Collaborative augmented reality offers a game-changing alternative to people looking to collaborate. Nevertheless, progress is needed for this technology to improve acceptance, effectiveness and usability for scaling up. Ultimately, it could make collaboration easier and more effective, particularly during augmented reality operations carried out by Orange network technicians. This immersive technology could also replace current collaboration technologies in the future.
Although they enable ubiquitous intermediated collaboration, traditional communication tools (email, chat, videoconferencing) do have their drawbacks:
- restricted communication signals;
- separate communication and task areas;
- limited mobility and use of hands.
Collaborative augmented reality allows several users to collaborate on tasks involving digital twins, virtual replicas of real objects, augmented real objects, or virtual entities and metaphors (for example, by collaborating on the ubiquitous control of the virtual twin of a real factory synchronized in real time with the factory). Its users simultaneously perceive an environment that combines the real and the virtual, made up of their real environment and a shared virtual space, more commonly known as a metaverse. Employees can be in the same place with co-located augmented reality. Remote collaborators communicate in the form of realistic avatars that look like them, in addition to the voice transmitted by their augmented reality headsets. Figure 1 shows these three methods.
This research involved designing and developing a collaborative augmented reality system. The system uses Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 augmented reality headset. It relies on Photon network services, which synchronize the interactions of each user in real time. Ultimately, the plan is to replace this service with the Orange Thing’in digital twin platform. The avatars are created by the Make Human Project open-source application and then integrated into the Unity development interface. The use case being tested is the collaborative completion of a jigsaw puzzle by two people in different environments. Users interact directly with the virtual puzzle pieces using their hands. They can use their fingers to push, pick up and manipulate them intuitively.
The portrayal of remote users in the form of realistic avatars provides results similar to direct communication between co-located users.
The solving of real puzzles was compared to the solving of their virtual replica in co-located and remote pairs. Each pair initially learned how to use the system by completing a six-piece virtual puzzle, first in the same room and then remotely. The pairs were then asked to solve a real 36-piece puzzle and a virtual 36-piece puzzle of identical difficulty, either in the same room or remotely.
Data from 36 users was analyzed. The data collected made it possible to evaluate completion time, collaboration, mutual awareness, spatial presence in the virtual environment, co-presence, usability and user preference between these three collaboration methods.
The results showed that, while collaboration in the real world is preferred to collaborative augmented reality, this collaborative augmented reality system achieves favorable levels of usability. These results also highlighted that the portrayal of remote users in the form of realistic avatars provides similar results to direct communication between co-located collaborators. Furthermore, users obtained similar results regardless of whether they had previous experience of extended reality, demonstrating the intuitive nature of the system tested.
This preliminary work paves the way for improved collaborative augmented reality systems, in particular for augmented operations. This work is now continuing with the adaptation of this system to the work of augmented network technicians.