Assisting woodworkers with AR

The physical and digital world can finally blend together!

With augmented reality (AR) humans can have enhanced visual perception, seeing digital information directly in their field of view. This new super power makes it an exciting time to be a designer. We now have this opportunity to define new intuitive experiences for this futuristic technology.

The interaction of AR with woodworking has become a passionate focus for my master’s degree thesis at the University of Washington. Over the past 3 months, I have conducted primary and secondary research to support this topic. Below I will discuss my findings and synthesize where AR will be useful in the wood shop. Over the course of the year, I will continue to add to this blog as I design and implement this unique AR experience.

Statement

In woodworking, a tactile industry where craftsmen transform raw materials into artifacts, it is important to produce quality products in an efficient manner without compromising safety. Novice woodworkers often struggle to become efficient, causing frustration and errors during the build. Through the lens of woodcraft, this thesis examines new design principles for AR to create an intuitive experience in hands-on industries. AR can be used as a tool to enhance efficiency when constructing furniture.

Background

Augmented reality is part of the Reality-Virtuality Continuum (Milgram). On one end of the continuum is a real environment and on the other a virtual. AR combines each end of the continuum by displaying relevant virtual information directly in the user’s physical environment. Although AR has been in existence since the 1960's, today’s technology allows for the seamless combination of the digital and physical world. This technology has many unique applications to enhance a user’s visual field. Currently, it is being developed for industries such as medicine, construction, aviation, maintenance, and marketing; but it has yet to interact with a creative industry like craft.

Primary research

To better understand how to apply AR to a tactile environment I decided to design and build a wine cabinet. The cabinet’s form is simple, yet the number of parts and joints required adds complexity.

In progress shot of wine cabinet

This research methodology has allowed me to interact with the machinery found in a wood shop. For example, the wine cabinet used a jointer, planer, chop saw, table saw, router, and various hand tools. Each machine serves a different purpose and offers a unique opportunity for the application of augmented reality.

Findings

Novice woodworkers will face additional challenges due to their inexperience with the machinery and joints needed to create furniture. Woodworking is about problem solving, much time is spent determining how to produce certain cuts, join pieces, or correct mistakes. I am a novice woodworker, and proved to be inefficient during the primary research collection as I cut materials and joined parts incorrectly while building the wine cabinet. Although frustrating, it validated the assumptions that novice woodworkers face additional challenges when working in the wood shop.

My primary research taught me that although a piece of furniture may appear simple, the creation process is truly complicated. For my thesis to be successful, I must limit my AR interactions to a specific portion of the fabrication process.

The video above shows John, the wood tech at UW, demonstrating a blind stop dato cut. In this video John is creating a cut on the bottom of the board that will stop 1 inch from the end of the board. Since the cut is not going entirely through the piece of wood, John does not know where the blade is in relation to where he needs to stop. To determine where he needs to stop the cut, he has drawn a line on the table that he slowly approaches before pulling the blade back. This video is a primary example of where AR could help the woodworker by showing him where to stop and where the blade is in relationship to that stop.

The Woodworking process

The wine cabinet, pictured above, is constructed out of both plywood (red oak) and hardwood (maple). The properties of both plywood and hardwood are vastly different. Plywood is manufactured in various, standardized thicknesses (I used 1/2 inch thick boards) in 4 feet by 8 feet sheets. A woodworker will choose plywood based on thickness and is then unable to alter that thickness during construction. Hardwoods, on the other hand, are sold in board feet (a unit of volume for timber). Each piece of rough wood can be purchased in various thicknesses and is milled down to a final dimension.

Hardwoods are unique because each species of wood contains different properties. A woodworker must understand the wood properties to determine the best way to mill it to its final dimension. Even with a thorough knowledge of the various types of wood, external environmental factors can cause the wood to be manipulated during the milling process.

Due to the complexity of hardwood, my thesis will focus on plywood as it is more predictable for a novice woodworker to handle. As the augmented reality technology continues to improve, I believe that it will be used to understand the vast properties of hardwood and provide appropriate recommendations to the user.

Design opportunities

This thesis aims to address two design opportunities where AR can be used as a planning and measurement tool during the fabrication of wood furniture.

  1. A table saw is a primary tool used in a wood shop. It allows a user to break down large pieces of wood into their final dimensions. During the use of a table saw, a user adjusts a rip fence to determine the size of a cut.

Often, a woodworker will create a cut list prior to using the table saw to determine common dimensions, allowing for the fence to remain at one spot for multiple cuts. Augmented reality provides a unique opportunity to project various information directly onto a table saw to increase efficiency. Imagine being able to input a cut list and seeing measurement marks directly on the machine in relation to that cut. A user then knows exactly where to place the fence, where to place their hands for safety, and how to cycle between different cuts.

2. Another opportunity is to assist a woodworker in the inventory of their parts and to visualize the progress. Perhaps a user could use a head-mounted AR device to see a virtual model and then associate the physical pieces to that virtual model. It could directly highlight pieces of wood and show the user how those pieces will be used in the final model. This opportunity would help novice users visualize the flat pieces of wood in association with the final 3D form. In addition, they would see the pieces still to cut.

Take Aways

Through my primary and secondary research, I believe there is a fascinating opportunity to have digital technology collaborate with a tactile industry. Historically, digital technology did not have a role in a wood shop. However, by designing an AR experience that becomes a tool to aid the builder, digital technology provides efficiency in the wood shop. This ultimately allows the wood worker to quickly build skills and produce more products with high craftsmanship.

Next steps

My next thesis steps will focus on the woodworker’s digital interaction. I must define what AR technology I will design and begin visualizing that experience. During the next quarter, I will be in the wood shop, but will focus on the technology aspect. A new blog post will be created at the end of next quarter (3 months) with updates on the progress of my thesis.