Building the Future of Exoskeletons: Meet Dr. William G. Billotte

He’s working with BMW, Boeing and others to introduce standards and raising the bar in the exoskeleton market: Meet Dr. William G. Billotte, Physical Scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Vice Chairman of the ASTM F48 Exoskeleton and Exosuit committee. I got to interview Dr. Billotte on the importance of standards and fundamental work of NIST. Read our conversation: (Full bio at the end)

Emily: To begin, could you provide a little background on yourself and NIST? When did you first start working on exoskeleton tech?

W: My background is I’m an engineer and a biologist with a bachelors and masters degree in engineering and a PhD in biology, and I’ve been working in the biology/engineering area for probably 17 or so years, providing scientific and technical guidance to different federal agencies, first responders and other organizations. I’ve worked in a number of different areas: biological detection, first responder equipment, critical infrastructure protection, etc. I’ve been in the exoskeleton area since around 2014. I work for a federal organization, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Department of Commerce (see here for some history).  I’ve been here since 2009 as a physical scientist.

I worked for the Department of Defense before I came to NIST, and I was a consultant here in the D.C. area before that as a bioscience advisor, ever since 2002.


E: What is ASTM? How did it form and who is involved?

W: ASTM is an international standards development organization and there are a bunch of standards development organizations. It’s a non-profit. NIST works with a number of similar organizations across the world. ASTM is where we set up the F48 Committee on Exoskeletons and Exosuits around 2017. We talked to a number of different standards development organizations and it seemed like the best fit was with ASTM. I’m the Vice-chairman on the F48 Committee but I’m not an employee for ASTM; it’s a volunteer-type thing. Everybody has their day job and does standards also.

Here is a link to a recent paper describing the development of ASTM F4

For your reference, there is legislation that encourages federal agencies to use and participate in voluntary consensus standards [National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA), Public Law 104‐113.]


E: Are the companies actually building and using exoskeletons a part of F48?

W: We’ve got around 130 members. Anyone can join. We have meetings about twice a year face-to-face and then meetings all year long sort of how we are now. We’re trying to get standards out there that meet the needs of industry. That’s how standards work in the U.S.; they come from the ground up. If you look on your computer, the USB port is just one example of the many standards that people use every day and rely upon. Similarly, we want standards so that exoskeletons can be tested and manufacturers can easily demonstrate to their users that they’re safe and reliable. We want some guidance out there, like we just passed one standard for labeling exoskeletons. How do you put labels on these and give the user or buyer some information? That was a standard to help the manufacturers label their products and provide the right info for the user—very basic stuff right now. We’re still at the beginning stages of getting standards out there for exoskeletons. It’s an exciting time because there’s a lot to do.


E: What is the exoskeleton market like today? 

W: Bobby Marinov, who is also on the F48 committee and runs a website called the Exoskeleton Report, has written a number of articles about this on his site, in Forbes and other places. He has a good snapshot of the market, which is this: In the past two years, you’ve gone from 20 or so exoskeletons being used in the automotive industry in a few places in the U.S. to almost 1,000 worldwide, and that’s just the auto industry and mainly on the assembly line. Chris Reid’s team at Boeing has done a tremendous amount of work in this area, too; Chris is actually the leader of one of our subcommittees and he’s very involved in the ergonomics community. We’re having a face-to-face meeting at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in Seattle in the Fall.


E: What counts as an exoskeleton?

W: You’ve gotten to the hard question here. We struggled for at least two years, even before the committee was set up, we started working on how to define the term exoskeleton and how is an exoskeleton any different than a smartwatch or smart clothing. Why is a smartwatch not an exoskeleton? It augments you, gives you different capabilities, you wear it…We had lots of discussions like that. When I see one, I know what it is but how do we define it, and that’s how we got to a definition: A wearable device that augments you physically through mechanical interaction with the body (The ASTM standard definition of an exoskeleton is “wearable device that augments, enables, assists, and/or enhances physical activity through mechanical interaction with the body.”)

We’re not trying to exclude anything. For example, there is an exoskeleton in the consumer market that helps you to ski, but there aren’t a lot of products in the consumer space (that’s the only one that I’m aware of). And we don’t use the word partial; we just say it’s an exoskeleton that just happens to be for the upper body like those that help for overhead work. Because we’re not thinking about it as a giant Iron Man suit. There’s another one, a glove that assists you in grabbing—that’s an exoskeleton.


E: What are the top 3 industrial sectors where exoskeletons stand to have the greatest impact?

