Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), often referred to as reality technologies or XR, have been around for a while. However, over the last few years, the focus on research, development, and the expansion of their applications, especially in the industrial space, has sharpened. While XR is creating a buzz in the rail industry, and several other sectors too are experimenting extensively with its applications, it is fair to say that widespread implementation and adoption is a long way off.
As a point of initiation and large-scale acceptance of XR technologies, it has now become increasingly common to associate AR with maintenance and VR with training. However, that scope may be limited. If we analyze the underlying principles of XR technologies individually, we can see that the possibilities they offer are far greater. The underlying principle of AR is augmenting reality with virtuality; so it will find application in any instance where augmenting reality with virtual images can lead to enhancement, optimization, or simplification of a job. On the other hand, the underlying principle of VR is to create a virtual environment that replicates the real environment so closely that the need for the real environment does not remain as compelling.
What does this mean for the rail industry? The graphic below attempts to bucket ever-expanding applications along the Design-Build-Maintain life cycle.
How Applying XR Technologies in the Design, Build, and Maintain Phases can be the Gamechanger
At the design stage, VR can be used to visualize designs. One can walk around a virtual model, look at it from various angles, and position it in real surroundings, substantially reducing the need for a real model. This application can find usage at the bid stage and benefit both the buyer and the seller—the buyer can experience the designs better and get a more realistic view, while the seller can showcase multiple designs without bothering about building physical mock-ups.
Other applications in the design phase are about analyzing an available space for maintainability, which can be performed through VR; and about analyzing an available space for utilization, which can be performed through AR. A relevant example of analyzing space utilization through AR is the requirement of evaluating multiple seating layout options in a refurbishment project. Will altering the seating layout improve the visual feel of space inside a coach? This can be easily assessed through an AR application.
Similarly, in the build phase, AR can be used to guide assembly/disassembly procedures. The visual inspection process often resorted to during audits, can be enhanced with AR-based guides. Quality inspections, with AR-based remote assistance, can become more robust.
The maintain phase of the project also comprises several jobs that can directly benefit from the introduction of AR-based guides and remote assistance. AR based remote assistance enables product experts or SMEs to visually guide and collaborate with technicians on the field, from a remote location
Training, an integral part of several design, build as well as maintain processes, is perhaps best suited to adopt XR. Several studies suggest that XR has been found to improve the effectiveness of training, and what better testimony to this than flight simulators, which perhaps are the earliest examples of XR application. XR can also be used to train and familiarise new engineers on system and sub-systems instead of taking them for a field trip. But apart from improving the effectiveness, I see XR-based training playing a significant role in reducing the risk exposure of trainees—particularly where an incorrect action could cause injury to personnel and/or damage expensive and essential machinery.
These application examples are merely the starting point in exploring the vast possibilities of XR and should by no means be considered comprehensive. Industry needs will vary with situations and will, in turn, lead to the need for several new applications.
Having spoken about the applications let me share what I see as the potential challenges in the adoption of XR. Cost, I assure you, is not one of them.
But Some Challenges can Hamper the Adoption of XR Technologies
One size will not fit all: Taking standard and pre-built applications to different stakeholders in the industry would be akin to providing them with a solution and asking them to find a suitable problem. Such practices are prevalent in the industry, especially by organizations that have developed XR applications for other industries and are now targeting rail. This approach is limiting and is bound to ask for compromises. Instead, XR sellers should attempt to understand the actual needs of the end-user and engage in a conversation with the buyer on the underlying principles of the technologies to explore new possibilities.
Resistance to change: Often new technologies are met with apathy toward the experience and eventually with resistance to change. The same is true in the case of XR. The transition to the new technology, when it happens, must and should be gradual. The first step is to build awareness and provide users with as many opportunities as possible to acquaint them with the technology. The principles of design thinking should be necessarily applied.
A Case of Great Expectations: As users, we often come across promotional videos of a maintenance engineer seamlessly retrieving a work order, acting upon it, recording feedback, updating inventory, and scheduling follow-up inspections, all through an AR glass. While this is a vision of a glorious end-state, a solution of such proportions presented to users on the field who face more practical problems like poor connectivity or harsh environmental conditions, might struggle to receive the expected reception. It will be necessary to break the journey toward the vision into smaller, achievable laps, just like a randonneur would pace his ride.
I believe I am in a unique position in the industry—where I technically represent the seller side, but at the same time have the privilege of working closely with potential end-users. This gives me the courage to call myself an observer—siding neither with the buyer nor the seller—in a neutral space, at a vantage point. The opinion presented here is from this vantage point and I would say this in conclusion—the buyer side should seek to understand these technologies and demand solutions for their problems; the seller side should see the uniqueness in the requirements and be flexible about and open to creating new solutions. This convergence will be key.
The possibilities of XR are immense, but for it to have a transformative impact on the industry a lot will depend on how both the sides converge to harness its extraordinary potential.