Augmented Reality Workbench helps you debug your boards

No matter how advanced your design skills are, chances are you’ll need to spend some time chasing bugs in your boards after they get back from the assembly house. Testing and debugging a printed circuit board typically involves a lot of cross-checking between the board, layout, and schematic, which quickly becomes tiresome, even for mildly complex designs. To make this task a little easier, [Ishan Chatterjee] and colleagues at the University of Washington designed the Augmented Reality Debugging Workbench, or ARDW for short.

The ARDW is a set-up consisting of a lab workbench with an anti-static mat, a selection of measuring instruments and a PC. You can simply bench your board, open the schematic and layout in KiCAD and start measuring and debugging your design as you normally would, but the real magic happens when you select a new icon in KiCAD that exports the schematic and layout to the ARDW system. From that point on, you can select components in your schematic and have them highlighted not only on the layout, but also on the physical board also for you. This is perhaps best demonstrated visually, as the team members do in the video below.

The real-life illumination of components is achieved thanks to a set of cameras that track the movement of everything on the desk, as well as a video projector that superimposes information on the PCB. All this allows for a variety of useful debugging features: for example, there is an option to mark pin one on all components, allowing easy visual verification of each part’s orientation. You can select all Do Not Populate (DNP) instances and immediately see if all marked pads are empty. If you’re not sure what part you’re looking at, just point at it with your multimeter probe and it will be highlighted on the schematic and layout. You can even grid your probes and automatically log the voltage for future reference, thanks to a digital link between the multimeter and the ARDW software.

In addition to designing and building the ARDW, the team also conducted a usability study with a group of human test subjects. They particularly liked the ability to quickly locate components on crowded boards, but found the online measurement system a bit cumbersome due to limited positional accuracy. Future work will therefore focus on improving the resolution of the projected image and generally making the system more compact and robust. All of the software is available for free on the project’s GitHub page, and while the current system looks a bit complicated for hobbyists, we can already imagine it being a useful tool in production environments.

It’s not even the first time augmented reality has been used for PCB debugging: we saw a somewhat similar system at the Hackaday Superconference 2019. AR can also come in handy during the design and prototyping phase, as this AR breadboard shows.

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