W: The big three groups are industrial, medical and military. I think these are three areas where exoskeletons are going to move forward the fastest. From what I’ve seen so far, there has been a big drive in the manufacturing sector like automotive, airplane manufacturing, those types of environments. There are some possibilities in the construction industry, but it hasn’t gone as far as we’ve seen in automotive. Another great possibility is the agricultural sector. Think of anything that involves hard physical labor, a task where you have to lift something, or where there is an awkward static posture; those give you a lot of opportunities. Really, the value of exoskeletons comes down to economics: Work-related injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, overexertion—these cost billions of dollars every year. It’s really easy to justify, which is why big and small companies are looking at this. It keeps workers safe and on the job, reduces the risk of injuries, and workers can do higher quality work for a longer period of time. That’s the potential. Do we have concrete evidence for every exoskeleton? No, we need to do a lot more studies, especially longitudinal studies, but there are enough studies out there than you can see the potential.


E: Where are you right now with exoskeleton standards and why are standards so important?

W: Standards are so important to organizations and countries because they help shape a marketplace so that you can have reliable products, safe products, and the ability to sell in a fair-trade type situation on a worldwide scale.

E: Are there any studies to back up the value of exoskeletons in industrial workplaces? How do you test the devices? 

W: NIST is a metrology institute. We do research on how to measure things and help set the measures used by everyone in the U.S. We compare those measures to other institutes around the world. NIST is developing test methods; and so, yes, we are doing some testing but we’re not testing the exoskeletons to test the exoskeletons per se; we’re doing testing with the exoskeletons to figure out how we can test all of them. We’ve gotten a few exoskeletons and developed some load-handling tasks and run a number of test subjects through to test the test method, and that is being documented. That test method will then go into our ASTM F48 committee to get massaged some and at some point it will get voted on and hopefully become a standard.


E: The exoskeletons that companies can buy today haven’t gone through this testing. Is it kind of like the Wild West right now?

W: It’s not exactly the Wild West. There has been a lot of testing, but everyone has done their own testing. That is the power of developing a standard test method because then you can compare devices. Chris Reid at Boeing has tested a lot of exoskeletons, but I can’t take his data and compare it to the data from Ford. I don’t know what tools and metrics they used. That’s why we need a repeatable standard method, so any lab can use that test method and everyone can trust the results. This will lead to a standards based certification process which helps manufacturers show the basic performance and safety of their system and will allow for the end users to not have to inherit the burden of assessing the system other than for company specific applicability.


E: So, the market is kind of regulating itself right now?

W: Well, it’s like any nascent market. The only place that you have regulations right now is the medical exoskeleton market because the FDA in the U.S. regulates all medical products and there are a number medical exoskeletons certified by the FDA that are used mainly in clinics. But it’s different than what you see on an automotive line in that usually the operator of the exoskeleton isn’t the person wearing the device; it’s the nurse or therapist. Think about someone learning how to walk again after a stroke. With exoskeletons, you can give patients “higher doses” of walking in a session with a therapist, speeding up the recovery process.

E: Would the ASTM work directly with the regulatory bodies in different industries?

W: We’re hoping the standards that we develop through F48 will be referenced by regulatory bodies, even the FDA. There may not be any regulation in the industrial market.

Here is a link to the NIOSH Center for Occupational Robotics Research.  They look at exoskeletons also and their research would feed in to any industrial focused standards or regulations on exoskeletons.


E: One of my “pet areas of research” is women in the workforce. Do exoskeletons have the potential to enable more women to work in industrial sectors and is there any testing being done on the female body, which is very different from the male body (height, breasts/hips, even spinal cords)?

W: In the testing we’re doing right now at NIST, we’re using men and women. But we don’t see any exoskeletons out there that can make someone stronger than they are right now. If the job requirement is to lift 100 pounds and you can only lift 25 pounds; the devices I am familiar with won’t lift the weight for you. An exoskeleton would help the person to lift the weight more safely and with more repetition. Some may advertise about giving you additional weightlifting capability but as far as the testing I have seen there isn’t anything that can augment your strength like that. But that’s not really the issue. It’s fitting. We’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time, especially in law enforcement. Body armor was developed for a male physique and slightly modified for females and it doesn’t work very well. We’ve been working for years trying to fix that. I hope the exoskeleton community designs for females from the beginning; we’re not going to design a male-fitting exoskeleton and then slightly modify it for females. There will be exoskeletons that fit better for men and ones designed for the female body and even ones that can be easily modified for any wearer.

E: What do you hope to accomplish in 2020 and when do you think exoskeletons will become standard in industrial environments?

W: I think exoskeletons are well on their way to becoming common in the workplace. Seeing how it’s rolling out in the manufacturing sector, aerospace, automotive, etc. I think they will be even more common in 2020. I’m sort of biased but I want to see more standards so that everyone can have an increased sense of reliability and safety with these exoskeletons. Standards will also help stimulate the market.

