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Remote Repairs, Healthy Crops, Police Surveillance: The Future of Drones, Ar, and Vr

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The man on the right, in virtual reality glasses, is performing actions that the man on the left, in augmented reality glasses, sees and emulates, demonstrating how engineers repairing complicated equipment in remote locations could be provided assistance.

Credit: Mark Halper

Cisco Systems is working to ensure that drones, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) connect to the Internet and play a vital role in work and society. In Cisco's view, these emerging technologies will help accomplish everything from inspecting oil pipelines to guiding engineers through critical repairs to taking video conferencing to a new level, and much more.

The Cisco vision even includes "cameras everywhere" to facilitate a world where augmented reality eyewear might replace many of today's computer screens.

It is all part of what the world's largest networking company and its CEO, Chuck Robbins, see as the company's business future: the Internet of Things. By tying not only everyday items like light bulbs and heating/cooling systems into the Net, but also linking in cutting-edge hardware like drones and AR/VR equipment, the $49.2-billion company would help create more demand for its own networking services and products, such as switches and routers.

"You're going to see us drive more innovation faster over the next several years than you've ever seen in the history of this company," Robbins said in his keynote address at the CiscoLive 2016 gathering in Las Vegas in July.

Cisco is still in the early days of mapping out a strategy to embrace it all, but that is clearly in progress, as evidenced by the many ideas articulated at the event as to how these dazzling new technologies might actually factor into daily operations.

One of the more intriguing prospects could be the use of AR—the technology behind the Pokémon Go game craze—which adds objects or information to a person's online field of vision that otherwise would not include those objects, such as adding a Pokémon character to a live camera view of someone's living room. In a full-blown AR world, people would have the option of using not only traditional gadget and computer screens, but also special eyewear through which they would view their immediate and real surroundings, which would include added objects.

Cisco sees enormous potential in enabling VR users to communicate with AR users. VR is the long-awaited technology that is now taking root in the gaming world, in which people see a computer-generated image through goggles and make gestures that affect the action.

"Augmented reality and virtual reality has very big potential to transform collaboration," said John Restrick, chief technology officer of Cisco's collaboration technology group.

Among the many tantalizing possibilities would be for a mechanical expert at a home base to virtually perform a repair on, say, an engine or a boiler in a remote location, where another engineer, in need of such help, would follow the movement and application of tools, nuts, bolts, valves, and the like on a visual, step-by-step basis. The home engineer would use VR glasses and would appear in the field engineer’s field of vision while he is also looking at the machinery through AR glasses.

"I think AR in the workplace of the future will replace screens," said Rowan Trollope, Cisco's senior vice president and general manager of IoT and applications. "We foresee a world where cameras are everywhere. They transport you into someone else's field of view."

Trollope, who says he prefers the term "mixed reality" to "augmented reality," noted that AR glasses could serve as a telepresence tool to enable video meetings, in place of today's screens. He also imagined goggles that receive information from cameras and other sensors that communicate information about a room's climate or light level, and then allow the wearer to change light colors and brightness, or thermostat settings, by gesturing.

Cisco believes the IoT in general, of which AR and VR are becoming a part, will help companies of all sorts switch their business models from one of selling products to one of selling services.

"Once you connect something—a product—it has the ability to transform from being a product to a service," said Trollope. "So the real root of what's happening is a transformation from products to services. That changes the very nature of what kind of business you're in."

That sort of transition is easier said that done, and will not happen overnight. But it appears to make sense to companies like precision machine-tool manufacturer Mazak Corp., which increasingly is embedding sensors in its equipment to help customers monitor and improve the machine's performance. That, in turn, lays the foundation for selling machining as a service.

"We see a tremendous opportunity to expand our services to the end-user community," said Mazak president Dan Janka. "By taking advantage of that digital connectivity, reducing the need to have service technicians jumping on airplanes and reducing the downtime, we now remotely can reach into their equipment and give a diagnosis in that manner." He cautioned, though, that manufacturing is a conservative world that tends to remain "years behind" leading edge IT development, so it might be some time before AR arrives in the Mazak ecosystem.

One technology ramping up more quickly than AR is aerial drones—remote- and self-controlled autonomous flying devices—which already are taking off. Cisco envisages myriad applications, including inspecting cellular towers for structural weaknesses or antenna flaws (something AT&T recently began trialing); looking for leaks and emissions in gas pipelines and refineries; and helping to grow healthier crops by using infrared and other sensors to spot crop diseases.

"Drones are a vehicle for sensors," said Angelo Fienga, a mobility architect with Cisco's global collaboration group, who described drones as another means for "collaboration and for people to be checking information in a constant, effective way."

Chris Wagner, Chief of Police for Denville Township, NJ, said he would welcome the use of drones, although state law prohibits its use for surveillance purposes at the moment. He notes, however, "There are places that are using it for emergency management."

Blaine Hurst, executive vice president and chief transformation and growth officer at restaurant chain Panera Bread, said in response to a question that Panera has indeed mulled the possibility of using drones to deliver orders. "Clearly there are some challenges," Hurst noted, adding, "there are potential solutions out there, but probably not in the next week or two."

As organizations like Mazak, Panera, and the Denville Police work out new ways to use these new technologies, they will buttress the IoT juggernaut, in which anything that can be digitized, will be.

Mark Halper is a freelance journalist based near Bristol, England. He covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. 


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