GE’s Sam Murley Scopes Out the State of AR and What’s Next

General Electric (GE) has made a major commitment to Augmented Reality. The industrial giant recently announced that it plans to roll out AR in three business divisions in 2017 to help workers assemble complex machinery components. In his role leading Innovation and Digital Acceleration for Environmental Health & Safety at General Electric, Sam Murley is charged with “leading, generating and executing digital innovation projects to disrupt and streamline operations across all of GE’s business units.” To that end, Sam Murley evangelizes and deploys immersive technologies and digital tools, including Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Natural Language Processing, and Machine Learning.

As the first in a series of interviews with AREA members and other ecosystem influencers, we recently spoke with Sam to get his thoughts on the state of AR, its adoption at GE, and his advice for AR novices.

AREA: How would you describe the opportunity for Augmented Reality in 2017?

SAM MURLEY: I think it’s huge — almost unprecedented — and I believe the tipping point will happen sometime this year. This tipping point has been primed over the past 12 to 18 months with large investments in new startups, successful pilots in the enterprise, and increasing business opportunities for providers and integrators of Augmented Reality.

During this time, we have witnessed examples of proven implementations – small scale pilots, larger scale pilots, and companies rolling out AR in production — and we should expect this to continue to increase in 2017. You can also expect to see continued growth of assisted reality devices, scalable for industrial use cases such as manufacturing, industrial, and services industries as well as new adoption of mixed reality and augmented reality devices, spatially-aware and consumer focused for automotive, consumer, retail, gaming, and education use cases. We’ll see new software providers emerge, existing companies taking the lead, key improvements in smart eyewear optics and usability, and a few strategic partnerships will probably form.

AREA: Since it is going to be, in your estimation, a big year, a lot of things have to fall into place. What do you think are the greatest challenges for the Augmented Reality industry in 2017?

SAM MURLEY: While it’s getting better, one challenge is interoperability and moving from proprietary and closed systems into connected systems and open frameworks. This is really important. All players — big, medium and small — need to work towards creating a connected AR ecosystem and democratize authoring and analytical tools around their technology. A tool I really like and promote is Unity3D as it has pretty quickly become the standard for AR/VR development and the environment for deployment of AR applications to dozens of different operating systems and devices.

It’s also important that we find more efficient ways to connect to existing 3D assets that are readily available, but too heavy to use organically for AR experiences. CAD files that are in the millions of polygons need some finessing before they can be imported and deployed as an Augmented Reality object or hologram. Today, a lot of texturing and reconstruction has to be performed to keep the visual integrity intact without losing the engineering accuracy. Hopefully companies such as Vuforia (an AREA member) will continue to improve this pipeline.

For practical and wide-scale deployment in an enterprise like GE, smart glasses need to be intrinsically safe, safety rated, and out-of-the box ready for outdoor use. Programmatically, IT admins and deployment teams need the ability to manage smart glasses as they would any other employee asset such as a computer or work phone.

AREA: GE seems to have been a more vocal, public proponent of Augmented Reality than a lot of other companies. With that level of commitment, what do you hope to have accomplished with Augmented Reality at GE within the next year? Are there certain goals that you’ve set or milestones you hope to achieve?

SAM MURLEY: Definitely. Within GE Corporate Environmental Health & Safety we have plans to scale AR pilots that have proven to be valuable to a broader user base and eventually into production.

Jeff Immelt, our Chairman and CEO, in a recent interview with Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, talked specifically about the use of Microsoft HoloLens in the enterprise. He put it perfectly, “If we can increase productivity by one percent across the board, that’s a no brainer.” It’s all about scaling to increase productivity, scaling to reduce injuries, and scaling based on user feedback. In 2017, we will continue to transform our legacy processes and create new opportunities using AR to improve worker performance and increase safety.

AREA: Do you have visibility into all the different AR pilots or programs that are going on at GE?

SAM MURLEY: We’re actively investigating Augmented Reality and other sister technologies, in partnership with our ecosystem partners and the GE Businesses. Look, everyone knows GE has a huge global footprint and part of the reward is finding and working with other GE teams such as GE Digital, our Global Research Centers, and EHS Leaders in the business units where AR goals align with operational goals and GE’s Digital Industrial strategy.

At the 2016 GE Minds + Machines conference, our Vice President of GE Software Research, Colin Parris, showed off how the Microsoft HoloLens could help the company “talk” to machines and service malfunctioning equipment. It was a perfect example of how Augmented Reality will change the future of work, giving our customers the ability to talk directly to a Digital Twin — a virtual model of that physical asset — and ask it questions about recent performance, anomalies, potential issues and receive answers back using natural language. We will see Digital Twins of many assets, from jet engines to or compressors. Digital Twins are powerful – they allow tweaking and changing aspects of your asset in order to see how it will perform, prior to deploying in the field. GE’s Predix, the operating system for the industrial Internet, makes this cutting-edge methodology possible. “What you saw was an example of the human mind working with the mind of a machine,” said Parris. With Augmented Reality, we are able to empower the workforce with tools that increase productivity, reduce downtime, and tap into the Digital Thread and Predix. With Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Augmented Reality quickly allows language to be the next interface between the Connected Workforce and the Internet of Things (IoT). No keyboard or screen needed.

