in which you can change the dashboard at will or where the manufacturer could install a different dashboard depending on the type of vehicle. The virtual dashboard can match the car’s color scheme—or your mood. That’s pretty cool. But don’t look for it at a showroom near you. It’s not reality yet: it’s augmented reality, or AR.

What is happening to my dashboard? Augmented reality would allow a car’s dashboard to take on a different appearance at the touch of a button.

At the recent ThingWorx event in Boston, PTC CEO Jim Heppelmann introduced his plans for AR with a dashboard that is not really there.

There never was a dashboard. It was all in your head—or, more accurately, in these glasses. Heppelmann takes off his AR glasses and tells us why we should pay attention to AR.

Auto companies won’t have to make a number of different dashboards. They can simply make a computer model of different dashboards. The one you might look at will simply be an image projected onto a cardboard mockup. Think of the money these companies will save.

Yes, you too can look cool with VR headwear. Osterhout Design Group’s Bobby King shows off the R-7 smartglasses.
Yes, you too can look cool with VR headwear. Osterhout Design Group’s Bobby King shows off the R-7 smartglasses.

A Man with an (Augmented) Vision

Engineers will never look at the world the same way again, if it’s up to PTC. PTC, the company still best known for its CAD and PLM products (Pro/ENGINEER Creo and Windchill), has gone on a tear buying up Internet of Things (IoT) companies.

“We’ve spent $750 million on IoT,” said Heppelmann. That’s most of what PTC makes in a year. PTC is so intent on existing as an IoT company that it has rebranded its annual user meeting after its IoT acquisition, ThingWorx—a move that will no doubt have thousands of CAD users wondering if they are in the right place.

Heppelmann listed the IoT acquisitions:

  • Axeda and Kepware
  • ColdLight
  • Vuforia

For this event, they flew in a couple hundred journalists, analysts and customers from around the country, commandeered a downtown Boston hotel and beamed it to thousands more in a live feed. The addition of AR is simply another component of creating the new world, one that is full of smart connected devices, devices that can be visualized and simulated before they are created in reality. Perhaps reality is overrated. A virtual product can morph into a limitless number of shapes and sizes. Changing electrons are moved easier and cheaper than shaping metal or molding plastic. Like our virtual dashboard, a design may never need physical form.

What Is AR?

AR is the technology that can place a computer-generated image in the real world. Examples range from games and movies (for example, while directing Avatar, James Cameron used AR technology to see his actors against surreal landscapes) to a CAD part where your iPad is pointed toward a car, showing you, the design engineer, how that part can’t be removed without dropping the engine.

PTC, of course, is less concerned with AR in entertainment than its use in industry. It’s calling their initiative “AR for the enterprise.”

A Different Reality

AR is both similar to and the opposite of virtual reality (VR). Both VR and AR let you see computer-generated 3D models. While AR puts a computer-generated image in the real world, VR puts a real object (you) in a computer-generated world. Both can be immersive, depending on what viewing hardware is used.

AR helps locate a part in a motorcycle—and can tell you how to replace it, making it ideal for maintenance and service.
AR helps locate a part in a motorcycle—and can tell you how to replace it, making it ideal for maintenance and service.

At the PTC event, a Creo-created motorcycle part was shown in its intended environment. The part was first taken from Creo and shown on an iPad. As the iPad was pointed toward a real motorcycle, the Creo part appeared in the proper place.

We’re Here to Serve

Service is just the tip of the iceberg, said Heppelmann. ServiceMax is on stage to explain how #AR and #IoT helps them service like never before.

While an engineer would benefit from seeing his new part in the context of the real world, PTC feels like the next killer use for AR is in the service and maintenance of equipment and machinery. This should be a no-brainer because service and maintenance would clearly benefit from AR. For example, a service technician can simply point their mobile device at a machine—one he has never seen before, be it a car, a blood analysis machine or an aircraft carrier—and be presented with how it can be disassembled or otherwise serviced.

How Is This Done?

If your mobile device can recognize something unique to which it is pointed, like a sign or other recognizable feature, it can be programmed to display various next steps, such as its maintenance. This is done with Vuforia. Once a Qualcomm product, Vuforia was acquired by PTC in November 2015. It lets developers fashion actions that should take place once you point your device at an object.

VuMarks by Vuforia are billed as the next generation of barcodes. (Image courtesy of Vuforia.)
VuMarks by Vuforia are billed as the next generation of barcodes. (Image courtesy of Vuforia.)

Just recently introduced, a VuMark is a symbol, like a sticker on a product, that software will recognize. In that way, it is similar to a barcode or QR code, except that it triggers an AR. Using Vuforia, developers can have a user point to a VuMark and have the iPad suggest what a service technician might need to do.

See Things

PTC did not invent AR or IoT, but it clearly wants to be the one CAD company that puts both technologies in the hands of engineers—and technicians. Everyone has probably seen AR in action—they just didn’t know it as such. The first-down yard line in an NFL game is an example of AR. It’s a computer-generated image shown in a real-world setting.

Creating AR is not easy, noted Heppelmann. The methods and tools rely on specialists, programmers and coders. You don’t want to write a separate program each time you show how your creation will be used. Can you imagine writing code to create a part? No, you have CAD tools for that.

As such, PTC wants to make AR easier to create—as easy as CAD.

To make this all happen, PTC has assembled a set of products:

  • ThingServer
  • ThingBrowser
  • Vuforia

Examples of AR Application

KTM Motorbikes—pointing an iPad at a VuMark on the side of the engine brings up 3D CAD parts that presumably belong in or near the engine. A menu offers the next course of action.

Sysmex (blood analyzer)—point your iPad at a sign on the top of Sysmex’s blood analyzer, and you are presented with an 3D animation that shows you how the reagent canisters are meant to be removed.

No PTC event would be complete without mention of Caterpillar, and ThingEvent was no exception. Caterpillar has been an early adopter of PTC’s AR.

AR Tools

­ThingBrowser—point to a VuMark, it shows the “experiences” that are available for the device the view mark is on.

Example: It’s pointed at a part on a motorcycle, which brings up the view of the bike from a marketing standpoint. This could be the bike careening down a winding road. Or if the part needs maintenance, it will show you in place, where the screws are to loosen the part from the bike. This can all be shown in-place.

  • ThingX, the biggest breakthrough we’ve ever presented, said Heppelmann.
  • ThingServer
  • Digital Twin

It’s a Brave New World—and It’s All Visual

Pity the poor tech pubs people, said Heppelmann. Toiling away on service manuals that no one will read.

“Who likes reading service manuals?” PTC asks, rhetorically. That’s right, no one.

PTC uses a little customer interaction to hammer home a very big point.

A “millennial” technician refuses a stack of service manuals: “Don’t you have a YouTube video?”

PTC realizes that the future holds a smartly connected, very visual world. Engineers need to step up. Whereas PTC has helped so far in creating computer models of objects, Heppelmann thinks this is just the start. These objects are going to connect to each other, and PTC’s IoT acquisitions are going to make that happen. As for how these future objects will actually look in the real world, they will have AR tools.

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