May 2015
By Jürgen Lumera

Image: © mikkelwilliam/ istockphoto.com

Juergen Lumera has more than 15 years of experience in XML authoring and delivery solutions. In his current role as Director at TIS Product Management and Innovation, he is defining the next generation of technical documentation system. He is especially interested in new trends and technologies for technical documentation.


juergen.lumera[at]de
www.bosch.com


 


 

How Augmented Reality impacts technical documentation

Augmented Reality is delivering ground-breaking opportunities in technical communication. But while the market is thirsting for more, technical writers have been slow to adopt the trailblazing innovation. A wake-up call to the tc industry.

For those of you who are not yet familiar with the emerging technology called Augmented Reality (AR), here is a quick introduction: AR allows superimposing 3D information onto a real-time video stream. The overlaid 3D information is positioned and scaled in perspective, giving the user the impression that the information is part of the scene. A common example is a streamed soccer game, where the offside line is occasionally superimposed to show whether the player was offside or not. Likewise, in American football, the remaining yards to the goal line are superimposed onto the field.

This article will show how Augmented Reality will impact technical documentation, what challenges lie ahead and what opportunities it will bring to technical writers.

Image 1: A wire harness is superimposed onto a dashboard.
Source: www.bosch.de

 

Why is AR important for technical documentation?

Until recently, a technical author described a technical task with words and 2D or 3D graphics. To do so, he needed to predict how the technician or user would stand in front of the product and match the description with this position. The more complex the task, the harder it was to find the right combination of words and graphics to deliver a clear message and minimize misinterpretation.

But even when an author did his best to describe a task for a generic situation, he couldn’t guarantee that the task would be executed correctly. This depends on the ability of the user or technician to interpret the information correctly and apply it in the right place on the product. For example, the user might have had to transfer the information from a picture of a power switch to its actual physical location on the product in front of him. What the author has clearly been lacking so far is the ability to match the information he has created with the nearly infinite number of variations of how and where a product can be used or serviced.

With Augmented Reality, this is now possible. The author produces information to be be superimposed onto the actual physical product in front of the user or technician at the time of executing the task. The technical writer can now directly guide the consumer through the task and more precisely than ever before. AR allows the consumer to focus on the execution of the task, rather than on the interpretation and transfer of the technical content.

This is why Augmented Reality is relevant for technical documentation – particularly in a world where products become more and more complex, are sold globally and where users and technicians are not skilled enough to operate those products without assistance.

 

How will AR change the way we work?

We predict that Augmented Reality will fundamentally change the way we communicate with our consumers (technicians, users, operators, etc.). However, undoubtedly, it is still necessary to create content, because Augmented Reality is not possible without content. But creating content for AR will require new tools and – more importantly – a new way of thinking and planning when producing technical documentation. As mentioned before – with Augmented Reality, we guide and no longer explain. This sounds simple, but in order to realize it we need to consider a few aspects – aspects that we haven’t had to worry about so far.

For starters, Augmented Reality is heavily based on the visualization of 3D objects, and therefore, the author’s main software will be a 3D manipulation tool. Rather than working with CAD software, we will be working with 3D animation tools that are already on the market. But how a technical author uses these 3D tools is pretty different from the classical creation of animations. The author will have to decide what will be physically available, and which parts should be superimposed at what time. To do this, the author has to picture himself in the execution process and imagine what support a consumer might need at a certain time. To create AR, we will have to imagine standing behind the user and showing him how to execute the task.

Next, we will have to think about different ways for the user to interact with our content: When do I use what information, and how can the user interact with this information? For example, when showing a bolt, will the user be able to click on it? And what will happen when he does (another augmentation, pop-up menu, video, etc.)? In the past, these decisions were typically made by software developers, but with Augmented Reality and the new tools, authors can (and should) make these decisions. After all, they are the experts in communicating technical information and they should be the ones who decide where to show specific information.

Finally, we need to keep the end users’ devices in mind: In the future, Augmented Reality will be used not only with traditional mobile devices like tablets or smartphones. More likely, it will be used with smartglasses. All three types of devices may require different approaches to prepare AR content – not just different resolutions and fields of view, but also different interaction mechanisms such as gesture control, voice recognition or touch screen functionalities.

The above points only cover some general requirements for authors preparing AR content. There are many more specific challenges (e.g. how to deal with changes in the product during dismantling), which no technical author had to face in the past.

 

What are today’s challenges?

Today, AR technology to track and superimpose 3D content has reached a level where it can be implemented in production. Various companies like Metaio, Frauenhofer or Vuforia supply the technologies. What has been missing so far are tools to industrialize the AR content creation, integrate AR into existing tools and processes, and significantly reduce the effort to create new AR applications. But today, tools are hitting the market that support not only mass data creation, but also the management of different releases and permanent updates – the typical challenges for any type of technical documentation. Bosch, for example, provides a framework (CAP – Common Augmented Reality Platform) to manage and deliver AR content on a large scale.

