Virtual, augmented and mixed


Transformative, futuristic and inexpensive - so why is everyone not using it in the workplace? While I cannot speak for all industries I can shed some light on manufacturing and the areas and opportunities where Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) are beginning to be used.

In general, modern manufacturing involves the digital design of a product and then production of physical parts. Over many decades considerable research effort has gone into 3D computer-aided design (CAD) environments that enable powerful visualisation combined with multi-physics simulation. While user interaction is via a 2D display, the 3D environments have been optimised to provide an immersive and user-centric experience. In parallel with the development of computer-aided design systems there has been considerable research and investment in rapid prototyping technologies that can fabricate that all important physical model for proof-of-principle, and user assessment of form and function. In almost all manufacturing organisations, no matter whether small or large, engineers can create designs and physical prototypes in a matter of hours. The consequence of this is that within the design and development phases of the product lifecycle, VR and AR has been somewhat overtaken by advances in CADCAM software and prototyping technologies. VR/AR helps to visualise models, but you can already have the physical version in your hand before the day is out. It is therefore unclear as to whether VR and AR technologies in themselves will ever present a compelling value proposition over the mature technologies that support the early stages of the product lifecycle.

Notwithstanding the above, there are areas within manufacturing where VR, AR and MR are being used. These areas I refer to as the four ‘Is’ – in-situ, immersive, in-service and in-production. What these areas have in common with each other is that realistic representation of scale, environment and user interaction are all required and often at the point of delivery. Examples include the visualisation of future assets in the current environment, such as in urban redevelopment plans; providing guidance and training for complex maintenance tasks, such as aircraft engine disassembly or repair; and the presentation of real-time information about an asset such as utilities in a building or a production line.


Images from a VR building / cityscape and AR app for asset maintenance.

So what is the future? Many supporters of VR and AR propose that it is a game changing technology with the ability to increase productivity by double figures. Is this really the case?

In my view, all that VR and AR technologies do is provide additional information in a more accessible manner through what is often referred to as contextualisation or situatedness. They offer the potential to improve information navigation and information access – saving time and potentially increasing productivity. However, I do not believe that this reflects the true opportunity, rather it is the world that they view that is the exciting part. In accord with the compelling cases of use to-date (the four Is), the game changing opportunities appear to lie in the scenarios where digital and physical worlds can come together to enable new approaches and processes. For example, AR models of the physical environment that also model new buildings or AR apps that provide information about physical assets overlaid in such a way that additional value is generated for the user, such as hazard detection.

As has been stated by several entrepreneurs, technologists and economists “the future of digital is physical”. What does this mean in manufacturing? Not that the world should be viewed through virtual reality, but that the digital and physical worlds should be brought together. This means combining technologies such as physical rapid prototyping and AR to help visualise and interact with designs as they are built; building digital versions of physical systems/prototypes for in-line, intelligent analysis and simulation that form and update automatically and in real-time; using VR/AR and physical kits to enable wider stakeholder and citizen involvement in infrastructure design (e.g. through Lego); and, applications that couple the digital and physical in-service such as real-time monitoring of health and safety.

I agree with many supporters of VR and AR that the potential is significant, but I would contend that many uses to-date aim not to augment capabilities, but to displace existing solutions which have been optimised over many years. The greatest opportunities lie in combining the digital with the physical, and the potential to do things differently rather than trying to compete with mature technology. The current landscape framed by industry 4.0, IoT, Cloud and low-cost hardware mean that the only thing holding us back is our imagination to redefine processes and create new approaches with wider stakeholder engagement, rather than as has been in the past the capital and ongoing cost of hardware.

Images of a digital-physical design kit (PhysiCAD) and an AR tool for automated hazard identification.


About the Author

Professor Ben Hicks is Head of Engineering Systems and Design at The University of Bristol

Design and Manufacturing Futures Lab

Richard Smith