The trend of Extended Reality, otherwise known as XR, encompasses the different experiential technology genres of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR). AR enriches the physical world with purely visual digital screens or overlays in the right place at the right time; VR is a fully immersive digital experience requiring special headsets; and MR is at the intersection of both, infusing interactive virtual content within the physical world.
Early XR applications made their appearance to the wider public when Google Glass was released in 2014, allowing users to view virtual elements inserted into their surroundings via an AR lens. While mass market popularity of AR reached its peak in 2016 with the launch of interactive smartphone and tablet apps like Pokémon GO and Snapchat, enterprise adoption of AR began its slow but steady climb during these years, with smart glasses first introduced to the supply chain for workflow guidance and seamless, hands-free remote support. In 2018, Oculus released the first VR stand-alone, head-up displays for consumers. With VR’s ability to create a fully immersive virtual experience through headsets, the gaming market was an early adopter but, over time, many enterprises, including those in logistics, recognized the potential of 360° virtual content for engagement and worker training, and VR now continues to gain traction.
With ongoing AR and VR developments, MR – a new form of XR – began to emerge in recent years. Unlike AR, MR not only displays additional virtual content onto reality but also utilizes elements of the physical world to contextualize the virtual content, allowing virtual content to blend in or interact with physical objects through a lens, like having virtual goods appear to move along a real conveyor belt in an actual warehouse. MR technology allows users to not only view virtual objects, but also collaboratively interact with them, opening up an array of possible use cases yet to be explored. Like VR, MR requires dedicated hardware, but it differs in that the virtual experience is not fully immersive; users generally remain cognizant of the physical world surrounding them but can also see embedded interactive virtual elements.
Overall, XR headset sales massively increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, reaching a global total of 11.2 million units shipped in 2021. On the software side, we have seen major developments with more and more providers like TeamViewer offering no-code editors as part of their applications. This enables logistics companies and other organizations to easily generate and manage their own content for XR applications.
Today, multiple industries including logistics are using AR smart glasses for workflow guidance and remote support, and there is a lot of potential for even wider application. Similarly, companies are also using VR, particularly for training and simulation. First examples of use cases can be seen in logistics and there is also much potential to scale these applications. Still in a nascent stage, MR can be expected to develop quickly within the near future and it is interesting to imagine the use cases where MR is likely to offer real differentiation, going beyond AR to achieve more than just enhancing the user experience.
The Reality-Virtuality Continuum offers users a wide range of experiences.
Relevance to the Future of Logistics
Making operational processes more efficient and less prone to human error as well as quickly onboarding new employees are crucial to success in the logistics industry. The use of AR or MR headsets with dedicated software enables companies to provide hands-free step-by-step instructions to employees while they are performing operational tasks. Here at DHL, we were a first mover in using smart glasses for workflow guidance in the picking process, with pilot projects already completed in 2014. These smart-glass picking process solutions offer hands-free operation and have increased productivity while reducing error rates; these represent substantial benefits for DHL customers.
Today, so-called vision picking is an inherent part of DHL’s service portfolio. What has worked for the picking process is easily replicated in other processes – for example, upskilling labor so workers can provide more complex value-added services to customers and accelerating new employee onboarding time. With the increasingly availability of quick-to-build no-code applications, it is now very easy to digitalize workflows and run them on smartphones, tablets, and smart glasses.
For more complex tasks, it sometimes makes sense to use MR as this allows contextualized 3D digital content to be projected onto real objects for more detailed guidance. The user in this case would need to wear a headset such as the Microsoft HoloLens or the Magic Leap for visualization. While some first examples of MR exist in logistics – for example, maintenance of complex machinery – other suitable use cases are yet to be explored.
AR technology enables a remotely located expert to be connected to an on-site operator wearing smart glasses via a live video call; this allows both people see the same things at the same time, and it keeps the operator’s hands free. With dedicated software, the expert can provide instructions, sketches, and annotations to guide the operator.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when travel restrictions and social distancing meant experts could not physically visit and stand alongside operators, this application area gained a lot of traction for audits, project go-lives, and site inspections. Beyond the pandemic, remote support is a great alternative to in-person support, eliminating the time and cost of travel with the added benefit of sustainability.
The combination of workflow guidance and remote support promises significant gains for maintenance, service, and any other process requiring expert knowledge which is not always available locally. In addition to providing immediate access to expert knowledge, these solutions typically allow for automated report generation for documentation purposes.
If higher levels of collaboration are required, it is interesting to consider using VR and MR headsets. With an MR solution, people in multiple locations can meet in a single virtual collaboration space and use 3D holograms to design products, solutions, and processes, for example. There are also examples of conferences and events being held in a fully virtual way, using VR headsets to meet as avatars in a virtual space.
While AR and MR are adding virtual content to reality, VR can be used to create immersive training experiences, simulating realistic scenarios in a fully virtual environment. Among industry experts, VR is often referred to as the future of training. Participants in VR training sessions learn 4x faster than in classroom training. This could be explained by the fact that participants show significantly higher emotional connection to virtual content and are far less distracted during fully immersive VR training.4
Considering the training time that can be saved and the fact that content creation is now easier (and more no-code editors are available), it is becoming increasingly attractive to invest in VR for training. DHL Express is already using VR as a training and engagement tool for employees and external audiences. In a gamified approach, people can learn how to load pallets and containers with shipments. They are awarded more points if they use space optimally and pay attention to special-handling labels.
Using VR for training is ideal to simulate a real-world situation, allowing people to learn and take decisions in a safe environment, and it can also ensure a fun experience.
Early headsets traded off computing power and battery life with size and weight but technology advances are now changing this. A start-up called Mojo Vision has even developed a first prototype of a smart contact lens. Responding to metaverse developments, AR glasses are likely to conquer the consumer market soon; Apple may launch an Apple Glass, and Google – although cautious about privacy concerns – may publicly test new smart glass prototypes. Seeing these hardware developments and the growth of 5G coverage, we here at DHL consider it the right time to prepare for mass adoption of data-heavy VR and MR applications.
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- IDC (2022): AR/VR headset shipments grew dramatically in 2021
- PWC (2021): How virtual reality is redefining soft skills training
- ResearchGate (2021): Differences between AR, MR and VR. Reference