 

 

Dr. William Billotte currently serves as a physical scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  In that position, he helps industrial, military, medical, and public safety communities with their national and homeland security standards and technology needs.  Current activities include serving as a principal scientific advisor to Army for exoskeleton standards and technology issues and serving as the vice chairman of the ASTM F48 Exoskeleton and Exosuit committee.  Prior to joining NIST, Dr. Billotte was a CBRNE scientist for the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR).  For NAVWAR, he managed programs to test, evaluate, acquire and share information on CBRNE detection and responder technologies. This included supporting the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s New Campus East construction, the FEMA CEDAP (Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program), the FEMA Responder Knowledge Base (RKB) and the DHS SAVER program.  Prior to joining NAVWAR, Dr. Billotte served as a bioscience advisor for Booz Allen Hamilton where he supported DoD, DARPA, the Intelligence Community, and DHS in the biotechnology, chemical/biological defense and responder technology areas.

Dr. Billotte holds a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Dayton, a Master of Science in Engineering from Wright State University, and a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology.

 

*Image source: NBC News

Workplace implantables–Yes, we’re going there.

Are workplace implantables a future reality? Implantables are sometimes mentioned as a category of wearable technology, but is a future in which technology becomes more integrated with our biology, in which we voluntarily have technology embedded beneath our skin at work, possible? Some think widespread human microchipping is inevitable; others believe it would mark the end of personal freedom, and still others refer to it as “the eugenics of our time.” If it does happen, Europe will already be ahead of the game.

Today, more than 4,000 people in Sweden have consented to having microchips injected under their skin, and millions more are expected to follow suit as the country trends towards going cashless. In addition to enabling Swedes to pay for things with the swipe of a hand, the technology can be used to ride the train (Sweden’s national railways are entirely biochip-friendly), unlock doors, monitor one’s health, and even enter many Nordic Wellness gyms. At the forefront of the microchip movement are two European firms: BioTeq in the United Kingdom and the Swedish Biohax International founded in 2013. Both firms make a pretty basic chip that’s inserted into the flesh between the thumb and forefinger. The chips don’t contain batteries or tiny advanced computers; they’re powered only when an RFID reader pings them for data.

So, what exactly are microchip implants? They’re mainly passive, read-only devices with a small amount of stored information that communicate with readers over a magnetic field using RFID (radio frequency identification). This is the same technology used to track pets and packages, and you probably carry it in your pocket—most mobile phones and credit cards today are equipped with RFID and U.S. passports have been embedded with RFID chips to deter fraud and improve security since 2007. A simple microchip implant, about the size of a grain of rice, might store an ID code that’s processed by a reader to permit or deny access to a secured area.

Chip implants have survived years of science fiction but they’re not brand new. The first implantable RFID chips for humans were patented in the late 90s. Technological advancements have led to the miniaturization of both monitoring devices and power sources, but so far implantables have only been widely discussed in terms of medical applications. Devices like pacemakers, insulin pumps, etc. are well-known; and doctors are exploring connected implantables capable of capturing vital health data from patients and in some cases administering (drug) treatment. This is changing, especially now that Elon Musk has entered the picture with his plan to implant microchips into human brains!

Much of the fear surrounding human chip implants arises from misinformation, pop culture, and paranoia. The biological risks are no worse than those of body piercings and tattoos. In addition, the chips are compatible with MRI machines, undetectable by airport metal detectors, and not difficult to remove. People have been augmenting their bodies since ancient times and wearing pacemakers for decades now. It’s not a huge leap from having this technology on our bodies via phones and contactless cards to putting it under our skin for easier access and greater convenience. Security and privacy concerns are natural. You hear the words “microchip implant” and visions of a dystopian future in which all your movements are traced and bodies can be hacked immediately come to mind. Though such concerns will likely grow as microchips become more sophisticated, today’s smartphones send far more information about you to Google, Apple, and Facebook than current microchips can. Your browser history is a greater threat to your privacy, I assure you.

That’s not to say that microchip implants are 100% secure (at least one researcher has shown they’re vulnerable to malware) or that there aren’t ethical implications and risks we won’t be able to foresee. Security concerns include eavesdropping, disabling and unauthorized tag modification, not to mention employee rights and religious concerns. Though the chips don’t store much information or have their own power source, it would be possible to use the data to learn about a person’s behavior. Depending on what the implants are used for (and if they have GPS tracking), employers could see how often you show up to work, the number (and length) of your breaks, what you buy, etc. On the upside, it’s not possible to lose a microchip implant like you might another form of ID; but on the downside, you can’t claim that the data didn’t come from you. Thankfully, a number of U.S. states have already introduced laws to prevent employers from forcing staff to be chipped.


A brief, recent history of microchip implants in the workplace

A number of human microchip experiments and pilot projects have received media coverage in recent years. In 2015, for example, digital startup workspace Epicenter began making Biohax chip implants available to employees in Stockholm. The main benefit seems to be convenience: In addition to unlocking doors, the chips allow Epicenter workers to share digital business cards, buy vending machine snacks, and operate printers with a wave of the hand. Outside the company, the implants can be used at any business with NFC readers, which are becoming more and more common in Sweden.