One of the biggest challenges for a company getting started with Augmented Reality is the lack of objective information on how to introduce AR: What are the risks, what ROI can be expected, how can AR be approached, what legal aspects like safety or security are relevant, etc.

But while the tool landscape has been improving, new organizations have emerged that aim to provide exactly this bit of missing information. Organizations like AREA (Augmented Reality for the Enterprise Alliances, www.thearea.org) are quickly becoming the platform for questions related to Augmented Reality.

Apart from the demand for the cost-efficient creation of AR content, the biggest challenges lie in the limitation on available devices. Using a tablet or smartphone might work perfectly fine for an AR application, but it blocks the hands of the user. To get the most out of Augmented Reality, users need hands-free operation. This is possible with smartglasses and smart helmets. Although this market is growing, it still lacks some breakthrough features such as a wide field of view while still being light and comfortable enough to wear the whole day.

But hands-free devices generate another challenge for the technology as well as for authors: new ways to interact with the application via gesture control or voice recognition. We already touched on this point earlier. The goal is to eliminate the need to move the hand away from the task execution. The industry has promising solutions for this problem (like the Magic Leap sensor) for the technician or user. But this still leaves a challenge for the author, because he now has to build this into his content. He has to decide when which type of voice or gesture control can occur, how to react within the AR content, etc. This is a completely new area for authors – but there will be tools to simplify this task as the quality of smartglasses and smart helmets reaches production level.

 

What opportunities exist due to AR?

This is the first ground-breaking technology in technical documentation in a very long time (some might argue that 3D animation was a trailblazing invention, but it was more of an evolution than a revolution). Although the hardware has not yet reached a level that allows hands-free operation, there is still a huge potential for technical documentation.

Implementing AR in technical documentation might require a small paradigm shift: Today the user does not operate the device while he is reading the technical documentation. He does this sequentially, by switching from the book (digital or printed) to the product he is working on and vice versa.

Replacing this approach with Augmented Reality will on the one hand speed up the processing of the information and eliminate errors that occur when transferring the information from the manual to the task at hand (e.g. interpreting a picture and matching it with the product). In addition, up to 80 percent of information is redundant with Augmented Reality.

Augmented Reality can already be applied to any kind of information: explaining how to operate a washing machine, showing a sales person the critical points of a new product, enriching a brochure with augmented information, combining training and technical documentation to allow on-demand training, visualizing complex repair and maintenance tasks.

Every author will instantly find multiple situations when explaining a task with more precision would be highly beneficial. Augmented Reality provides an opportunity to deliver this precision.

 

Are users ready for AR?

A typical question asked about Augmented Reality is whether users are willing to point their devices onto a product to receive instructions. Looking at the list of AR applications already deployed in the market, the answer is a clear YES. Perhaps you are in your living room while reading this magazine. If so, check out your latest IKEA catalogue. If you haven’t got it, I suggest you grab one during your next visit. The catalogue allows you to augment your home with furniture by simply printing out a marker, placing it onto the floor and pointing your mobile device at it – just give it a try. Currently more than 100 million copies are distributed and readers are using it to visualize their new furnishings.

We all – pretty much independent of age – are using our mobile devices throughout the day. Therefore, the majority of the information we consume is already displayed on mobile devices. While most information is still delivered in traditional formats, more and more applications now also deliver content in Augmented Reality. Just search your app store for Augmented Reality and you will be astonished.

So the question is no longer if users are ready – it is why we as technical authors are taking so long to deliver more information via AR. While AR has already reached our daily lives, and innovations like the IKEA catalogue have proven how powerful it really is, the market is now demanding more.

 

And now what?

Communication with our clients, the consumers of our technical documentation, will fundamentally change: Augmented Reality gives us the ability to virtually stand behind our client at his home, work bench or sales room, looking over his shoulder and guiding him through a more efficient and accurate task execution than ever before. This will result in lower warranty costs and, more importantly, in higher product quality. The technology is ready to be used to make AR real for your products. Welcome to the new technical documentation world powered by Augmented Reality.

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#2 amrita wrote at Fri, Jul 06 answer

How would this impact the Agile process in documentation?

#1 Fer O\'Neil wrote at Tue, May 12 answer homepage

A great article for how and why technical communicators should be involved with AR. However, I disagree that the primary "tools" of technical writers will be "3D animation tools"--our primary tool will still be language and how we use it in this medium most effectively. The tool will still be the technical writer's decision-making ability, choosing what to include or not, and how. That "in the past these decisions were typically made by software developers" doesn't just apply to AR--all content in any system (AR or otherwise) is the purview of technical communication, as Juergen notes, and we can therefore apply this to all emerging technologies. This is another example of why technical communicators need to continue investigating innovative methods of content delivery so we can be at the forefront of shaping how this technology and information is made accessible to users.