Augmented reality – it’s not just for Snapchat and Pokémon Go

Alumnus Jeff LaFrenz, BSc’85, MSc’88, is at the helm of leading-edge technology that’s transforming business.

By Mark Witten

Imagine if a surgeon could see the vessel structure of a patient’s liver superimposed onto a picture of the actual organ to guide her in removing a tumour safely, without cutting a vital blood vessel.

Or, what if an explosive fire broke out at an oil drilling site? Crew members wearing special headsets could see a virtual path laid out that would guide them to safety. The technology would pinpoint exactly where the threat was coming from and display the shortest and safest directions on each person’s headset.

These are examples of the dynamic capabilities of what’s known as Augmented Reality (AR) — computer-generated images providing an enhanced view of the real world. The concept has been popularized recently thanks to social media applications such as Snapchat filters and the game Pokémon Go. AR is being used in diverse industries ranging from engineering, construction and medicine to marketing, gaming, museums and high finance.

As co-founder of the UCalgary-grown startup VizworX, Jeff LaFrenz, BSc’85, MSc’88, augments reality every day, helping his clients turn what they know into solutions using AR.

“It’s exciting to be on the leading edge of a technology that’s going to completely change the way we interact with the world,” says the self-described serial entrepreneur.

LaFrenz, an electrical and computer engineer, helped run a research network out of UCalgary that focused on interactive technologies. He co-founded VizworX to apply leading-edge interactive visualization technologies, techniques and ideas developed by university researchers Frank Maurer and Sheelagh Carpendale in order to help businesses improve project planning and design, efficiency, training, and safety.

For example, a major oil and gas producer commissioned VizworX to help solve the problem of design mismatches between large infrastructure modules that were already built and those still on the drawing board, in order to reduce costly rework and ensure new module compatibility. 

“Our customer did a high-resolution scan of modules on site and we used augmented reality to overlay the digital scan on top of the original CAD (computer-aided design) drawings,” says LaFrenz. “The engineering design team is then able to adapt the design and build of the next module to mate up with the modules on site and save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars per new module in possible extra costs.”  

After realizing those benefits, the client company partnered with VizworX to develop AR software to enhance its engineering design review process for new infrastructure projects. 

“There is enormous potential for the use of augmented reality in the infrastructure and engineering design space,” says LaFrenz. “You can have safety, ergonomics, operations, maintenance and design people view, walk around and interact with full-scale 3D models from their own individual perspectives before it is built, which results in in shorter review times and better design outcomes. 

“AR can expose and prevent issues that may have not been caught until construction, and identify safety concerns that could cause injuries to site personnel or very expensive facility shutdowns.”  

Thanks to AR features embedded in next-generation devices such as the new iPhone8 and iPhone X, the way we interact with the world around us is destined to change thanks to AR. And, for Calgary businesses in industries such as energy, construction, real estate, engineering, health care, education/training, finance and the arts, the technology is or will soon be changing the way people work, finding more efficient solutions and turning data into decisions. 

For example, leading-edge Calgary companies like W21C, are using AR to train the next generation of physicians and improve the design of new hospitals. DIRTT Environmental Solutions is using AR to virtually custom-build and install walls, blinds and furniture in office and work spaces. 

“They build out the environment virtually before you physically build out, ensuring that it exactly meets your needs,” says LaFrenz, who is talking with a number of organizations about potential collaboration opportunities.