The first American company to try Biohax’s technology was Three Square Market. At a “chip party” hosted by the Wisconsin company in 2018, over 50 employees volunteered to be implanted. 32M has vending kiosks in over 2,000 break rooms and other locations around the world. Ultimately, the company sees the technology as a future payment and identification option in its markets; and it could enable self-service at convenience stores and fitness centers. Today, the tech firm is using the microchips as a perk for employees—a multipurpose key, ID and credit card allowing them to open doors, buy snacks, log into devices, use office equipment, and store health information. Apparently, the company’s also working on a more advanced microchip that would be powered by body heat, equipped with voice recognition, and more.

According to its founder, Biohax is  in talks with legal and financial companies who want to use its technology and has been approached by investors from all over the world; while some financial and engineering firms have reportedly had BioTeq’s chips implanted in staff. There are also isolated cases of tech enthusiasts and self-professed biohackers who have adopted chip implants for convenience or just to embrace new tech. The appeal of implantable RFID and NFC implants comes down to convenience and minimal risk of loss. While the most popular application seems to be replacing physical keys, access cards and passwords for easy entry and increased security, other uses include identification and payment. Chips can also be programmed to suit a business’ unique needs:

Unlock your smartphone, start your car, arrive at your office building and enter the parking garage, pay for your morning coffee, log into the computer at your desk, use the copy machine, share your business card with a potential partner or customer, store your certifications and qualifications, access a high-security area, turn on a forklift, even store emergency health informationall seamlessly, without friction, by having one tiny device implanted between your thumb and index finger.

Would you volunteer for that level of convenience, for an easier and more secure way of opening doors and logging into devices?


Are microchip implants the future, another node in the connected workplace that happens to be beneath the skin? The number of people experimenting with the technology is growing. (You can buy a self-inject RFID chip kit online from Dangerous Things. Warning: It’s not government-approved.) Artist Anthony Antonellis implanted a chip in his hand to store and transfer artworks to his smartphone; and Grindhouse Wetware, a Pittsburg-based open-source biohacking startup, was at one point pursuing powered implants, or “subdermal devices in the body for non-medical purposes.” (Think about a body temperature monitor that controls a Bluetooth thermostat.) And then there’s Elon Musk: Musk co-founded Neuralink in 2016 to create a brain-computer interface. This week, he announced plans to use implanted microchips to connect the human brain to computers. Neuralink sees its technology being used to cure medical conditions like Parkinson’s, to let an amputee control a prosthetic, or to help someone hear, speak or see again. Having already tested its technology on monkeys, Neuralink hopes to begin human testing by 2020. Musk, however, sees a high-bandwidth brain interface as a way for humans to merge with Artificial Intelligence (or be left behind).

So, to chip or not to chip?

For enterprises who do want to experiment or ultimately adopt, here are some suggested precautions:

  • Make it optional: Implants should not be a part of any human resources policy or employment contract. It should be a choice, with the option to remove the chip and destroy its data history at any time.
  • Make sure it really feels optional: Assure there is no pressure to adopt and those who decline a chip implant don’t experience any disadvantage. Offer the same functionality perhaps in a wearable wristband option as 32M has done.
  • Make sure none of the information stored or collected is more than could be found on a smartphone.
  • Focus on controlled environments: Ex. An employee cafeteria. This makes everyday transactions in the workplace easier while reducing the chip’s usefulness to a hacker
  • Use a second security factor: Ex. Combine a cryptographic proof with a biometric option like a fingerprint or retinal scan. Add another layer of security with a Personal Identification Number (PIN) or facial recognition.
  • If the technology ever becomes standard or even required in enterprise, there need to be appropriate exemptions for religious, moral and other beliefs, individual health issues, etc.
  • Keep data protection laws in mind. Consider any information that might be collected or inferred from the data such as access info, patterns of use, etc.

Microchip implants remain a cool experiment on both sides of the Atlantic, but there is no overwhelming need or demand for the technology in the workplace right now. That doesn’t mean implantable technology won’t become socially accepted or shake up a few industries (and the human brain) in the future.

 

Photo credit: https://www.paymentssource.com/news/chip-and-skin-implantable-rfid-gives-payments-its-matrix-moment

Wearables in Risk Management: Interview with AIG’s Ron Bellows

I got to sit down and talk with Ron Bellows, Risk Strategist at AIG. What resulted is a fascinating- but long (it’s worth it) – read and a wealth of information. Ron will be speaking at EWTS 2019.

E: To begin, could you provide our readers with a little background on yourself and what you did at AIG? Also, when did you first encounter wearable technology?

