Augmented reality (AR) leaped into the public consciousness in 2016 when Pokémon Go was released. But enterprises had been working on commercial applications for AR long before it became common to see adults endangering themselves and others chasing virtual “monsters.”

While many industries — such as manufacturing and aerospace & defense — have deployed AR applications for workers to use, the focus has been mainly on proof-of-concept efforts rather than full production deployments. That’s partly because AR headsets are still expensive and also have significant limitations related to field of vision, comfort, accuracy, battery duration and industry certifications.

Fortunately, another form of AR — projection mapping (or projected augmented reality) — eliminates many of the current limitations of AR headset design and functionality. Although projected AR is primarily being applied in the consumer/entertainment industry, use cases in other industries are on the rise.

Using projected AR technology, LightForm turned this physical monument into stunning public art.

Using projected AR technology, LightForm turned this physical monument into stunning public art.

Aerospace manufacturers are using projection mapping systems to simplify and accelerate aircraft assembly, reducing errors in the process. This technology uses computer vision and light projections to show workers where on the contoured frame of a fuselage a fastener should be installed, as well as indicating the right size to make the fastener hole.

Healthcare providers are using projector-based AR to help ensure medical instruments are cleaned and sterilized, while electronics manufacturers deploy the technology to pinpoint the location of components on boards, and automotive companies use projector-based AR for inspections throughout the entire auto manufacturing process.

Benefits of projection mapping

For work applications requiring team collaboration, projection mapping offers several distinct advantages over AR systems that rely on headsets. First, projection mapping avoids typical headset problems such as restricted field of view, discomfort and poor fit. Second, headsets deliver an isolated, standalone AR experience. In contrast, projection mapping creates a simultaneous “shared” AR experience for more than one person, which not only enhances collaboration, but is highly efficient.

Perhaps the biggest benefit projection mapping offers is increased accuracy. AR headsets struggle with latency due to limited compute power, which results in computational lag as users move their heads. So if aircraft assembly workers used AR headsets instead of projection mapping technology, they would struggle to locate where holes should be drilled because their head movements would cause anchor points to “drift.” Even a shift of only a couple of millimeters could lead to an imprecisely placed drill hole. In a $100 million aircraft, this kind of assembly mistake is not only unacceptable, it’s potentially dangerous.

Tracer M Nacelle Rendering 600 X 400

A virtual template is projected onto a physical object with the FARO laser projector.

Its advantages over headsets notwithstanding, there are some issues with projection mapping that enterprise decision makers should keep in mind when deciding which AR technology to use. One of these issues is cost.  Projection mapping requires multiple projectors because, if there is only one projector, body or hand movements can obscure the projected AR image. Another is mobility: AR projectors are mounted in a fixed installation or tethered by a power cord on a tripod — both of which limit movement of the devices. Also, the bulky size of the projectors means tight spaces are inaccessible, while headsets can go wherever the user goes.

Augmented reality technology can help enterprises across multiple industries by combining physical reality with virtual reality in a way that can help teams collaborate, make workers safer and more productive, and reduce costs. Before investing in AR, however, it is important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of headset systems and projection mapping. An experienced technology services provider can help enterprise decision makers choose the right AR technology for their organizations.