However, we aren’t completely removing mobile devices and tablets from the AR equation in the short term. Smart glasses still have some growing and maturing to do. From a hardware adoption perspective, smart glasses are very new – it’s a new interface, a new form factor and the workforce is accustomed to phones, tablets, and touch screen devices. Mobile and tablet devices are widely deployed in enterprise organizations already, so part of our strategy is to deploy smart eyewear only when absolutely needed or required and piggyback on existing hardware when we can for our AR projects.

So, there is a lot going on and a lot of interest in developing and deploying AR projects in 2017 and beyond.

AREA: A big part of your job is navigating that process of turning a cool idea into a viable business model. That’s been a challenge in the AR world because of the difficulty of measuring ROI in such a new field. How have you navigated that at GE?

SAM MURLEY: That’s a good question. To start, we always talk about and promote the hands-free aspects of using AR when paired with smart glasses to access and create information. AR in general though, is a productivity driver. If, during a half-hour operation or maintenance task out in the field, we can save a worker just a few minutes, save them from having to stop what they’re doing, go back to their work vehicle, search for the right manual, find the schematic only to realize it’s out of date, and then make a phone call to try and solve a problem or get a question answered, an AR solution can pay for itself quickly as all of that abstraction is removed. We can digitize all of that with the Digital Twin and supply the workforce with a comfortable, hands-free format that also keeps them safe from equipment hazards, environmental hazards, and engaged with the task at hand.

Usability is key though – probably the last missing part to all of this – to the tipping point. Our workforce is so accustomed and trained to use traditional devices – phones, tablets, workstations, etc. Introducing smart glasses needs to be handled with care and with an end-user focus. The best AR device will be one that requires zero to no learning curve.

It is important to run a working session at the very start. Grab a few different glasses if you can and let your end users put them on and listen to their feedback. You need to baseline your project charter with pre-AR performance metrics and then create your key performance indicators.

AREA: At a company like GE, you’ve got the size and the resources to be able to explore these things. What about smaller companies?

SAM MURLEY: That’s definitely true. I hope we see some progress and maturation in the AR ecosystem so everyone can benefit – small companies, large organizations, and consumers. The cost of hardware has been a challenge for everyone. Microsoft came out with the HoloLens and then announced a couple of months later that their holographic engine in the system was going to be opened to OEMs. You could have an OEM come in and say, maybe I don’t need everything that’s packed in the HoloLens, but I still want to use the spatial sensing. That OEM can potentially build out something more focused on a specific application for a fraction of the cost. That’s going to be a game changer because, while bigger companies can absorb high-risk operations and high-risk trials, small to medium size companies cannot and may take a big hit if it doesn’t work or rollout is slow.

Hopefully we’ll see some of the prices drop in 2017 so that the level of risk is reduced.

AREA: Can you tell us about any of the more futuristic applications of AR that you’re exploring at GE?

SAM MURLEY: The HoloLens demo at Minds + Machines mentioned earlier is a futuristic but not-that-far-off view of how humans will interact with data and machines. You can take it beyond that, into your household. Whether it’s something you wear or something like the Amazon Echo sitting on your counter, you will have the ability to talk to things around as if you were carrying on a conversation with another person. Beyond that, we can expect that things, such as refrigerators, washing machines, and lights in our houses, will be powered by artificial intelligence and have embedded holographic projection capabilities.

The whole concept around digital teleportation or Shared Reality is interesting. Meron Gribetz, Meta’s CEO, showcased this on stage during his 2016 TEDx – A Glimpse of the Future Through an Augmented Reality Headset. During the presentation, he made a 3D photorealistic call to his co-founder, Ray. Ray passed a digital 3D model of the human brain to Meron as if they were standing right next to each other even though they were physically located a thousand miles apart.

That’s pretty powerful. This type of digital teleportation has the potential to change the way people collaborate, communicate, and transfer knowledge amongst each other. Imagine a worker being out in the field and he or she encounters a problem. What do they do today? They pick up their mobile device and call an expert or send an email. The digital communication stack of tomorrow won’t involve phones or 2D screens, rather holographic calls in full spatial, photorealistic, 3D.

This is really going to change a lot of, not only heavy industrial training or service applications, but also applications well beyond the enterprise over the next few decades.

AREA: One final question. People are turning to the AREA as a resource to learn about AR and to figure out what their next steps ought to be. Based on your experience at GE, do you have any advice for companies that are just embarking on this journey?

SAM MURLEY: Focus on controlled and small scale AR projects to start as pilot engagements. Really sharpen the pencil on your use case and pick one performance metric to measure and go after it. Tell the story, from the start to the end about how and what digital transformation can and will do when pitching to stakeholders and governing bodies.

My other recommendation is to leverage organizations like the AREA. The knowledge base within the AREA organization and the content that you push out on almost a daily basis is really good information. If I were just dipping my toe in the space, those are the types of things that I would be reading and would recommend other folks dig into as well. It’s a really great resource.

To sum up: stay focused with your first trial, determine what hardware is years away from real-world use and what is ready today, find early adopters willing to partner in your organization, measure effectiveness with insightful metrics and actionable analytics, reach out to industry experts for guidance, and don’t be afraid to fail.

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