R: I’ve been a risk management consultant with multiple insurance companies since 1980. I started playing with wearables probably as early as 1985/86. You may remember Cybermatics: Surface EMG measuring technology was connected to cyber gym equipment for rehab and prevention, so that when someone was working out – in the sports or medical world – you could actually see what the muscles were doing with the surface electromyography. It’s kind of like an EKG. Your heart is a muscle; surface EMG looks at other muscles.

Around ’86, I was working with a physical therapist doing studies on sports medicine and rehabilitation that might have application in the industrial environment. Many workers’ compensation injuries are expensive strain and sprain injuries impacting the musculoskeletal system. Biosensors, from a rehab standpoint, help us manage treatment for someone who has had a musculoskeletal injury. It began in the sports world and medicine, and around 2000 it started to become more pervasive in the industrial environment.

If you think about an athlete who over-trains, the same thing can happen in the industrial world.  Biosensors can measure posture, force, repetition, etc.; and be used to look at someone in the workplace from a preventative standpoint as well as on a pre-hiring/screening basis (i.e., can you handle the physical requirements of the job?) If you took a traditional physical, you might pass, but could you go in and work on a factory floor or warehouse for 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week? Biosensors to better evaluate somebody before they go on the job to help assess their ability. Second value would be to evaluate somebody in the job to document the exposure they face due to fatigue, endurance, force, repetition and posture—the things that generally lead to ergonomic/ bio mechanic injuries. If you can detail that exposure prior to injury you can do a better job with prevention, training and hiring. However, if somebody does get hurt you can use those same biosensors to help assess exactly where and how badly they are injured, the best treatment options, and if they truly are ok to go back to work again. Those are the three main areas where wearables fit into the industrial arena and workers’ compensation (WC).


E: What exactly do you do at AIG?

R: I’ve consulted with large multinational customers to help them find solutions to their risk management issues. Often, they were most interested in workers’ comp risk because it tends to drive loss frequency and severity, impacts the workforce and absenteeism, and reduces efficiency and profitability. Workers tend to be 30-50% of a company’s operating expense, so if you can reduce injuries you can increase efficiency, profitability, etc. Today with the shortage of workers that we see, a lot of companies are working at a 20% absenteeism rate. Imagine what happens when you can’t find enough people to man the tasks in a factory. If you also have extensive injuries that put people out of work or on restrictive duty, it’s even more difficult to run the business. Making sure people can work safely and come back to the job every day is very important to risk managers. I also help risk managers with issues like fleet, liability, supply chain, business continuity, and disaster recovery—anything that keeps them up at night.


E: You just mentioned a bunch of pain points like the shortage of workers. What are the challenges and pain points for AIG’s clients that are driving interest in wearable technologies?

R: There are really two things: One is traditional safety, making sure we document exposure properly so that we can prevent injuries and do better training. It’s not just job hazard analysis but also the workers’ comp system itself, which is very difficult to manage as the venues are all different and every state has different rules. If we can document exposure, we can better manage an individual pre and post-loss. Many times, we see that older, high tenure workers are driving losses. We’re seeing the average age of workers going up, especially in manufacturing, warehousing, trucking, etc. where you have extensive injuries to the shoulder and back. Those injuries are the most difficult to diagnose, treat, and return to work. If you’re older and you get hurt, it may take you weeks to get back to where you were pre-loss. Our average workforce is in the 40- to 50-year range, so when they have an injury it’s impacted by comorbidity – hypertension, diabetes, obesity – making it more difficult for them to get back to pre-injury status.

Second, many companies today are looking at exoskeletons or other interventions to reduce exposure. When you put an intervention in place you don’t know for sure how much of an impact it’s having on the individual, because everyone is different. With biosensors, we can measure the impact of different interventions and see which ones are having the greatest impact on the worker based on their exposure. For example, I would use different exoskeletons for the upper extremities versus the back, versus the legs. So, it depends on what kind of difficulties workers are having in the workplace. For example, if I have to do static standing all day on a conveyor line, exoskeletons may not be valuable, but the biosensors can tell me what’s going on with the static stress on the lower extremities, which impacts the entire body. I can then look for alternatives like automatic massage therapy, continuous stretching, compression sleeves, to improve endurance and reduce fatigue where the exoskeletons don’t work.


E: What kinds of wearable technologies are you looking at for risk mitigation? Have any solutions made it past the pilot phase to rollout?

R: There are a lot. The biosensor marketplace has exploded in the last several years. We can use biosensors like we’ve talked about from a musculoskeletal standpoint and that’s where most of the impact is seen. But you can also use biosensors to look at an environment: A construction worker going into a pit that may be lacking oxygen can use a biosensor attached to an iPhone that sends a safety signal. You can use a posture monitor for the back like I did with the Visiting Nurse Association. Nurses visiting patients by themselves can be attacked, chased by dogs, fall down stairs, etc. Having an inclinometer or GPS monitor can send an automatic ‘man down’ signal if they’re horizontal. If they can’t push a panic button, their supervisor and local authorities can be alerted to the fact that something is wrong. That’s just one example. Biosensors in chemical plants can look at oxygen-deficient environments and exposure to chemicals and send an alert right away to the individual or supervisor. So, if you’re working remotely in a plant and there’s an ammonia tank with a small leak, the biosensor can alert you to very low levels before you’re overcome. There are so many different ways to use biosensors to alert you to exposure before it creates injury.


