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Russian IT startups are working extensively in the area of augmented reality (AR), but although interest in the technology is growing in major sectors of the economy, there is still a long way to go before it is adopted on a wide scale.
Sectors such as defence, railways and automotive have shown interest in AR, but it is by no means a done deal for most organisations.
“It is no longer hype, but real interest,” said Sergey Polinenko, general director of Itorum, a company resident at the innovation hub Skolkovo outside Moscow.
However, Russian companies working in AR still face various challenges, especially when it comes to actually selling the technology to customers.
There is a large gap between companies expressing an interest and actually placing an order, said Polinenko. “Most enterprises in Russia are not prepared to take a risk – they wait until a solution becomes adopted in the West,” he said.
Itorum’s main product is AR glasses, which are used in quality control and servicing equipment at industrial enterprises. Technicians wearing AR glasses can take advantage of remote consultations with experts located elsewhere in the world, whose advice and suggestions can be seen on the glasses.
Itorum also provides services using AR glasses for training and education and to help industrial personnel control operations.
Meanwhile, Fibrum, another Russian startup that specialises in AR applications, is gaining customers in the exhibitions sector.
Nikita Vyugin, marketing director at the company, said the biggest difficulty is often customers’ insufficient understanding of the difference between virtual reality (VR), AR and mixed reality.
“Although AR and VR solutions are relatively widespread, the industry is still quite young and, although promising, many people still see it as a curiosity,” he said.
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One of Fibrum’s most recent projects was an interactive exhibition, The Road to Victory, which aimed to educate the younger generation about the Second World War. “AR glasses enabled visitors to see exhibits in high detail and from various angles,” said Vyugin.
Industry insiders insist on drawing a distinction between VR, which is mostly associated with the entertainment industry, and AR, which has more “serious” primary applications.
“Unlike VR, AR has been used in more serious fields than entertainment since the very beginning,” said Vyugin. “While the VR industry is based on entertainment content, AR opens unique opportunities for the presentation of products and services, more efficient use of exhibition and retail spaces, personnel training and education.”
Ilya Korolev, portfolio manager at the Internet Initiatives Development Fund (IIDF), which has invested in a number of startups that develop AR technology, added: “AR elements are actively used in mechanical engineering, the power industry, high-risk manufacturing, construction and maintenance of engineering systems.
“And enterprises will use those technologies more and more as they help to cut costs, maintenance periods and optimise operations – for instance, by synchronising work on the design of buildings. There are also good prospects for AR solutions in retail and healthcare.”
Russian mixed reality supplier HoloGroup has developed a holographic system in collaboration with the Russian branch of global energy giant Enel. Holographic images will be used during the process of dismantling a power line at Nevinnomysk Hydropower Station Armavir, which is due for repair. HoloGroup has developed mixed reality systems for a dozen major companies in various sectors.
Another Russian startup, WayRay, is one of the few local companies to come up with technology suitable for the mass market. Its product, a holographic AR navigation system for vehicles, is similar to systems currently being tested by major global automotive companies.
It will be a while before AR-based systems really hit the mass market, however.
“I suppose the main boom in Russian AR development on a mass scale will occur in 2020-2022,” said Korolev at the IIDF. By then, affordable devices along the lines of US startup Magic Leap’s head-mounted virtual retinal displays will arrive in the market, he said.
“Mass-market solutions need usability interfaces, wireless and easy-to-use wearable devices,” said Korolev. “At this point, all that is on offer for mass users is some individual experiments from startups that are not yet demonstrating the real usability of AR in people’s day-to-day lives.”