Skip to content

Realities of the Virtual Kind in Manufacturing

Bruce Morey
By Bruce Morey Senior Technical Editor, SME Media

There has been a lot in the news lately about the virtual reality (VR) “metaverse.” Facebook even changed its name to Meta in announcing what future it was chasing, while Microsoft, Google and Apple are all talking about or are rumored to be developing the next generation of VR tech.

I was first introduced to a virtual world about five years ago while writing an article on how VR was used to help automotive designers and engineers. Given the chance to don a VR headset and step into a 3D world was truly a breathtaking experience. VR’s potential is real and exciting.

At the time, I thought VR was a high-end and expensive application for high-end and expensive engineering tasks. Fast forward five years and I watched my young nephew don a similar headset that he got for his birthday and play games in an engaging, 3D world—for just a few hundred dollars. A similar technology, augmented reality (AR), blends simulated reality with the real world via projections and is getting just as inexpensive to use.

That kind of drop in cost between those two experiences makes me think about how all this is going to impact us in the manufacturing world.

You are probably expecting me, at this point, to provide an optimistic forecast of how medium-sized and small manufacturers can help improve engineering quality, skilled labor shortages and machine maintenance with the wonderful new VR and AR tech. But let’s take a breath for a moment. There are still some issues that present barriers to adoption. That is especially true for VR.

The VR headsets are clunky and, I thought, a bit uncomfortable to wear for long. Also, VR mimics the sight and sound of a virtual world, but the “touch and feel” aspect is sorely lacking—and that is important for many manufacturing applications.

That is why the current capability of AR seems more useful. For example, looking at a machine through a smartphone with instructions overlaid on the screen helps people operate or maintain that machine. I have also used a system like this in a demonstration to journalists. The interplay of the real and virtual worlds was exceedingly useful, if not as engaging as being caught up in a purely virtual world. I encourage you to be open to an AR application if a vendor tries to get you interested, such as in remote location assistance, training, inspection, maintenance or even telerobotics.

As I write this in the first week of January 2022, I also want to make some predictions. A key enabler of VR/AR will be bandwidth, and the imminent adoption of 5G could certainly make it good enough in applications where it isn’t now.

Another prediction is that, according to news reports, 2022 could be the breakout year as those companies I mentioned in the beginning of this article seem to be set to make new product introductions. This may include new headsets or new software around the iPhone’s lidar sensor. Stay tuned!

  • View All Articles
  • Connect With Us

Always Stay Informed

Receive the latest manufacturing news and technical information by subscribing to our monthly and quarterly magazines, weekly and monthly eNewsletters, and podcast channel.