Augmented reality has largely been the playground of video games and retail marketing so far, but the Oct. 12 acquisition of the Vuforia platform may spin it into a new direction.
"More and more we see products that are part physical and part digital — and we see new models wanting to be part physical and part digital," says Jim Heppelmann, CEO of PTC. "The idea of being able to project a digital experience onto a physical product to figure out how to service it or show operating metrics ... is a killer idea."
Heppelmann says the company foresees a wide variety of use cases for the technology — both business- and consumer facing.
Augmented reality is a technology that superimposes computer-generated images on top of real world objects, ranging from video game characters to data fields. AR can extend a variety of experiences into new arenas as well as provide useful information to consumers.
For example, imagine pointing your smartphone at your car and being able to see visual warnings that your wiper fluid was running low or your tire pressure was sub-optimal on a rear tire. That's possible as information gathered by the car's sensors can be pushed to the cloud, then retrieved and shown in a visual format on the phone. That same format could also offer simple to follow directions on how to fix the problems.
In a B2B format, Heppelmann says, the technology could create tremendous savings in the service sector — a $200 million business for PTC.
"I think a lot of companies who make and service [products] want to be able to pass information downstream to consumers," he says. "[But] rather than a big PDF file, they [now] can say let me augment everything you need to know and nothing more. ... Augmented reality is a way to explain the need for service and also explain the procedure for service. ... There is so much untapped potential for AR in B2B."
Using an AR-assisted tool, users of a medical equipment device, for example, would be able to do a routine service inspection themselves, saving the time and cost of sending a service person out on a call (which can run thousands of dollars).
The buzz over augmented reality has been fairly muted in recent years, as competing virtual reality devices have captured people's imaginations and certain AR devices, like Google Glass, have failed to catch on. Interest in the field has spiked recently, though, thanks to buzz surrounding Microsoft's HoloLens headset.
Vuforia is a leading AR platform that's already widely used and understood by the app community. Qualcomm says it's currently used by over 175,000 registered developers and powers more than 20,000 apps.
PTC's acquisition of the technology will include the existing developer ecosystem, but the company says it doesn't plan to make any changes to the current support policies or the product itself—and plans to continue growing the community.
The acquisition will not substantially impact PTC's financial results initially, but Heppelmann says he does anticipate the unit to be a notable contributor in the years to come.
"Our strategy will be different than that of Qualcomm," says Heppelmann. "Qualcomm created this to differentiate their chips. This was something of a throw-in that they didn't monetize ... until recent years for commercial use. PTC has much more of a marketing machine to take this into B2B and B2B2C use cases."
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