E: In most cases are you looking for over-the-counter, out-of-the-box solutions or bespoke devices? Where is the software being made?

R: I review what’s in the market and what’s in development. I try to stay abreast of what’s available so that I can help clients make the best and most informed decisions about how to reduce exposure. There are always several intervention options that could have an impact, so I usually demo and then pilot test the options that fit the particular exposures but also their organization structure and culture. So, I’m always looking to kick the tires on everything around the market.


E: I imagine biosensors come in every form factor at this point. Is it one sensor per device or are you testing multiple metrics?

R: Let’s take posture monitoring as an example, which is huge in workers’ comp because 30-50% of a company’s losses are from strains. Everyone wants to work on musculoskeletal disorders, which also happen to be the most expensive loss type. Inclinometers which measure posture are great because force, repetition and posture are the lead drivers of strain and sprain injuries. You can do heavier work in the power zone between your shoulders and hips, but outside of neutral posture a task becomes more egregious to your body.

Many companies are doing posture monitoring; some are focusing on the upper extremities, some on the low back. Several biosensor companies have produced very good software programs to go along with the inclinometers, showing not only when someone is out of neutral posture but also how many times a day that person is out of neutral posture, for how long, at which tasks, or what times of day, etc. Some biosensors give an automatic response to the employee (like a buzz). That can be good or bad. If I can’t change my posture because the task is set up so that I have to bend a certain way, the buzzer is going to be continuous and become really annoying. That’s where I would take the data to management and operations and say: Here’s Joe and Mike doing the same job but Mike can’t handle the postures. Why? Because he’s a little older and can’t bend as well at the knees. So, posture monitoring without the dashboard is not as effective. The better the dashboard, the better data we have and the more opportunity we have to provide valuable interventions to the physical task.


E: Can the intervention involve changing the way the task is done?

R: Yes. In fact, we can even link biosensors through a software program to a camera, so that as a person moves, we can see both the physical video and an overlay of what’s going on with his or her posture and force over time. While seeing the person do their task in space and time, we’re capturing their force and posture. That becomes really powerful. We can do that over time, creating a dashboard for different tasks, and then give an employer a prioritized list of the most egregious tasks, where high force and high repetition are most likely to generate a musculoskeletal disorder. So, biosensors with a dashboard and video overlay are very powerful in exposure documentation.


E: Can you talk about some of your recent biometrics and exoskeleton projects?

R: Well, anybody familiar with meat processing knows that it’s a very high endurance, high repetition task impacting the upper extremities and back. It’s static stress on the legs, leaning, twisting and bending at the waist, and moving your arms to process meat. Every part of the body is impacted; the repetition is so intense that you’re moving a carcass every 2 seconds. You’re constantly moving, standing in one place doing the same motion over and over, and you’re usually working a 10-hour shift, 6 days a week. Operations, safety and HR know it’s a difficult task but to change the process is very expensive. You might have to move the conveyor circling the entire plant or slow it down, which operations won’t like. Or, you’re going to have to build adjustable stanchions for people to stand up on. Oftentimes in fixed manufacturing plants, it’s very difficult to change the physical process, so we look at other interventions. The biosensors give us data on where the most difficult task/positions are and where management can spend their nickels to make the best impact. You can give them engineering solutions but if they don’t have the money for re-engineering there are alternative solutions like endurance and fatigue management or job rotation, or even just ongoing stretching throughout the day. You mitigate the exposure if you can’t eliminate it. We look for engineering solutions first, but older plants especially have a hard time putting those automation or engineering changes in place.


E: How are you measuring the ROI of the different solutions you’re implementing? What are the KPIs you’re looking for?

R: Primarily, I look at two things when it’s workers’ comp-related: Loss frequency rate: The number of injury accidents per hundred employees (for example, how many strains and sprains we have per task before and after a solution is implemented) and average cost of claim: How does that cost change after the solution is implemented? We try to reduce both frequency and severity of loss.

Here’s a good example: One 24-hour plant of 400 employees had 50 visits to the nurse everyday looking for splints, gauze wraps, and other assistance. You know that the more times people are going to the nurse, the greater the likelihood you’ll have a claim eventually. We implemented endurance / fatigue solutions and then looked at the number of individuals visiting the nurse and in some tasks the number dropped by 80%. That’s telling because it takes a while for the claims numbers to mature enough to tell you statistically significant results. If I have a short change over time, is it just that introducing the solution made everyone more aware? 18 months is about where you have to be to really see a material change in losses. So, we look at other metrics like online perception and symptom surveys. I’ve used therapy to reduce endurance and fatigue injuries and after each session, we give a quick survey asking how the person felt before and after the fatigue management program. We can then see if we’re going down the right road and match up the results to the loss analysis in the future.


