PTC Says AR Can Fill A Gap When Experts Are Stuck At Home

'The technology that we're delivering is allowing people to communicate in a fundamentally different way. And when we have social distancing, when we can't travel, our technology delivers a lot of value,' PTC executive Mike Campbell says in an interview about augmented reality.

Coronavirus Crisis Underlines Importance Of AR, PTC Exec Says

The coronavirus pandemic has set many people adrift at home while many others continue to work on the front lines at hospitals, factories and grocery stores. So what happens when a critical system breaks down, requiring the assistance of a specialist who's stuck at home or hundreds of miles away?

PTC executive Mike Campbell says augmented reality, the technology that enables virtual objects to be overlaid into the real world with a mobile device or headset, provides a compelling solution to the logistical challenges created by social distancing, stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions put in place to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak — which is why the Boston-based industrial software vendor is offering one of its AR applications, Vuforia Chalk , for free until at least the end of June.

[Related: Coronavirus Has ‘Expedited’ Need For CBT’s Remote Expert/Connected Worker Solution]

In an interview with CRN, Campbell said PTC has seen a four-fold increase in usage for Vuforia Chalk since travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines have been put in place.

"The technology that we're delivering is allowing people to communicate in a fundamentally different way," said Campbell, who is PTC's executive vice president of AR products. "And when we have social distancing, when we can't travel, our technology delivers a lot of value."

Maddy Hawkins, director of IoT sales at Aquitas Solutions, a Roswell, Ga.-based PTC partner that provides connected maintenance solutions, said her company is already seeing a need for AR solutions like Vuforia Chalk with multiple manufacturing and maintenance customers who are struggling to send systems experts to multiple plants to help with repairs.

"One of our customers, we've got a guy who manages and supports maintenance across multiple plants. Typically his job involves flying out from plant to plant to help support their individual plant initiatives," she said. "And when there's issues, he is the subject matter expert, and he can go help troubleshoot things. So he's really faced with a lot of problems right now where he can't leave his house."

As a part of PTC's Vuforia AR product portfolio, Campbell said Vuforia Chalk offers the "fastest time-to-value" because it can be used as smartphone app to quickly draw annotations over live video to help point out different components in a system and how they work for a field worker.

"Sometimes we describe it as 'FaceTime on steroids,'" he said, referring to Apple's popular video chat app. "You know how to have a video call. Now you can just draw on the video call, and those annotations stick, and we can both see them."

In his interview with CRN, Campbell talks about how organizations can use AR to navigate social distancing obstacles for physical locations, how the current crisis is underlining the need for such technologies and PTC's future plans for its AR and IoT solutions. The following is an edited transcript.

Can you name any customer examples of like how customers have used Vuforia Chalk out in the field?

There's a great one. We actually just, with fortunate timing, probably three weeks ago, released a case study from Toyota Motor Corporation. So, Toyota is, is using Vuforia Chalk (pictured), and they are using it to communicate in a manufacturing facility. They had some situations where somebody — maybe a line was shut down for a reason — and before they could bring that line back up, they had to have the supervisor come down and make sure that everything was okay.

Of course, Toyota has multiple massive facilities, and sometimes that supervisor wasn't always available. So, they're taking advantage of Chalk so that they can go through that visual checklist with a remote line operator, provide any guidance they need to and get the line back up and running very quickly. So that's a good commercial instantiation of how Chalk might be used.

So much has changed in the last few weeks alone. In that time, has PTC been able to identify instances in which they could help customers or non-customers with Vuforia Chalk?

We're sort of right in the middle of our outreach. On Friday [March 20], through largely social channels, we issued a statement from PTC's CEO that talked about everything that PTC is doing, inclusive of this program. And then I also issued a communication, specifically about Chalk. We basically drove that out through LinkedIn, Twitter, all of those traditional social channels.

[Last] week, we [began] to communicate directly with our contact database. We've literally sent out thousands and thousands of direct messages, direct emails to our contact database. And our partner, Rockwell Automation, is in the process of doing the same. Those are literally, let's say, north of 300,000 contacts in those databases. And we're just beginning to roll that out.

So, we're in the middle of the awareness campaign, and so far we've had thousands of individuals that have come back to us and said, "this can help me, I'd like to take advantage of the offer." And then, basically immediately, those people have been provisioned. And when I tell you that thousands of people, those are thousands of contacts that are then going to say, "OK, I'm one person at Acme Corp., [as an example], I'd like to take advantage of this." And then we let them go off and invite hundreds and hundreds of people that they work with to take advantage of the technology. So that is happening now.

We're really in the mode of, get it out there as frictionlessly as we possibly can, so all of our energy is going into that. I can't tell you a lot about the types of customer customers or what they're doing with it, but I can tell you that thousands of them have taken advantage of the offer, and we have seen a four-fold increase in the number of Chalk calls that are happening on a daily basis.

