May 2016
By Christine Perey

Image: © rawpixel/123rf.com

Christine Perey is the founder and principal analyst of PEREY Research & Consulting. She provides highly strategic research, business- and market-building related services with an emphasis on building robust strategies leading to the successful introduction and widespread adoption of Augmented Reality products and services.


christine[at]theAREA.org
http://theAREA.org
www.perey.com

Augmented Reality authoring tools for technical communicators

Although still a nascent field, there are over 30 purpose-built tools and platforms for authoring Augmented Reality (AR) experiences. Which tool is most suitable will depend on your existing authoring workflows and the use cases for which you aim to create AR support. Here is an overview of the options currently available.

How AR works

All AR authoring platforms produce outputs composed of trigger data, presentation data and interactions – sometimes referred to as "scenes". When projects are published, the group of scenes will provide users with the AR experiences. When turned on, the software client extracts features in the user’s environment (captured on video through a camera or sensors) and recognizes one or more targets. Once the target is recognized, an event is triggered and the client software (also known as the "execution engine") retrieves presentation data from a media service interface and presents it in real time and in context to the user.

Depending on the choice of authoring system, the developer will be able to publish individual projects (e.g. a mobile app) or enable content retrieval in a manner that will provide on-demand AR experiences from an enterprise CMS. Regardless of whether the content is stored locally in the app or in a CMS, the AR software client that interfaces with user device sensors and renders experiences must be on the local system.

Augmented Reality authoring platforms produce experiences in one or more formats. The options might include:

  • A stand-alone mobile app customized for a particular use case or project and device
  • An AR browser which can support any experience encoded in the publisher’s format
  • A plug-in running within a third-party application designed for another purpose (e.g., learning, project management, service management)
  • A normal web browser with WebGL and WebRTC

Authoring tools designed for B2C communication

At least ten of the commercial AR authoring systems are designed for use by agencies and creative professionals who seek to increase consumer engagement with brands, to support purchasing decisions (retail), accelerate learning on the primary and secondary education levels, explore cultural heritage or for entertainment purposes. These include:

  • ARmedia Hyperspaces
  • Augment
  • Blippar (Layar)
  • Catchoom CraftAR
  • HP Aurasma
  • Marxent
  • MAXST Image AR
  • PendAR+
  • Vidinot
  • WOWSOME

The experiences produced by these platforms are generally suitable for consumers to download from the Apple AppStore or the Google Play Store.

It’s entirely possible to create proof of concepts and preliminary enterprise AR experiences with these tools. However, they are not designed for enterprise deployment. The publishers of these platforms and tools do not state clearly if (or to which degree) the tools and publishing engines can be considered "enterprise-ready."

Authoring tools designed to enrich mobile app development

Another group of tools are unspecialized software development kits (SDKs) designed for Augmented Reality. These can be used in part or exclusively to develop any type of AR project, including those that require robust enterprise performance. Examples of SDKs for AR include:

  • ARmedia SDK
  • ARToolkit SDK
  • EasyAR
  • EON Reality
  • Kudan AR SDK
  • Vuforia SDK
  • WakingApp Entiti Creator
  • Wikitude SDK

Some of the companies that publish AR SDKs also offer AR execution engines and real-world tracking libraries that can be combined with other design or content management tools.

In combination with these SDKs, which require varying levels of programming skill, some developers create AR experiences using programming tools that are directly available in the mobile application development environments (IDE) with which they are already working (e.g. Xcode for iOS or Eclipse for Android).

Many, if not most, professional AR experience developers use a game engine developer environment for designing the interaction, then add AR plug-ins for target detection and tracking. The most popular mobile device-optimized game development environments for developing AR experiences are Unity 3D and Epic’s Unreal Engine.

Authoring tools designed for enterprise AR

Recognizing that technical communicators have different requirements than game designers or developers of consumer engagement campaigns (e.g. agencies working for brands), some tools have been designed particularly for enterprise AR deployment.

Software publishers that target the developers of AR experiences in industrial use cases include:

  • Atheer
  • Bitstars
  • Bosch (in partnership with RE’FLEKT)
  • CN2 Technology
  • DAQRI
  • Diginext
  • DIOTA
  • NGRAIN
  • PTC (Vuforia)
  • Seabery
  • ViewAR

The platforms and services of these companies differ from the other tools by virtue of their focus on the enterprise requirements: for example, the need for precise tracking, seamless integration with existing enterprise IT services (e.g., security, authentication) and support for hands-free displays. Within the products and platforms these companies offer, there are also differences in their approach to authoring and support for different software architectures.

In addition, there are other providers of customized experiences that publish portions of their technologies. For example, ScopeAR provides RemoteAR. There are over 20 companies of providers focusing on remote assistance with varying levels of AR-rendered graphics sent by an expert in a different location.

Extensions for existing enterprise IT tools

There is a growing number of engineering platforms that include – or will soon offer users – AR support capabilities without leaving a workflow. For example, NGRAIN and Seabery offer optimized platforms that can be easily adopted by designers of training programs and content.

Publishers of tools for construction and engineering project management, maintenance/repair/operations and manufacturing management segments (as well as service providers in these industries) are increasingly aware of how their customers could benefit from the extension of their existing platforms out of the office and into the real world.

For example, Bentley’s extensive suite of tools for construction and engineering procurement professionals has a new feature. The Navigator product, an extension of the MicroStation platform for the purpose of 3D-model viewing and collaboration, has recently been made into an AR authoring and viewing system.

Using Navigator AR, the models stored in MicroStation are associated with trigger data and can be seen in context using a tablet. The system uses marker-assisted tracking and has support for the use of edge tracking. It can also connect and obtain more accurate positioning data from professional surveying tools. Users can annotate the models in the real world and collaborate with remote colleagues who are viewing the model in the digital world.

