One of the higher-ranking intangibles on any field technician’s wish list is the desire to spend more time fixing things, and less time finding them. In an industry with physical network assets measured in the hundreds of thousands of miles, in all imaginable terrains and environments, locating physical elements can be as challenging as their repair or replacement.
For many years, network technicians have used computer-aided design (CAD) maps to help them locate underground cables, aerial spans, taps, amplifiers, nodes, and other network elements. While helpful, CAD maps are two-dimensional, static and not always updated with current coordinates for the components listed – let alone Mother Nature’s contributions, in the form of nightfall, snow-covered taps, shrubbery-occluded pedestals, or spans lost in heavy tree foliage! Simultaneously, the landscape of Augmented Reality (AR) is emerging as a beneficial tool for just such circumstances. Not, as the reader may first connote, with special glasses, or helmets, or anything of the sort, but with a tool technicians use routinely in the field: A smart phone or a tablet. After extensive and ongoing laboratory reviews of various “smart glasses” and “AR helmets,” designed to help technicians to access expert help in a “see what I can see” environment, our conclusion remains that such devices need a few more design cycles – and cost reductions – before they will represent a plausible field tool.
Instead, in 2019, Comcast Labs began to investigate the use of an AR modality as a network visualization tool that technicians can access with the same field tools (e.g. iPhones and iPads) that are part of their day-to-day lives. It applies Apple’s open sourced ARKit framework to the integrated camera in an iOS device (iPhone or iPad), then draws upon graph database information, derived from latitude/longitude and GPS coordinates of plant elements, to present a near-real-time visual guide, regardless of time of day (or, especially, night) – there’s a pedestal within 20 feet, but it’s behind something tall, like a fence – as one of many examples. It gives technicians a sort of “x-ray vision” for the network, and moves the evolution of Proactive Network Management (PNM) from 2D to 3D. The tool, which we call “VON” for “Visualize Our Network,” went into the field in early 2020, as a component within the tool suite technicians use daily.
This paper will describe the VON work to date, including the evolution of network visualization, how AR works to visualize the plant, development challenges, why graph theory was an important design component, the importance of “occlusion,” lessons learned, and next steps (if only in the form of a “design wish list.”) Note: “Occlusion,” which will be mentioned frequently in this paper, is defined here as “the blocking of a view of part or all of something, but something else.”