E: RFID devices, body-worn (biometric tracking) wearables, and exoskeletons—which category is most mature and deployable today?

R: Posture monitors. The inclinometers and GPS are the most robust and have some of the best software. RFID is good but you have to understand what the exposure is and what end result you’re trying to get to. RFID chips are really good in environments like construction, where it’s noisy, dark and dusty and vision and hearing are impaired. RFID chips give me another sense to avoid exposure. It can also be used for equipment or where people are working very remotely, to see where somebody is working in a plant and where they’ve been. But posture monitors are probably the most robust in terms of software because, again, everyone’s trying to mitigate the strain and sprain injuries. Industrial hygiene (IH) exposure doesn’t have the same frequency of loss as strains and sprains and has been controlled very well over the last 20 years; it’s gotten a lot of attention and there are so many good programs in place.


E: Is ergonomics slightly newer?

R: Ergonomics has been developing since the mid-80s, but it’s interesting that we haven’t found a silver bullet solution, so we’ve done a lot of training. Office ergonomics got a lot of attention. ‘Ergonomic’ became a buzz word and a marketing ploy, and now a lot of equipment is considered ‘ergonomic.’ For example, you can buy a snow shovel that’s “ergonomic”, but the actual exposure to the individual hasn’t really changed. Carpal tunnel syndrome was huge in the late 90s and early 2000s, then the Mayo Clinic and other studies said that the aging workforce is driving CTS more than typing. Today in the workers’ comp arena, an individual’s physical condition can be as much a factor in injury development as the workplace exposure. The comorbidity or illness can make a simple injury so much more difficult to diagnose and treat and this is why wellness and ergonomics need to be considered together. Wearables are helping us communicate exposure to the operations managers who usually hold the intervention purse strings. Ergonomists haven’t done a great job of this in the past, but the biosensors give us data on an individual or task basis that is very telling for operations, human resources and safety teams.


E: How have employees received wearables? What has been the feedback? Are there privacy concerns and how are you dealing with that?

R: A lot of the biosensors are applied directly to the skin and managers are very skeptical or skittish about that. So, in looking at which wearable is going to work for a company you have to consider the unions, female workers, people that don’t speak English etc. You have to think about having an interpreter, if someone will have an allergy to the spray or adhesive used to attach the biosensor… What if you have a lot of hair on your back? Part of my focus is always communicating these considerations to the risk manager: Given the exposure model they face and the loss profile they have, which tasks are driving the losses, what’s the exposure model for the people doing those tasks, and what are the right biosensors to use to fit their organization’s culture.


E: Are they more receptive if the sensor is in a bracelet?

R: You get better, deeper data especially from a force standpoint if you can attach something to the skin. If you can’t you have to use a halter monitor around the chest or a belt-worn device, something on the biceps if upper extremities are the issue, a bracelet on the arm etc. That’s why it’s important to know the loss profile and exposure model for the risk before adopting a wearable product–what tasks are driving loss and what options the company is willing to consider for solutions.


E: What is your hope for the future as for how wearables are developing? What’s a big development you’d like to see?

R: Right now, biosensors are really good at looking at exposure, giving us a dashboard and helping us come up with solution options. Of course, you need to know what’s available and understand the organization culture; but we’re not using biosensors to their full effectiveness in the hiring, and screening process or the post loss injury management.  In WC, early objective medical diagnosis is critical to managing loss costs especially with strain and sprain injuries, and biosensors can be a substantial benefit in that area – including developing telemedicine programs.  We’re also not always closing the loop between risk management, safety, HR and operations in terms of exposure understanding and the implementation of interventions. Consider how many workplace tasks are developed with the idea that there will be one, two or three injuries per year in that task? The answer is none, but we accept those types of metrics as part of the cost of production. We’re collecting good loss and exposure data but not integrating safety intervention into process the way we do with quality. Biosensors give me the detailed exposure information I need to express business and human cost and help qualify the rationale for the interventions needed to reduce exposure. If I can provide detailed documentation of exposure, I can communicate better to Risk Management so they can do a better job of funding exposure reduction solutions and provide the insight for stronger diagnosis, treatment and return to work practices if a loss occurs. You’d be amazed how many loss profiles show repeat injuries, which get exponentially more expensive.  Biosensors can therefore have a significant impact in all three areas of the WC exposure control model:  Hiring, Screening and Deployment; Prevention and Training and Post Loss Injury Management…

 

Photo credit: Lara de Oliveira Corselet dB via photopin (license)

Ron will present a case study at the upcoming 6th Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit on September 19.

