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Among the many consumer products we saw at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, one of the most exciting things on display was for the industrial market: An Augmented Reality (AR) reference design from Flex. It is a complete product platform that Flex clients can customize for their own needs, whether for remote-guided machine maintenance and repair, packing and shipping, or hundreds of other possibilities.
“Extended Reality (XR) is a market that may eventually rival smartphones and represents a disruptive shift in technology platforms,” says Eric Braddom, vice president, XR Product Management at Flex. “It’s one of those things that you want to embrace, take advantage of, and not let it run you over.”
Many of the most critical components are available only to large companies and it can be difficult -- and expensive -- to master AR’s many aspects, from optics and mechanicals to thermal analysis and human factors. An AR headset must be able to comfortably fit almost anyone's head while displaying high-quality digital images. And anyone who has ever been fitted for eyeglasses knows how much variation there can be in eye position.
With extensive research, Flex eliminates the guesswork for its clients wanting to create a product that can be manufactured at scale. Flex produced a headset that does not block peripheral vision and uses an external processing unit for up to twelve hours of battery life. The Flex reference design has a clear visor that makes it Z87 safety rated and appropriate for indoor or outdoor use, which can be a challenge with tinted visors. The transparent optics are also important allowing people to have eye contact while working together. The Flex AR reference design incorporates new OE Vision optics from Lumus and the Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 835 mobile processor.
“We set out to create a reference design that meets the needs of the industrial market first,” Braddom says. “Something that our customers could adopt and build upon to shorten time to market and dramatically lower development costs. With the Flex AR reference design, we can often cut their development costs in half depending on which reference design features they use.”
Work, not play, is perhaps the bigger market for Flex AR reference design based devices. A technician wearing a headset created from the platform can, for example, service a machine under the guidance of an expert mechanic thousands of miles away who can see and hear the trouble as clearly as the technician standing in front of the equipment. Additionally, the headset can be controlled with gestures, voice or Bluetooth accessories, allowing flexibility for input and control in the field.
Flex used the expertise it has gained from working across twelve different industries to create this AR reference design. For example, thermal analysis gained from designing wearables helped us create a comfortable HMD that does not get too hot. Experience with high-speed signal analysis from designing servers helped us figure out how to divide the system into two pieces - HMD and EPU – and pass signals, video and sound over a standard USB-C cable. Customers from multiple industries are talking with Flex about how to use the platform for applications in different markets, such as surgical AR glasses for the medical technology industry. While the AR reference design is initially targeted at industrial markets, the technology platform has broad application for consumer devices down the road.
CES attendees clearly understood the value of a turnkey solution and started inquiring about engineering samples. AR is not only a disruptive platform for many industrial uses, it also is a way to gather critical information and insights. “Innovative companies want AR because it offers the richest data,” Braddom says, “an amazing enriched data set about how people do their work, what works well and what can be improved - this will lead to a new generation of insights and services that can change how we work.”