Guiding Light

DAQRI’s augmented reality illuminates a new way of working

The proverb “Many hands make light work” has defined collaboration throughout centuries. While the exact origin of the saying is unknown, the meaning is crystal clear: Large tasks become small when divided among several people.

The separation of roles and responsibilities is a hallmark of the modern workplace. However, that same specialization has now become a major challenge for the global workforce as automation transforms jobs and takes on smarter tasks. A 2017 analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that around 38% of jobs in the United States could potentially be at high risk of automation by the early 2030s.

Now, consider the proverb with a twist: Light makes many hands work.

That could be the mantra of the Los Angeles–based augmented reality company DAQRI, which uses software to control light in its wearable holographic technology for workers across industries. With its flagship products, the Smart Helmet and Smart Glasses, the company aims to give workers the tools to do their jobs safely, efficiently, quickly, and even more creatively. The technology behind those products is designed to enhance, rather than replace, the human experience of work. 

In 1997, Brian Mullins graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, where he studied engineering. His first foray into augmented reality came shortly after, when he was working for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Computer Aided Operational Research Facility on a simulator for maneuvering ships used to train professional mariners and military personnel. The state of AR technology at the time posed unique training challenges, Mullins says. “You’d see the real bridge of a ship, and look out in the distance and see the simulated world,” he recalls. “To do things like dock a ship, you’d need binoculars. But if you used binoculars in this hybrid world, it wouldn’t quite work.”

Mullins subsequently worked on robotics and computer vision in the industrial sector, and encountered rigid automation technologies that were designed to bypass workers. Machine learning at the time didn’t take advantage of humans’ brilliant ability to be flexible, adapt, and bring creativity to a situation, he says. Augmented reality, however, was completely different. “It was focused around empowering [people] to do more, giving them access to knowledge in real time,” he says.

AR still needed a shot in the arm at that point, according to Mullins. The technology had to be responsive to the needs of customers. “They wanted AR to adapt to their businesses. They were not trying to adapt their businesses to AR,” Mullins says. In other words, AR needed devices that would be both handy and hands-free. 

The opportunity for Mullins to produce effective AR products came in 2010, when he realized that the smaller and faster processors in smartphone technology were now finally powerful enough to drive the advanced holographic displays he envisioned. As founder of DAQRI, initially named Augmented Dynamics, Mullins has helped harness that computing power to build AR systems for the field-service engineering market. 

The company’s approach: Use light and let physics do the heavy lifting.

DAQRI, initially named Augmented Dynamics, has helped harness that computing power to build AR systems for the field-service engineering market

Seeing the Light

Light has various properties such as color and brightness. Usually, only one property can be controlled at a time: We stretch the wavelength with optical technology to produce warmer colors or increase the amplitude to make the light shine brighter. But there’s also a way we can actually slow light down, Mullins says. 

We often hear that you can never change the speed of light, he says: “That’s mostly true, however, you can change the speed at which light travels in different materials, like air or glass.” What the DAQRI team did was develop a type of crystal that can alter the speed at which light propagates inside it. They created what they call a biphasic crystal element that can precisely generate an electric field using software. This technology encodes the brightness of light, like in traditional pixel-based displays, but it
also changes the phase of the bundles of light, allowing for the reconstruction of complex, dynamic holograms. 

What DAQRI refers to as “software-defined light” is the basis of its Smart Helmet and Smart Glasses, both of which are currently commercially available. In partnership with Flex, DAQRI has worked to bring its technology to scale across industries such as architecture, manufacturing, medicine, and construction.  

DAQRI’s products can be deployed where visual tasks are involved to bring important unseen information into the worker’s field of vision. 

Both the helmet and glasses are equipped with tracking cameras and data visualization technology that allow the wearer to see the data in the physical world around her. The helmet has an integrated thermal camera, while the glasses are modular, lightweight, and adjustable. The devices can provide guided work instructions, as well as remote expert assistance, enhancing the wearer’s skill level and slashing the time it takes to complete manual tasks. 

Take, for example, a field engineer on a wind farm who climbs industrial wind turbines for service or repairs. 

“When you get there, you have to be able to fix whatever is wrong,” Mullins says. “If I’m a worker, I may be responsible for 600 or 700 different work instructions and only do 50 on a regular basis. Work package No. 560? I might only do that once in my career, but I have to have access to it.” If the technician gets to the top of the tower and doesn’t have the instructions, that’s a wasted trip that requires scheduling a return for another day.

With both the Smart Helmet and Smart Glasses being used in the workforce, DAQRI is continuing to help developers build new workflows for specific business needs

Winning Over the Workforce

When Siemens was exploring ways to increase training efficiency for assembling complex gas turbines, it partnered with DAQRI to build an AR app. Training is usually costly and time-consuming, with a turbine fitter’s certification process taking three years, according to the industrial manufacturing company. Gas burner assembly is a key part of that training. Using AR, an assembly task that would normally require at least a full day of classroom training to master took one novice 45 minutes and another 52 minutes to complete. An expert at gas burner assembly, who served as the baseline for Siemen’s case study for the AR app, was able to complete the task in 40 minutes using DAQRI’s technology. 

“We’re starting to see people have this realization that their workforce isn’t made up of plumbers and welders and fitters and other vocational classifications,” Mullins says. It’s the people who are the problem solvers. “And with the right device and the right type of work instruction, [customers] can get a lot more portability, mobility, an increase in worker happiness, as well as a reduction in errors and the time it takes to get things done, with augmented reality.”

In addition to saving money and time, AR could also create a safer environment on the factory floor or worksite. Employees who some executives thought would never go for AR have actually embraced it, according to Mullins. “The workers who are skeptical often submit the best feedback about the product,” he says. “They’re the ones that rate it the highest and say, ‘I’m a safety engineer. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I feel safer with this device.’”

With both the Smart Helmet and Smart Glasses being used in the workforce, DAQRI is continuing to help developers build new workflows for specific business needs. The company has also joined the race to pursue fully autonomous vehicles. DAQRI announced plans this year to open an automotive product development center northwest of Detroit, in Oakland County, Michigan, to support the expansion of its smart heads-up driving (HUD) technology.

“[Smart HUD technology] can use up to 90% less power than traditional display technologies, because we interfere the light using our phase modulator,” Mullins explains. “Where you need light, we push the light there. Where you don’t need light, we block the light and create heat. So our displays are extremely power efficient.”

Mullins believes DAQRI technology will illuminate the way forward, solving problems on the road and in our professional lives. “Work is much more than labor,” he insists. “Work is how people leave their mark in the world.”