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Computer Science Graduate Karim Fikani Builds AR Solutions for the Workplace

When you think “augmented reality,” you probably think games. Pokémon Go’s wildfire success on smartphones is proof that consumers are warming up to AR technology, which can transform the world around us by overlaying interactive digital media on top of it. As far as “wearable” AR goes, however, general consumer support is still a long way off — a truth plainly illustrated by the widespread criticism and proceeding flop of Google Glass.

But wearable AR is booming, just not where you might expect it.

“Manufacturing, logistics, assembly, maintenance and repair work, field engineering, oil and gas, and so on,” says DigiPen graduate and former professor Karim Fikani. “All these cool use cases just make me believe more and more in AR for enterprise. AR is not really consumer ready, but it is ready for enterprise. When you’re in a warehouse, you don’t need your AR glasses to be fashionable — if this thing is going to help you finish your job safer and in half the time, you’ll wear it.”

Since 2015, Fikani has been helping build the flourishing present-day success of wearable AR at Atheer, one of the few companies in the world specializing in AR for business and workforce applications. According to Fikani, who hadn’t tried AR until his job interview, the field is an exciting and welcome left turn from his longtime focus on video games. “I went to the interview, put on the glasses, and said, ‘This is the future, and the future is so cool,’” Fikani says. “It’s not games, but the technology and the challenges are just as fun.”

Karim Fikani

When Fikani decided to go to DigiPen, games very much were his focus. “I’ve always been a video game fanatic,” Fikani says, “I’d play almost all day.”

When DigiPen briefly offered a computer science program in his native Lebanon, Fikani jumped at the chance to turn his passion into a career. There, he would develop student fighting, racing, and flight simulation games before deciding to continue his education at DigiPen’s Redmond campus, enrolling in the Master of Science in Computer Science program. Although he graduated in 2007, his DigiPen story didn’t end there. Immediately out of school, he took a job with DigiPen’s Research & Development team, working on projects for Formula One racing and Boeing. Soon, he transitioned to teaching at DigiPen’s Singapore campus, where he would eventually become the chair of the Computer Science department.

“It was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made,” Fikani says of his DigiPen experience, both as a student and teacher. “I learned a lot through DigiPen, but then when you’re teaching you learn even more. In order to be ready for any question from students, you have to research a lot and read a lot and write a lot of code.”

Fikani eventually left Singapore to head back to the U.S., where he developed his own mobile puzzle game and eventually became a senior software engineer for Zynga. Soon, however, Fikani started to crave other outlets for his talents. When he heard from a friend that Atheer was looking for someone who knew how to use the Unity engine, he jumped at the opportunity.

Atheer, founded in 2011, has always approached wearable AR from a business and workforce angle, and as they soon found out, a wide array of industries had been waiting for the solutions their tech readily provided. One of the company’s biggest customers is Porsche, which initially approached Atheer with a problem in their dealership service workflow.

“Every time they wanted to fix a car in a dealership, the mechanic had to take photos of the part they didn’t know how to fix and send it to an expert, who could be in Germany on a different time zone. So maybe they would get back with an answer in two to three days. Then maybe the mechanic has another question about that part or the answer they received, so the back and forth would take a week [or more],” Fikani says. “That delayed the servicing, and they wanted to be faster. So they approached us and said, ‘We need a way to communicate where an expert could be anywhere and see what the mechanic sees.’”

The solution was what Atheer calls “Skype on steroids.” Through AR, experts in Porsche’s American headquarters can draw on and annotate in real-time anything remote mechanics at dealerships across the world are seeing, even sending them detailed step-by-step instruction manuals and 3D models of various car parts for reference. Users can even manipulate those images using hand gestures. Utilizing machine learning and AI, the AR glasses even recognize when other mechanics have a question that’s been answered before, automatically pulling up relevant information, instructions, and models from past cases without having to call the same expert again.

The tech was quickly adopted by the aviation industry for maintenance and repair, technicians doing field service on heavy machinery, warehouse workers for order fulfillment, and various industries for general job training. Because AR glasses are hands-free, they’ve also increased job safety for a variety of fields that require dexterous work. It’s increased safety in some other unexpected ways as well.

“If you want to assess the roof of a building to see if you can insure it, but you don’t want to get on the roof because it’s potentially dangerous, what you can do is fly a drone and have its video feed go directly into the glasses,” Fikani says, referring to an insurance company that partnered with Atheer.

“The use cases these companies have are amazing. They come to us and ask, ‘Oh, can I do this? Can I do that?’ And they’re all things that have never been done before,” Fikani says, “So as engineers we all sit down and find creative ways to solve their problem. That is amazing to me.”

“It was one of those situations where I was like, ‘Thank God I went to DigiPen!’”

Because the field is so young, Fikani has already gotten to file three patents as part of the job. “It feels like you’re on the cutting edge — it’s so cool,” he says.

Even though it was a bit of a jump from video games to enterprise AR, Fikani’s skills were immediately applicable. When the company’s graphics engineer had to abruptly leave the company, Fikani’s education allowed him to step in and take over with little advance notice. “Because of DigiPen, I’d taken computer graphics classes and knew OpenGL and DirectX, so I could look at his code and know exactly what was going on. That was a lot of fun, and it was one of those situations where I was like, ‘Thank God I went to DigiPen!’”

Fikani says he hopes students at DigiPen realize the breadth of applications for the skills they’re gaining. “We’re looking for more engineers,” Fikani says. “I would love to tell the students that there are other things out there than games that are just as fun. Think about AR!”