Can AR and VR Change the Energy and Utilities Industries?
The energy and utilities sectors aren’t known to be early adopters of cutting-edge technologies, but that might be about to change.
Augmented reality and virtual reality solutions have the potential to lower costs, improve safety and broaden the types of services provided in these large and often staid industries. The changes won’t happen quickly, and significant challenges — from hardware design to connectivity to software updates – remain. But experts and practitioners say the promise behind the hype is real in this space, particularly for augmented reality.
Using a head mounted device, augmented reality gives an individual in the real world the ability to get extra (augmented) information that can streamline a task or allow it to be performed remotely. Virtual reality also uses an HMD, but completely immerses someone in a virtual world where there is no connection to reality. Today many see AR as a tool that can be used at work while VR is better suited to training. To add to the confusion, some companies, most notably Microsoft, use a different term – “mixed reality” – to describe its HoloLens AR HMD, something it describes as a “more advanced” version of AR. The central difference between AR and MR is that the latter can blend 3D objects into an environment rather than merely overlay images atop the visual field. For instance, a user gazing at a MR object behind a table would see it positioned behind that device. In AR, the object would be superimposed in front of that physical object.
Whatever it’s called, the promise is intriguing. “In terms of enterprise adoption AR is focused on both smart devices and wearable devices that enable a hands-free experience,” explained Piers Harding-Rolls, director and lead AR/VR analyst with IHS Markit in London. “For utilities people they can be instructed or given overlay diagrams so they can literally read from a screen while their hands are free. They’re connected even in a remote environment. They can interface with headquarters and get the information right in front of their eyes rather than looking it up on the laptop or in the back of the van.”
Although Gartner Group’s Hype Cycle for Artificial Intelligence 2018 placed augmented reality in the “adolescent” stage, the report said the long-term benefits of the technology were high, particularly in vertical markets like energy and utilities. But it’s early days, of course – just between 1 percent and 5 percent of the target audience is actively using AR today. When it comes to virtual reality, the adoption rates are similar but Gartner wasn’t quite as bullish, calling out the long-term benefit as moderate.
Shell Oil has been experimenting with AR and VR technology for the last three to four years, said Justin Stroud, portfolio development manager with Shell TechWorks. And he would agree with Gartner that AR is a much more obvious fit for the energy space. “For AR I believe the usability is a little more obvious as we look in oil and gas sectors,” he said. “In energy in general we want to improve the operational efficiency of boots on the ground sites, facilitate and execute as much as we can remotely and automate as much as we can. AR can make us more efficient faster and alternately lead to cost savings. And obviously of great interest to us is the other value point, safety.”