So, if we compare our usage statistics, pre-crisis, to what happened, let's say yesterday [March 25], there were four times as many calls that were being made using Chalk. I can also tell you that probably the preponderance of those, more than 50 percent of them, were in North America, but we're also seeing uptake across Europe and Asia. And I think that as we continue the awareness and continue to inform our contacts — we're doing that again, Rockwell is doing that, all of our value-added resellers also have a tailored message where they're driving awareness. So, we're expecting over the next week or so those numbers to continue to climb.

So you're giving channel partners sales and marketing materials for the Vuforia Chalk trial.

I'm a little reluctant to call it sales and marketing materials. Let's just call it awareness materials. And I say that because we've been very careful to make sure that people understand that this is a free, no-obligation offer. It really is a goodwill gesture on the part of PTC. The way it works is you tell us your first and last name, your email address and what country you're in, so we can get you provisioned in the right way, and you're up and running. There's no interaction with a sales guy. You don't need to talk to anybody else. We just want you to get up and running and be able to take advantage of this.

Our hope is that people see this as a valuable tool, that this crisis is an opportunity for them to understand the value that Chalk can provide and six months from now, they'd come back and say, "boy, I'd like to use that regularly, and I'd like to become a customer." But that's sort of a collateral benefit. Really, the goal is we recognize we've got something valuable to put out there, and we want to make that as frictionless as possible.

What types of companies might be looking for Vuforia Chalk right now in response to the coronavirus pandemic and all the measures being put in place to contain it?

Some of the anecdotal stories that we've been hearing are really anytime that somebody can't get physically close to somebody else who needs to understand how to do something. So, some of the examples have been related to how to operate a hospital bed. There are, I imagine, many more people that are in the hospitals trying to help with the crisis. They may not have all of the training on how to operate things.

One story I heard is people are using Chalk to communicate without having to compromise social distancing, but to help educate people on what needs to be done and how a hospital bed might work. Other examples are critical infrastructure. So, wastewater treatment, for example. I heard one story where they needed to get a technician out to deal with a pump. They couldn't get the right person that they wanted, but they had somebody that was good enough, and they were able to use Chalk connected back to the expert to help that person with the task and get the machine back up and running.

The key value prop here is, you're basically able to show somebody how to do this something without being physically there. I'll give you one more example. It's a very personal example, because it involved me. But it's not related to the crisis, although it felt like a crisis at the time. I was on a business trip last winter, and it snowed — I live in New England — and my wife and daughter were trying to start the snowblower. Not something they normally do. So instead of trying to explain to them where the black switch was, and not the red switch, I said, "here, let's use Chalk." And I was able to show them how to pull out the choke, prime the engine, flip the switch and pull the starter. Anytime you can't be there to convey something that you would be most effective doing if you were both standing in front of a physical situation, a piece of machinery, a piece of equipment, Chalk can add value.

When you were talking about the hospital bed situation and the wastewater situation, were those based on conversations you heard about over the last two weeks?

Yes. Those are those are very timely. There was another example. You probably heard about the community-based teams that are that are working to come up with alternatives for ventilators and repurposing scuba masks and all kinds of things like that. There's a PTC team that is involved with one of those community-based efforts. And one of the stories was, communicating a practice there as well. I don't know all the details, but that was another usage story I heard there yesterday.

It sounds like Vuforia Chalk is maybe — I don't know if this would be the right way to say it — but maybe the most accessible version of Vuforia.

I generally talk about it as being the fastest time-to-value of our offerings. And the reason for that is you download the app, I download the app, and we connect. So, it's pretty much instantaneous. Vuforia Expert Capture (pictured) is similar, but somebody's got to go out and capture the procedure, enhance the procedure and structure it and then push it out.

So still relatively quick, but nothing is as fast as Chalk. So, if by accessible, you mean people can pick it up and start using it. Again, my teenage daughter had no trouble with it. It's quite intuitive to use. Sometimes we describe it as "FaceTime on steroids." You know how to have a video call. Now you can just draw on the video call, and those annotations stick, and we can both see them.

Outside the current crisis, when you're talking about PTC's AR strategy, is there a certain movement that PTC tries to have with customers where maybe they start with Vuforia Chalk, and then eventually they'll adopt Expert Capture or maybe some other more advanced or more involved AR product?

We really take a value-centric approach. We really take an approach where we work to understand the customer's business challenges and then figure out what kind of value our AR technology can drive in that particular use case. Yeah. If the challenge is training, if the challenge is, I want to eliminate second-time truck rolls, I want to increase first-time fix rate, then then then those are good signs that Chalk is probably an answer to the problem.

Other customers will come to us, and they'll talk about, this aging workforce and the retiring baby boomers in the U.S. and this lack of technically skilled resources in the field. And that would be a case where we would say, "well, Expert Capture might be a better a better solution." I will tell you that many times our customers buy multiple AR products from us and get started with many different use cases. But we don't have a strategy that says, "hey, try Chalk, and then you'll naturally graduate to Expert Capture and you'll naturally graduate to Vuforia Studio. We really try to understand the particular pain point, and then align our technology with that pain to deliver value.

Similar to how tools like teleconferencing apps have come to the forefront with the new work-from-home boom, do you think that this current crisis might also underline importance of AR solutions?

