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Hidden Champion

Mixed reality – best of both worlds

Mixed reality is being used to create completely new applications. Afca AG in Zollikofen has been working with this technology for many years and already has a substantial portfolio of projects to its name. Dip into the world of mixed reality with afca founder Paul Affentranger as he explains what it is and what it can do. At a timber construction company, afca has taken the world of work into a whole new dimension.

To put it simply, mixed reality (MR) blends the real world with digital objects. A market leader in this field, afca AG gives us an insight into how mixed reality is created and what it takes to achieve it.

Mr. Affentranger, could you start off by explaining what mixed reality is?
Mixed reality is the merging of the real world with the digital world. It brings three-dimensional objects into the room in the form of holograms, creating a spatial interaction between the two worlds – hence the name. The user can see these holograms in the room through their MR headset.

Can you give us an example of how mixed reality is used?
Yes, take the timber construction company schaer-holzbau ag in Altbüron, for example. They do all the planning for their construction projects digitally. The digital construction drawings are then used to produce a wide range of wooden components that can be very different in shape and vary in complexity. In the past, staff would need printed drawings to work from. But with the planning work for the buildings and components now done digitally and spatially, the drawings are displayed spatially in mixed reality and can be seen in the MR headset’s field of vision, keeping hands free for the actual assembly work (see diagram on the right).

How long have you been developing mixed reality applications?
We have been working with MR for more than five years, which is a long time in terms of this technology. In that time we have already implemented 50 projects for a range of clients. For the city of Zurich, for example, we are working on a project for digital urban planning using HoloPlanning. Overall, we have considerable experience in MR. But it is still very much a niche area.

Do you operate internationally?
We do, but our main market is Switzerland. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, we want to be able to look at things in situ together with the client. Secondly, we tend to be too expensive for other countries due to labor costs. But we do have the know-how needed to work internationally. For example, we solved a difficult problem for a French energy company with a relatively simple application, which involved making sure the protective suits were put on properly.

How do your customers find you?
Mainly through LinkedIn or our website. We are also active members of MR communities, where word of our expertise is getting around. Additionally, we were the first Microsoft MR partner in Switzerland.

What skills do people need if they want to work at afca?
Above all, we want our team to be diverse. Only some of our people are software developers. We also have designers and people who work with 3D models or with sound and the user experience. Even though everyone here is a specialist in their own field, we all need to know a bit about everything. Teamwork and an open error culture are key. For us, it’s important not to blame and shame, because every project is a learning process.

Why are you a Hidden Champion?
I think it is MR technology that is hidden: these are still specialist applications that not many people know about. On top of that, there are only a few MR apps and MR headsets are still relatively expensive.

What does being based in the Canton of Bern mean to you?
A big bonus of being in Bern is the lower office rental prices. We need a lot of space for our applications, and that would be almost unaffordable in Zurich. The geographical location is definitely also an advantage: it is important to us to be central. Plus, as a Bernese company we have a local cachet. Many people think that a company that develops MR applications must be based in Zurich, so they are quite surprised to discover that this kind of thing is also happening in Bern.

So where will we be in ten years’ time?
I think we are at the beginning of a new paradigm. Today, we carry computers around with us in the cell phones in our pockets. The next step will be the computer disappearing altogether. I am convinced that in five or ten years’ time, we will be communicating directly with objects connected to computer intelligence via the cloud using gestures and speech.

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