Could Augmented Reality Be the Next Big Thing in Technical Communication?

I’ve written quite a few Service Manuals on an outsource basis and I can tell you that is generally impossible to convince the customer to go with a manual that the technician would access from a laptop and to add features such as embedded film clips or 3D animation, let alone something like this:

In the not-too-distant future, it might be possible to slip on a pair of augmented-reality (AR) goggles instead of fumbling with a manual while trying to repair a car engine. Instructions overlaid on the real world would show how to complete a task by identifying, for example, exactly where the ignition coil was, and how to wire it up correctly.

A new AR system developed at Columbia University starts to do just this, and testing performed by Marine mechanics suggests that it can help users find and begin a maintenance task in almost half the usual time.

AR has long shown potential for both entertainment and practical applications, and the first commercial applications are starting to appear in smartphones, thanks to cheaper, more compact computer chips, cameras, and other sensors. So far, however, these apps have been mainly limited to providing directions. But researchers are also working on many practical applications, including ways to help with specific repair and maintenance tasks.

The Columbia researchers worked with mechanics from the U.S. Marine Corps to measure the benefits of using an AR headset when performing repairs to a light armored vehicle. Currently, Marine mechanics have to refer to a technical manual on a laptop while performing maintenance or repairs inside the vehicle, which has many electric, hydraulic, and mechanical components in a tight space.

A user wears a head-worn display, and the AR system provides assistance by showing 3-D arrows that point to a relevant component, text instructions, floating labels and warnings, and animated, 3-D models of the appropriate tools. An Android-powered G1 smartphone attached to the mechanic’s wrist provides touchscreen controls for cueing up the next sequence of instructions.

via Technology Review: Faster Maintenance with Augmented Reality.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I think that we can all agree that this is really neat. However, I can see several potential drawbacks to a system of this type.

  • Before performing a procedure you should always read it over from beginning to end. Unless the augmented reality system is also supplied as a document, this would be hard to do.
  • The price. Obviously at this point systems like this would be practical only for very large organizations like the Department of Defense or a large corporation.
  • Revisions. Updating something like this looks like it might be kind of involved.
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