Smart Helmet Firm Plots Industrial Internet Blockbuster
It is fitting that the augmented reality/smart helmet firm DAQRI is based in Los Angeles. The story behind the company has many of the ingredients of a Hollywood production. There’s an element of mystery, rivalry, plot twists, and even CGI.
Like writing blockbuster films, though, creating a radically new type of company is tough business.
The story starts out like this: In 2010, entrepreneur Brian Mullins was wowed by the iPhone 4. That model had considerably more horsepower than the predecessor model and, at that point, was the thinnest smartphone on the market.
A little more than a decade before then, Mullins had done research on nascent vision-based augmented reality technology for ship docking applications. But back then, you needed a lab and a big budget when working on AR. With the iPhone 4, it seemed that practically everyone had access to powerful computing technology that could fit in the palm of their hand—or at least they would in the relatively near future.
In founding DAQRI, he hoped to create a stealthy company for the computing medium of the future, which would be visual and one day, possibly screenless. The possibilities, it seemed, were endless.
In 2010, the company began quietly developing an AR platform from scratch. It drew inspiration from software like Photoshop and websites like YouTube that helped users create whatever type of content they could imagine.
When the company came out of stealth mode in 2011, it announced it had been developing a service that superimposes three-dimensional images onto the real world using QR codes. It envisioned applications of the technology in an array of fields including marketing and advertising, entertainment, education, and the government and military.
The company was among the first to foresee the power of augmented reality—six years before half a billion people downloaded the AR app Pokémon Go. The company also predicted the coming of so-called mixed reality, in which the real and virtual worlds merge. In fact, the company’s name is a reference mixing reality like the cocktail that is pronounced the same way as its name.
The company struck deals with Century Fox, Cadillac, and Sony to create promotional experiences and won $15 million in Series A funding. They launched a Kickstarter campaign for a 4-D educational toy project and promised that their technology would work with Google Glass, which debuted as a prototype in 2013. Google, however, ultimately decided to scrap its plans for the first iteration of the device and is reportedly developing a more-advanced version of it. Being a pioneer in augmented reality, it seems, is certainly not easy.
DAQRI would also change its plans, deciding in 2014 to begin developing a smart helmet—a hard hat that could enable industrial workers to do their jobs better. The technology can be a boon for training, help prevent errors, and solve problems more effectively. The helmet also offers infrared camera technology to inform users when an object is too hot to touch. It was a significant shift for a company that started out developing an AR software platform. “We realized that no one was making the hardware we wanted so we pivoted and started creating the helmet,” says Regan Wynne, DAQRI’s director of marketing and communications. Equipped with electronics and several cameras, the hard hat can superimpose images over the real world, enabling users to, say, see the location of ductwork or electrical cabling hidden within walls. A Boeing and Iowa State study found that augmented reality instructions led to a 30% reduction in time compared to using 3-D tablet instructions. More impressively, the AR group had 94% fewer errors.
Applications span industries ranging from construction to manufacturing to the oil and gas industry, according to the company. The helmet can be programmed using the company’s 4D Studio software, which enables users to use drag-and-drop models to create custom work instructions and data visualizations. The software supports 2-D and 3-D images, audio, and video files, making it possible for anyone wearing the smart helmet to see that information superimposed over their view of the world.
“We would like to think that technology innovation starts in the workplace and moves into every aspect of our life,” Wynne says. “Take cell phones, for instance. They used to be big briefcase-sized devices that service engineers used when they were in the field. Now we all have one that fits in our pocket,” Wynne says. “Regular computers were first giant mainframes used in the workplace.”
Workers will want AR capability on the job site, DAQRI expects. “We like to say we are putting the ‘real’ in augmented reality,” Wynne says. “The smart helmet has a form factor that people are already wearing. That will move into slimmer form factors as the technology advances.”
DAQRI is also upbeat about the adoption of AR technology in the automotive sector, where the technology can enable drivers to see GPS instructions and a dashboard projected on the windshield.
Since DAQRI was founded, however, other well-heeled entrants to the AR and VR market have also emerged. There’s the secretive firm Magic Leap. Founded in 2010, the company has raised $1.4 billion in three funding rounds and is working on developing hyper-realistic augmented reality technology. Microsoft has also entered the fray with its Hololens mixed reality glasses. The Redmond, WA–based company launched a pre-production version of the device in March 2016 for $3000. In the automotive realm, Toyota, BMW, and Jaguar are all working on AR technology.
For now, DAQRI is in the early adopter phase, which costs $15,000 to join. The helmet is part of that program, but does not have an individual price tag. “Our business model varies from customer to customer,” Wynne says. “The goal is to have thousands of units out in the field.” Navigating a new technology market can be tricky. “Currently, change is hard in a lot of these organizations,” Wynne says.“But the early adopter program is here to make the transition to AR in the workplace as seamless as possible.”
DAQRI has been right all along that there is tremendous potential in augmented reality. As we head into 2017, AR technology seems destined to become a mainstream technology, but it is still not certain when and what the market ultimately will look like.
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