Digital Realism

In July 2016, animated smartphone game, Pokémon Go, became an overnight sensation as it took gamers out of the living room and on to the streets on the hunt for randomly hidden digital creatures – leading to hysteric global media coverage and hitherto unknown levels of attention for a technology dubbed location-based Augmented Reality (AR).

Pokémon Go’s AR technology ‘overlayed’ real-time images of the players’ immediate surroundings with animated renders of Pokémon characters – effectively merging the real world with the digital one through the lens of a mobile phone.

While both the gaming community and mainstream media have since moved on to the next big thing, the Pokémon Go spirit, or at least the AR element of it, is still alive and well in industrial manufacturing and logistics – both in an application context and as a means to attract digital natives to the industry.

Global courier company, DHL, is especially proactive in the field. In the wake of the Pokémon Go craze – and inspired by the follow-up success of Snapchat, which allows users to overlay live imagery with digital filters – it commissioned an in-depth report* on the potential impact of AR on logistics and freight management. The report found that the expansion of our physical reality by adding layers of computer-generated information could fundamentally change the way we move freight from A to B – and that real-life applications are already within reach.

Transport businesses may utilise AR to optimise route selection in real time, for example. “AR driver assistance apps – either with glasses or windshield display – could be used to display information in real-time in the driver’s field of vision,” the report speculates. “In effect, AR will be the successors to today’s navigation systems, with a key advantage that the driver doesn’t have to take their eyes off the road anymore.”

DHL’s report takes the concept even further, saying augmented reality systems could also provide drivers with live information on the cargo in the back – a function especially helpful for livestock transport and temperature-sensitive freight. AR would allow drivers to visually check their cargo without opening the trailer and compromising the temperature inside. Mechanical faults or human error while loading could be addressed earlier and more effectively, DHL argues, in turn empowering transport businesses to provide a new level of quality assurance.

In addition to managing cargo temperatures, AR systems could also be used to streamline the freight loading process. “AR devices could [replace] the need for printed cargo lists and load instructions,” DHL found. “At a transfer station, for example, the loader could obtain real-time information on their AR device about which pallet to take next and where exactly to place this pallet in the vehicle. The AR device could display loading instructions, with arrows or highlights identifying suitable target areas inside the vehicle.”

Such information could be generated either in advance by planning software or on the spot using ad-hoc object recognition systems, a technology first presented to the trailer community by German trailer manufacturer, Krone, at the 2016 IAA Commercial Vehicle Show. Krone’s ‘intelligent load compartment monitoring’ system is based on a 3D camera installed inside the trailer, allowing a Tetris-inspired computer program to assess the load situation and suggest the best location for the next pallet.

According to DHL, technologies like that may also help transport businesses manage the disruptive effects of e-commerce. “The growing use of e-commerce has led to a boom of last-mile delivery services, which is the final step in the supply chain and often the most expensive one,” DHL says. “Therefore, the optimisation of last-mile delivery to drive down product cost and increase profit is a promising field of application or AR devices.”

Indubitably judging from experience, DHL says van drivers in particular are at risk of spending too much time locating the correct boxes in the truck for the next delivery. “With efficient and intelligent loading, and with AR devices highlighting the right parcel for the driver, the search process would be much more convenient and significantly accelerated at every drop-off,” it suggests.

DHL and Krone are not the only companies in the transport and logistics space keeping the Pokémon Go spirit alive. UPS, for example, started using reality-altering technology in September 2017 at nine of its in-house training facilities in the US. UPS’ so-called Integrad facilities take a hands-on approach to teaching students the fundamentals of the parcel delivery business, allowing them to operate UPS delivery trucks in a ‘replica city’ that has real streets and pathways as well as simulated delivery and pickup sites.

To add a level of complexity and simulate the experience of driving on busy city streets in a safe environment, the student delivery drivers also get to use 360° Virtual Reality (VR) headsets that randomly confront them with new challenges and road hazards such as pedestrians, parked cars and oncoming traffic. The students have to react by verbally identifying the potential threat.

As opposed to AR technology, which adds digital elements to a live image, VR implies a complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world, explains UPS’s Chief Information and Engineering Officer, Juan Perez. The combination of both – often referred to as Mixed Reality (MR) – allows businesses to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.

“Virtual Reality offers a big technological leap in the realm of driver safety training,” he says about the full immersion aspect of the training course. “VR creates a hyper-realistic streetscape that will dazzle even the youngest of our drivers whose previous exposure to the technology was through video games only.”

For now, UPS Integrad Expansion Director, Jeanne Lawrence, says the company’s MR training is only available for drivers of parcel delivery trucks, but a company-wide rollout could be on the cards, too. By merging the real word with the digital one and “gamifying” the experience, she explains MR might help make traditional driver education more engaging – much like Pokémon Go brought entire city blocks to a standstill in 2016 as gamers focused so deeply on hunting down the next creature.

With UPS and Krone already putting MR technology to good use and mobile applications like Pokémon Go and Snapchat helping mass audiences familiarise with the technology, the fusion of real life and the virtual world may thus only be a question of time – even in a tradition-rich industry like trucking.

*by DHL Trend Research: Augmented Reality in Logistics.

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