ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. — Jim Ladlee popped on a goggle-like headset and looked out at the Ag Progress Days gathering. But he didn’t see just people.
Hovering in front of a Farm Bureau guy and Penn State’s ag dean was a menu like you’d see on a computer screen. Poking at the air in front of him, Ladlee — an assistant director of Penn State Extension — scrolled through the menu and looked at 3D models of the sun and Earth.
This was something more than a cool party trick by an electronics geek. It was a demonstration of augmented reality technology, which Ladlee and others think could bring benefits to farmers in the imminent future.
“It’s been building for 10 years. It’s coming, and it’s going to hit fast,” said Dan Dotterer, an app developer and entertainment entrepreneur who divides his time between Los Angeles and his family’s dairy in central Pennsylvania.
Dotterer spoke at a joint meeting of the Pennsylvania House and Senate ag committees Aug. 11 at Ag Progress Days.
What is Augmented Reality?
Unlike virtual reality, which uses a headset to immerse a viewer in a digital world, augmented reality uses a mobile device, headset or smart glasses to overlay a hologram on one’s view of the real world.
Augmented reality is already a part of daily life. It’s what teens use to put dog ears on themselves in Snapchat pictures and how Pokémon Go users pursue animated characters to real locations. It draws the line of scrimmage on the field in broadcasts of football games.
Augmented reality is also being used in practical and serious situations, such as allowing Special Forces troops to pull up blueprints in smoke-filled rooms. Technicians in training can look at an engine in their workshop through an AR device, and the place where they should bolt on the next part will light up.
Dotterer is developing holograms of Pearl Harbor survivors. Visitors will be able to talk and ask questions with the holograms as if they were real people.
Dedicated augmented reality devices are about to become household items as well, with about two dozen manufacturers on the cusp of debuting consumer AR headsets.
“If you’re a technology company, you’re working on this, and your headset is coming out either the end of this year or next year. Because if you don’t, you’re going to get lost,” Dotterer said.
In agriculture, Dotterer is particularly interested in using augmented reality to speed up and improve veterinary care. In many rural areas, large-animal vets are stretched thin, and just getting a provider all the way out to a remote farm can be costly.
Farmers could avoid a house call if the vet can diagnose a problem remotely with AR video and a digital stethoscope — a Bluetooth-enabled device that allows a vet to listen to an animal remotely.
“Let’s have vets spend time treating animals, not on the road,” Dotterer said.
Rep. Dan Moul, chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, liked what he heard. A farmer wearing a headset could consult a leading expert about a problem with the farm’s prize bull while the expert remained in an office hours away.
“The first thing that went through my mind is: This changes everything,” Moul said.
Remote diagnosis could be particularly useful in preserving biosecurity. Instead of driving to multiple farms suspected of a contagious disease, vets could guide on-site staff who are using augmented reality technology.
Diagnosing problems remotely could also reduce down time and repair costs for farm machinery. Technicians on Earth are already using augmented reality to help astronauts make repairs on the International Space Station.
“If it’s good enough for the space station, it’s probably good enough to repair our tractors,” Ladlee said.
The Future of Farming
For this technology to reach its potential, though, machine companies may need to set new parameters for what farmers can fix on their own equipment.
Many farm equipment manufacturers use software to limit do-it-yourself repairs, ostensibly to protect their proprietary technology. There must be some way to ensure these protections while still permitting some AR-assisted repairs, Ladlee said.
Produce growers could also use augmented reality to bring up information in various settings.
Will augmented reality technology help farmers become more efficient?
August 21, 2021
Augmented reality overlays could identify the estimated time until individual melons ripen. And customers who pick up a vegetable at a market could use the technology to learn about the farm that grew it.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said he was excited about the potential of augmented reality, but he was concerned about the security of data transmitted through the devices and the possibility that farmers would not be able to afford the new tech.
“Your technology is going to move at lightning speed. Our government process cannot move at lightning speed. And I’m looking for the safeguards here,” Pashinski said.
Augmented reality faces similar data security concerns as cell phones, and the industry will have to work through those, Ladlee said.
As for the price, Dotterer said dedicated AR units could go for $600 to $1,000, and as the technology matures, prices will fall. But he thinks there’s an even simpler solution.
“I want the farmer to be able to use the phone he already has in his pocket,” he said.
Moul said augmented reality is just another reason to ensure quality internet service in rural areas.