Electronics Technology

Service with vision

2 November 2005 Electronics Technology

It happens every day. Something goes wrong, alarms sound, the control panel lights up like a Christmas tree - and the technical guy on duty cannot fix the problem. What to do? Normally, the answer is to call an expert. And then things really get complicated. What is the machine's model number? Which panel are you looking at? Did you flip switch number 27 or 28? It goes on and on. The problem is that things are just too complicated and the pressure to get them back on track never lets up.

With a view to resolving this sort of problem more efficiently, Siemens Corporate Technology has developed a mobile remote assistance system called 'visual service support' (VSS) that can provide good quality, two-way, realtime, hands-free audio and visual communication between a technician in the field and a specialist anywhere in the world using only the standard 9,6 Kbps GSM bandwidth used by conventional cellphones.

This is the first time that anyone has been able to do this, according to Dieter Kolb, who led the VSS development effort. The achievement is important for a number of reasons. For one thing, a vast number of industrial facilities - anything from bottling plants and transformer stations to mining and drilling facilities - are in remote areas, where the communications infrastructure is often limited to a GSM signal. Furthermore, even when a more powerful infrastructure such as GPRS or UMTS is available, users can never be sure how much bandwidth they will actually have, or for how long, because bandwidth varies as the number of users changes. Finally, even when a powerful local infrastructure such as wireless LAN is available - and such environments are ideal for VSS - companies will not allow external service personnel to tap into it for security reasons.

No competition

What makes VSS unique is its ability to compress, transmit, and deliver video data at a rate of five frames per second - enough to create a moving image - over a single GSM channel that is universally available, and deliver all of this in a comprehensive hardware package that is tailored to the ergonomic needs of service personnel. If need be, a technician can opt to send a single, high resolution image. The image can be annotated in the field by, for instance, drawing a circle around the subject in question.

Behind VSS is the new MPEG-4 AVC (advanced video coding) also known as the H.264 video compression standard - which Siemens helped to pioneer - and an associated video 'codec,' an algorithm that codes and decodes signals based on the specifications required by the new standard.

"The key to squeezing a video's normally high transmission bandwidth into a mere 9,6 Kbps is the elimination of all inter-frame redundancy by means of a fast and efficient motion estimation algorithm," explains Norbert Oertel, who led the codec development at Siemens Corporate Technology. "Naturally, that pushed demand on the CPU to the limit. But it was well worth it because there is no competition in video transmission under 64 Kbps."

VSS appears to be headed for a promising future. Indeed, Siemens Technology Accelerator (STA), a wholly-owned subsidiary that specialises in commercialising leading technologies, is working closely with internal and external partners to bring VSS to market. "We see a minimum 50 million Euro per year market for VSS, with a potential market 10 times that size," says STA's Albrecht Goecke, who is managing the commercialisation initiative. He sees off-shore oil rigs as a prime target. "If a platform has to shut down for one hour, an oil company can lose over $100 000. With VSS, technicians can respond more rapidly and more efficiently, and the need for expensive site visits from experts will be cut."

Goecke and others see VSS not only as a potentially valuable tool for supporting sales and service on existing Siemens installations, but as a key to opening the door to a range of new customers. They foresee establishment of an international pool of experts - a kind of virtual call centre - that would support local technicians in a two-way audio/video and information environment with expert knowledge, online manuals, software downloads, and more.

Paradigm shift?

Reinhold Achatz, who heads the software and engineering division agrees: "VSS can make a good contribution to strengthening Siemens' position as a service provider." Looking further down the road, he sees VSS as "representing a paradigm shift in the way service people work. It will open the door to intuitive services and easier access to knowledge when and where it is needed - not just in spectacular, out-of-the-way locations, but in everyday environments, such as automotive service centres. I think that in 10 years or so this technology could be as ubiquitous as the cellphone is today."

Source: Arthur F. Pease; 'Pictures of the Future' - Siemens AG; www.siemens.com/pof

VSS meets augmented reality

VSS can be improved by augmented reality (AR), a technology in which data is superimposed on what the user sees. Siemens is working with partners on turning AR into a technology that is helpful in supporting complex remote maintenance applications. With VSS, technicians wearing data goggles on-site could obtain additional information directly within their field of vision. As a result, non-specialised personnel could perform complex tasks.

As part of the German Research Ministry's Artesas project, engineers are now developing a system that is designed for use with motor vehicles, aircraft and automation technology. Siemens Automation and Drives and its partners are focusing their efforts on automatic tracking of the technician's eyes in combination with easy-to-use devices. Until recently, numerous on-site markings were needed as points of reference in order to correctly place the superimposed data within the real-life visual image. However, AR technology will now be able to detect objects without requiring any markings, thereby making it far more suitable for practical applications.

Researchers at Siemens Corporate Technology are employing a similar approach to introduce augmented reality to cellphone cameras. For instance, software has been developed that merely requires users to move their phones from side to side in order to calculate the spatial depth of a room and the location of any objects in realtime. The system can correctly identify objects and also superimpose information into the picture.

For more information contact Siemens Southern Africa, +27 (0)11 652 2000


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