I had the privilege to participate in a really cool workshop with representatives from the biggest Finnish electric utilities from all over the country, held last month during the Finnish Trimble User Days. The workshop went by the name of 3D and augmented reality for distribution utilities, but it actually focused mostly on mixed reality - combining and positioning virtual and real objects with one another - and finding ways for utilities to make it beneficial, for real.
For it goes without saying that as exciting as these new technologies are, implementing and adapting them to actual use takes a lot more than just buzzing. The workshop clearly brought out the cost issue - not just in purchasing the devices, but also in collecting high-quality data (not everyone has had the habit of recording the Z coordinate, to start with), setting up seamless data flows for enormous amounts of data and training the people so that it all works like it’s supposed to. Also the usability raised discussion - not only the attitudes of the users, but there are people of different sizes and skill levels, not to mention different types of tasks. And to top that, the new gadgets need to be compatible with helmets and all the other gear, in all kinds of weather conditions.
Workshop notes: Use cases for mixed reality
When the workshop participants were asked where they see their utility with the use of AR tools in 5 years, half replied they see “some use” and the other half “fairly significant use”. It may not be shocking - in fact, it may be the expected - but one must note that none of the participants saw “extensive use” for their utility. So clearly we’re not quite at the adaptation phase yet - but what would it take for these technologies to become the next boom?
“Somewhere around here” isn’t accurate enough for a location - by far”.
Because it’s not like we can’t all see the advantages. Where it may be an investment to get the new technologies up and running, cost savings could be significant. With the immediately available, easy-to-absorb data, processes run smoother, service quality improves and overall flexibility increases. The money you put in pays back in the form of outage compensation savings, reduced site visits, efficiency in spreading information to various people without always a need for a face-to-face, and so on. And, you're able to provide a better experience for your customers and stakeholders - just think about the WOW effect of splashing a 3D mixed reality visualization of your land use plans for a property owner on-site!
Another big theme that stood out in the workshop was the improved safety. The participants ranked it high in importance, finding that the mixed reality tools could really help in drawing the needed focus on the known dangers or other details that need attention, right where and when it’s needed. From a broader perspective, the visualized data makes it so much easier to verify that everything has been done as it should be, and that goes across all utility functions - from maintenance to investments to operations.
However, all of this becomes useful only if the used data is accurate enough. Spatial data is always tied to the real world, to a given environment, but “somewhere around here” isn’t good enough for a location - by far. Instead, you preferably need to get down to a few inches in accuracy for your data to become reliable and usable enough for the real-world use cases. And actually when showing, say, the locations of underground cables or the boundaries of danger zones on-site, using mixed reality tools becomes not just a disadvantage, but also a safety issue if the data isn’t accurate. It must be to the point, or it won’t get used at all.
Equally important is the cost issue. Like with any new technology, we can only anticipate a boom after there's no need to invest significantly into expensive and difficult-to-use devices. Tied together with the need for seamless data flows and usability out in the field, the workshop saw more use for a “poor man’s AR” in a mobile device rather than picturing their linemen walking around wearing futuristic visors.
While it’s true that there are still many questions to be answered, we are undeniably living exciting times - it seems that new breakthroughs keep popping up behind every the corner.
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