YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Imagine being able to manipulate a control panel on a shop floor from an office at the other end of the plant.
This is the kind of technology that a Youngstown Business Incubator portfolio company is introducing both to area businesses and local students who otherwise might never have access to such innovations.
Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 augmented reality headsets are being marketed locally by Universe Central Corp., which also carries virtual reality units from Meta, formerly known as Facebook. A YBI tenant, Universe Central is a Microsoft mixed reality partner.
Virtual reality has been around for more than two decades, but the pandemic has accelerated its adoption as people increasingly rely on online tools to get things done and not expose themselves to the virus, Universe Central’s president, Ralph Zerbonia, says. People are putting “a lot more of themselves into this coming metaverse idea,” or the concept of a completely digital environment.
“They were moving in that direction,” he says. “There needed to be a catalytic event.”
Unlike virtual reality technology, which immerses an individual in a contained digital environment, someone utilizing augmented reality experiences it as part of the real existing environment. Microsoft’s Kinect technology tracks eye and hand movements, allowing the individual to interface with and manipulate holographic virtual objects as though they were physical ones without cutting off physical reality.
Of augmented and virtual reality: “They’re both a form of spatial computing,” Zerbonia says.
In addition to marketing the virtual reality and augmented reality units, Universe Central is working with YBI to introduce the AR and VR technology to two constituencies: youths, particularly ones who might not otherwise be exposed to such technologies, and businesses.
The incubator is seeking grant funds to develop programming that will introduce these kinds of technologies in an effort to overcome the underrepresentation of minorities in the STEM disciplines. It is “headed in the direction of trying to create that seminal moment in a child’s life when they make a decision as to what they’d like their life to be,” Zerbonia says.
YBI has purchased several of each units as part of a pilot project targeting youths.
Stephanie Gilchrist, director of the Minority Business Assistance Center at YBI, is working with Zerbonia on developing programming and securing funding for the youth-oriented initiative. She sees the technology as “a game changer” for the clients she works with.
“One thing we’ve identified in research we’ve done already is that mobility has been an issue for a lot of our folks in the community that I serve,” Gilchrist says. The technology being introduced locally by Universe Central and YBI will allow users to visit, take tours and travel abroad “without ever leaving their four walls,” and permit them to be exposed to different mentors, industries and training opportunities.
Growing up in 1950s America, Zerbonia acknowledges his middle class family was advantaged, and his parents took him and his siblings to “all kinds of special events” they thought their kids should be exposed to.
“Now picture the rest of our society in 2022. We know we have a lot of people who are disadvantaged. They’ll never have any adult able to show them what the vice president of the university does, what the provost does, or what their boss at the manufacturing plant does,’” he says.
“We can give them that opportunity. We can let them into that door and let them see all of those things,” he continues.
The AR technology has several business applications, Zerbonia continues. Equipment could be controlled remotely using a digital interface, or the technology could be used to guide individuals through making repairs.
“I’ve seen an operation where they pull up a virtual control panel. They’re in another part of the plant but they want to affect the machine down there and they pull up its control panel, push the buttons and it operates the machine down there,” Zerbonia says.
Among the local business leaders already exposed to the mixed reality technology is Mark Lamoncha, CEO of Humtown Products in Columbiana. Lamoncha, who recently met with Zerbonia at YBI, sees the mixed reality tech as having applications in powder bed sand printing.
Because the part being produced by the process is obscured by the sand, the worker doesn’t know precisely where the item is.
The augmented reality units provide a 3-D image as an overlay of the physical object to guide the worker in cleaning off and removing the printed object.
“This is what’s exciting about the mixed reality lens, the fact you can see what you’re doing in the factory but you can add in the augmented reality,” Lamoncha says. “It’s like Superman with X-ray vision.”
Lamoncha also envisions using the technology to deliver process sheets in real time as technicians are working on a part, creating “a higher level of engagement for the industrial athlete on the floor.”
He expects to implement the technology in its first application in his plant in about three months, with the intent of introducing an additional application within nine months.
Lamoncha, who serves on the state board of education, says he would like to integrate the technology into the educational system, using it to provide mixed-reality training on equipment that is considered too risky for young students to physically operate.
“They can play with that [virtual] equipment and never get hurt,” he says.
In respect to computer equipment, “The whole principal of spatial computing is to get rid of the equipment as much as possible,” Zerbonia says. “The environment becomes your interface in spatial computing.” The technology also has the potential to help reduce error rates in manufacturing.
“When it comes to serving the needs of folks, it meets every demographic. We’re going from inner-city kids to major corporations in our community that are making some serious advances in the nation in their industries,” Gilchrist says. “That’s the beauty of this one device – it’s going to change so many different areas.”
Pictured: Ralph Zerbonia, president of Universe Central, shows the YBI’s Stephanie Gilchrist the Microsoft HoloLens headset.