Another example of a company that is adding AR features to its professional tool suite is Autodesk. The company partnered with Microsoft and demonstrated the use of Hololens with Fusion 360, its cloud-based software platform for 3D CAD, CAM and computer-aided engineering management. The project continued and has been expanded but no commercial release date has been given yet.

Another Microsoft Hololens partner with very deep ties to the construction and engineering fields is Trimble. Trimble currently offers select customers an AR extension for the SketchUp 3D modeling software and the Trimble Connect collaboration platform. This extension allows the creation of 3D models that are accessible for presentation via the Project Tango tablet and the Hololens.

Finally, a project may need to deliver AR experiences on multiple platforms, some of which are not directly supported in the authoring environment. The providers of hands-free displays also offer authoring or customization tools that can be companions to solutions named previously. Some, such as Vuzix, permit the developer to extend an Android-compatible output for AR-assisted viewing. Others, such as Atheer, Epson, Sony and ODG, also use Android development tools and offer proprietary tools for developers who join their ecosystem.

Type

Examples

AR engineering environments
(programming required)

ARmedia AR SDK, AR Toolkit, Kudan AR SDK, Wikitude SDK

Android or iOS IDE

(programming required)

Eclipse for Android, Xcode for iOS

Game engines

(programming required)

Epic Unreal Engine, Unity 3D

Stand-alone AR authoring platform

Bitstars Holobuilder, DAQRI 4D Studio, DigiNext Inscape3D, NGRAIN Vergence, PTC ThingBuilder

Web-based platform

ARmedia Hyperspaces, Wikitude Creator

Supported in 3rd party tools

Autodesk, Bentley MicroStation, Trimble

Integrated in enterprise CMS

(programming required)

Bosch CAP, DIOTA Diota Player and Connect

Table 1: Examples of the different types of authoring tools supporting AR

 

Taking a deeper approach

In 2010, a group of Fraunhofer researchers studying the field of enterprise AR for technical documentation expressed their concerns about the risks of continuing or expanding the use of isolated technology silos for AR experiences. In addition to risks due to maintenance time and costs incurred by duplication of efforts, another major obstacle anticipated by these researchers was a divergence of semantics. One semantic would be adopted for use in text and illustration media and another in Augmented Reality experiences.

In order to avoid creating a parallel authoring process and the costs of all associated technologies, the researchers recommended steps to be taken to overhaul the technical documentation process. They suggested placing the authoring of interactive media, including AR, in the center of the documentation process and generating traditional media only as a byproduct. They also recommended developing and adopting a restricted vocabulary of controlled natural language terms. We are unaware of any projects that pursued this avenue. However, there are now some tools available that introduce AR directly into the enterprise CMS and PLM systems as an alternative to having parallel authoring processes and tools.

Public documentation to support the promises of these vendors is scant to non-existent. However, DIOTA and Bosch (in collaboration with RE’FLEKT GmbH) have made public statements suggesting that they are taking a deeper approach to AR authoring that does not create an entirely separate database or alternate management system for experiences (scenes) once published.

In these cases, the architecture appears to be that of a proprietary mobile client composed of an AR execution engine including the vendor’s feature extraction and tracking technologies for natural feature-based and marker-assisted tracking. In the enterprise CMS, the scenes are stored for immediate retrieval when the targets are detected in the real world.

These systems appear to be quite closely related to those developed by Bentley and Trimble (mentioned above), focused, however, on a more general set of experiences including but not limited to instruction and guidance of procedural tasks.

It’s still the early days

Augmented Reality is a new field in enterprise communications. This article can serve as a map of the new types of AR authoring tools from which communicators can choose.

As with any new technology introduction and innovation process, early adopters must get familiar with the lay of the land. While technical communicators can start exploring the use of AR with tools designed for producing brand engagement campaigns or K-12 learning apps, there are several other types of authoring tools to consider. For those who have prior experience with mobile application development, there are AR SDKs that may be an attractive place to begin. If an enterprise technical communications group is thinking of a deeper integration with content authoring workflows, there are alternatives that merit further study.

Hands-on testing is an important step in the education process. Install a trial software package or sign up for a subscription on a hosted service for a few AR projects. Along the way, the tools may need to change as project requirements become clearer or change. It’s also safe to say that the tools for AR authoring will evolve rapidly as publishers receive feedback from experienced technical communication professionals. So, stay tuned and visit the Augmented Reality vendors’ booths at shows or check their websites for the latest developments.

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#2 maki1988 wrote at Thu, May 10 answer

As for the publisher, the augmented reality carries a special weight in this industry.( https://invisible.toys/augmented-reality-for-publishers/ ) Advantages of augmented reality for publications:

Providing rich, interactive, attractive user experiences;

Increase the reader's involvement hundreds of times;

Creation of exclusivity and wow-effect for publication;

Formation of brand perception among clients;

Stimulation of the decision to purchase;

Providing access to a rapidly growing mobile market

I agree that the technology enlivens the entire printing industry. I am sure that this is the case when mobile technologies are in force to raise the publishing industry.

#1 maki1988 wrote at Thu, May 10 answer

As for the publisher, the augmented reality carries a special weight in this industry.( https://invisible.toys/augmented-reality-for-publishers/ ) Advantages of augmented reality for publications:

Providing rich, interactive, attractive user experiences;

Increase the reader's involvement hundreds of times;

Creation of exclusivity and wow-effect for publication;

Formation of brand perception among clients;

Stimulation of the decision to purchase;

Providing access to a rapidly growing mobile market

I agree that the technology enlivens the entire printing industry. I am sure that this is the case when mobile technologies are in force to raise the publishing industry.