Absolutely, absolutely. We think about that really in two ways. We think about it first and foremost, as you correctly pointed out: the technology that we're delivering is allowing people to communicate in a in a fundamentally different way. And when we have social distancing, when we can't travel, our technology delivers a lot of value.

The other important part of our strategy that comes into play here, though, is that our AR offerings are all built to be software-as-a-service deployed. They're all SaaS offerings. And I point this out because at PTC, there's a big contrast between our Vuforia and OnShape offerings [with on-premise applications]. And it's interesting to contrast the experience our customers are having when they can't go to the office with those tools, which is basically seamless, right? I mean, you can access your Office 365 suite or your G Suite, wherever you are. All you need is a browser and an internet connection. And that's how OnShape works. And that's how Vuforia works.

It's interesting to contrast that with more traditional engineering productivity tools, traditional CAD [computer-aided design], traditional PLM [product lifecycle management]. Most of those offerings are on-prem offerings. And we're seeing a lot of our customers and, frankly, a lot of the market, struggling with being able to continue to use those tools when their workers are all working from home.

I agree with your premise that the genie is not going back in the bottle. This is a compelling event that is forcing all of us to think, and our customers at PTC to think, about new ways of working. And AR provides tremendous value at the application layer. But what we would say is we believe that a SaaS deployment model provides a tremendous amount of value when we're faced with this situation and when we might be faced with [other situations] in the future.

It's going to be interesting to see how things change: how travel habits change, potentially, and how many people work in a facility in the long term.

Before you joined the call, we were talking about how much of what we're experiencing today will be the new normal, six months, 12 months, two years from now. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out. But from where I sit, running this business and building this type of technology, I think it's directly in line with some of the value propositions that we show up to the market with.

I know that some of the other Vuforia products are somewhat tied to or can be tied to ThingWorx, PTC's IoT platform. Is there any integration with ThingWorx for Vuforia Chalk?

There is not. You're correct, our Vuforia Studio offering (pictured) — that's the one that would allow you to, for example, create highly engineered assembly instructions that somebody who's a manufacturing frontline worker would use. The Studio tool is used to create and present that information, and it is seamlessly integrated with ThingWorx. So, you can, for example, let's say you have a service procedure, and, as part of the service procedure, you've got to make sure that the pressure has been relieved out of the machine. You could see in your AR experience exactly what the pressure is, and frankly even not proceed to the next step until the pressure has been relieved or the engine has cooled, whatever the case may be. So that's a good example of where that IoT integration with AR makes sense.

Today, there is not an integration with Expert Capture or Chalk and ThingWorx. That is something that we're working on now. And I expect that probably in the next six months or so, that capability will be available. The other thing that you should know is today, Chalk is a separate offering from Expert Capture and Studio. A lot of our development efforts right now are focused on converging these approaches. So, what that means is, let's say that you were the expert, and you performed an Expert Capture on how to replace a filter. And I was out in the field, and I was leveraging that procedural guidance that you had captured, and I ran into trouble. Well, today, I would stop, and I would fire up Chalk, and I would ask somebody for help. In the future, directly from within that playback, I'll just be able to ask for help, and the remote expert will not only see what I see physically in the field, but they'll see all of the augmented content and be able to reference that as well. So, all of our technologies are on a path toward convergence. But you are correct that today those are separate offerings.

Going back to Vuforia Chalk, so far, which industries have adopted it the most?

The general category of manufacturing is where PTC plays. We've seen a lot of adoption in automotive manufacturing. So, Toyota, again, being a great example. We've also seen adoption in many of our other verticals. Medical device makers, they've got to go out and service — think of a giant MRI or radiation machine. We have a customer that's been taking advantage of it to help those technicians.

The nice thing about Chalk is that it's broadly applicable across all of these industrial enterprise scenarios. But certainly manufacturing, heavy equipment, so the likes of people making excavators, bulldozers, those types of things that are sending technicians out to service them. Those are some other good examples.

Earlier you were saying that you're providing materials to partners to raise awareness of how companies or organizations can use Vuforia Chalk for free. Are there specific types of partners receiving this information? Are they already focused on AR or IoT? Or is it just for all partners?

I would describe three categories. The first category is our strategic partner, Rockwell Automation. They're a close partner of PTC. They are out selling our AR and IoT offerings to their customers. And they are propagating this message to their customers.

Then we have the entire category of traditional PTC value-added resellers. These are, generally, region-based companies that provide services around what PTC software is able to do, or they resell that software in most cases. So that whole category. And again, they would generally be talking, not exclusively, to maybe smaller or mid-sized businesses, as opposed to those that Rockwell or PTC would service directly.

And then the third partner that we're leveraging here and now is the National Association of Manufacturers. So, on Monday [March 23], the National Association of Manufacturers sent out their regular newsletter. I think that went out to 22,000 manufacturing executives, and the headline story was that Vice President Mike Pence was participating in their NAM roundtable discussion [that] week. And the second story was, PTC is offering Vuforia Chalk for free. That's another partnership we're leveraging to really drive awareness and let people know that this knowledge is available to them.