Envisioning the future: Firm incorporates augmented reality into software development
Phil Castle, The Business Times
Carey Wheeler goes through the motions of a mime performing his act. He uncurls the fingers of his right hand as if his upturned fist was a flower bud opening into a blossom. He wags an index finger up and down as though he’s clicking a computer mouse, then points to different spots in the conference room as if he’s commanding invisible objects to move there.
Wheeler’s strange behavior becomes understandable once you see what he sees through his Microsoft HoloLens augmented realty headset. He’s opened a series of computer displays and placed them throughout the room. Atop what was an empty table sits a scaled-down strip of Montana, the landscape spread out like a blanket. A bright yellow line marks the route of an underground pipeline snaking through the rolling hills.
Wheeler, a geospatial intelligence specialist at ProStar Geocorp, says the holographic display demonstrates another way the Grand Junction company will use data and software to help customers install and manage pipelines, fiber optic cables and other infrastructure.
Wheeler envisions a not-too-distant future when planners and engineers will see what a project designed in two dimensions looks like in three, and crews working in the field will see buried pipelines is if they possessed X-ray vision.
Page Tucker, president and chief executive officer of ProStar Geocorp, says his company is leveraging technology developed for military and gaming applications as part of its ongoing efforts to change GIS from an acronym for geographic information system to geospatial intelligence solutions. The idea, he said, is to combine hardware and software to not only map and locate, but also collect and store information and offer access to that information in real time.
In the process, Tucker hopes to promote not only additional instruction in the field at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, but also the development of a local technology hub.
ProStar Geocorp could serve as a “poster child,” Tucker says, for advanced technology startups and efforts to bolster economic development.
The company combines geographic information systems and data to offer software and services to the pipeline and utility industries. The software and services help customers manage infrastructure, whether its displaying, collecting, storing or using information about the location of pipelines, fiber optic cables or other facilities and equipment.
Precision is crucial in developing mapping technology, Tucker says. While a smartphone application that guides a user to within 20 feet of a restaurant might be close enough, ProStar offers technology that in some cases is accurate down to a matter of inches, he says.
The other important aspect of the information, Tucker says, is that it’s readily accessible in the field. That means workers can use computers, tablets or smartphones to access the information and use the software in real time. ProStar offers this capability by storing information and software on Azure, a cloud computing platform operated by Microsoft.
ProStar technology can be used from the very beginning of the process in planning pipeline and utility routing and right of ways, then recording exactly where the infrastructure is located as it’s installed, he says.
In locating underground pipes or utilities based on records, there could be differences between where records indicate utilities were installed and where they actually exist. Using ProStar technology, a worker can instantly update records as the utilities are located, he says.
ProStar has worked with several partners in developing and testing its software and services, Tucker says. That includes Embridge Pipeline, a Canadian-based company that operates one of the largest and most sophisticated oil and liquid transportation systems in the world. ProStar also has worked with Loenbro, a construction and energy services company in the Rocky Mountain region.
ProStar Geocorp is poised to soon release its software on a commercial basis, Tucker says.
While low commodity prices have slowed oil and natural gas exploration and production activities, Tucker says energy companies are looking for ways to cut costs to make operations profitable. ProStar technology can help them do that, he says.
ProStar is adding to its capabilities in developing software that uses augmented reality and what Tucker considers a rapidly evolving technology that’s likely to enjoy increased use.
Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality adds to what already exists in combining computer-generated images with what’s perceived in the physical world.
ProStar is among the first companies to use Hololens headsets. The headsets use built-in computers, cameras and infrared sensors to calculate the dimensions of a room and location of objects. Computer-generated images projected onto the lenses line up with the view of the real world to create the augmented effect. The headsets also track hand gestures, enabling users to interact with and manipulate images.
Wheeler says it’s sometimes helpful to view data stored in a two-dimensional format in three dimensions. In selecting a route for a pipeline, for example, it might work better to actually see a representation of the landscape rather than read contour lines off a topographic map.
Tucker takes the process a step further in envisioning a day when so-called heads-up displays featuring augmented reality will be available on a widespread basis. A worker operating a backhoe, for example, might use ProStar technology and a display to avoid digging into buried utilities.
ProStar Geocorp is among the first companies approved to participate in the Rural Jump-Start Program in Colorado. The program offers state and local tax incentives for up to eight years for businesses that create at least five net new jobs in the county in which they’re located in such high-paying fields as advanced technology, manufacturing and food processing.
ProStar also received a $250,000 grant awarded through the Advanced Industries Accelerator Program. That program promotes the growth and sustainability of advanced industries in Colorado. Participating companies must demonstrate they have innovative technology and viable products that can be created or manufactured in the state.
Tucker says ProStar has used the tax incentives and grant to increase staffing as it has moved closer to bringing its software and services to market. The company employs a total of 21 people at its headquarters in Grand Junction and a regional office in Raleigh, N.C., he says.
While ProStar works with the geospatial analytics and science program at North Carolina State University, Tucker says he also hopes to work with CMU to develop a curriculum in Grand Junction. CMU students also work at the company as interns.
Tucker has high hopes for substantial growth for ProStar in terms of sales, revenues and staffing. But he also hopes the company can serve as a catalyst in promoting the growth of other tech startups and what he believes could become a technology hub in Grand Junction.
As for the use of augmented reality, Ben Skogen, one of the CMU interns at ProStar put it this way: “It’s our way of being forward-looking in our technology world.”
For more information about ProStar Geocorp, log on to www.prostarcorp.com.