2019: The Year of the Big Pivot Towards Enterprise AR/VR

It’s a shame that AR/VR was overhyped in 2018 because in 2019 the technology is a fixture in enterprise.
I’ll be blunt: Augmented, mixed and virtual reality were overhyped in 2018. While 2018 turned out not to be the year of AR/VR; please don’t roll your eyes when I tell you that 2019 is the year at least for enterprise, and of that I have no doubt.
Here are a few of the signs:

  • More than half of the announcements made at AWE USA 2019 (a staple on the AR/VR calendar) were enterprise-related
  • Some of the world’s biggest consumer tech companies are now entering the immersive tech space, primarily eyeing enterprise
  • The top names in consumer VR are also heavily courting the enterprise

Why? Why are AR/VR hardware and software companies pivoting to enterprise? The answer is obvious: Because enterprise is where the money is. Both AR/VR technology providers and the world’s best-known companies (end users) are making/saving big.

If you follow enterprise AR/VR, you’re no doubt familiar with Google (Glass), Microsoft, and PTC (Vuforia). Other longtime players include Atheer, Epson, HPE, LogistiVIEW, ScopeAR, RealWear, ThirdEye, Ubimax, Upskill and Vuzix. Qualcomm, Honeywell, and Toshiba (dynabook) have become fixtures on the scene, as well, and by that I mean regular exhibitors at EWTS, the only event dedicated to enterprise use of immersive and wearable technologies. Newer sponsors include Jujotech, Pico and RE’FLEKT, along with Bose, HTC and Lenovo, joining top enterprise wearable device and industrial exoskeleton makers on the EWTS roster.

Doesn’t Bose make headphones?
Yes, they do. Bose is known as a consumer audio vender, but it also makes Bose Frames, which provided exclusive audio content and set-time notifications to desert-goers at this year’s Coachella music festival. Founded in 1964, Bose is taking an audio-first approach to augmented reality today with Bose AR, not only at concerts or in automobiles but in meeting rooms, too. Audio AR is a natural fit in the Industrial Internet of Things.

The pivot
In April 2019, Oculus introduced the expanded Oculus for Business, an enterprise solution designed to streamline and grow VR in the workplace. The expanded solution adds Oculus Quest to the hardware lineup and provides a suite of tools to help companies reshape the way they do business with VR.
The following month, Lenovo launched an enterprise AR/VR headset, the ThinkReality A6, immediately positioned as a rival to Microsoft’s HoloLens. Articles spoke of Lenovo as “just the latest manufacturer to develop an AR device aimed at enterprise.” On the heels of Lenovo’s first foray into enterprise XR, HTC announced the HTC Vive Focus Plus, a new version of its Vive Pro that will only be made available to enterprise customers. Furthermore, HTC’s Vive X accelerator has been “pouring money” into enterprise VR startups.

The proof is in the toolbox
The digital transformation isn’t here; it’s underway at hundreds of companies, including household names like Ford, UPS, and Walmart.
Every year, enterprises take the stage at EWTS to share how they’re using wearable and immersive technologies. They share their experiences and best practices, their successes and failures, and then they return the following year. These “veteran speakers” are another sign of AR/VR’s secure position in the present and future of work: AGCO, Boeing, DHL, Lockheed Martin, and Porsche come back year after year to update peers from Bayer, BP, Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and other Fortune 500 companies on the latest applications for the technology in their operations. EWTS speakers span industries and sectors: Airbus, BMW, Chevron, Colgate-Palmolive, Con Edison, Duke Energy, General Electric, Gensler, jetBlue, John Deere, Lowe’s, Molson Coors, Southwest Airlines, Thyssenkrupp, Toyota, United Technologies, etc. And new faces join every year—This year’s event will welcome AIG, Amazon, American Airlines, Bridgestone, Exelon, Holiday Inn, Philip Morris, Sanofi, Six Flags, and more to the stage. It’s a cycle: Attendees become users who become speakers, and the technology continues to advance.

Beyond pilots
Lockheed Martin has been a longtime advocate of AR/VR, benefitting so much from mixed reality that it’s now teaming up with Microsoft to sell mixed reality apps to other businesses in the airline and aviation industry. Rollout is growing at BMW, too: The luxury auto manufacturer is providing all its U.S. dealerships (347 BMW centers and select MINI dealers) with Ubimax Frontline running on RealWear HMT-1 head-mounted devices. Shell is also deploying RealWear’s HMT-1Z1 through Honeywell in 12 countries and 24 operational sites. And last year, Walmart announced it was putting 17,000 VR headsets in its U.S. stores for employee training. These aren’t mere pilots. At AGCO, Boeing, and other large manufacturers augmented reality is a standard workforce tool for a variety of tasks in multiple areas of operation. In the last three months alone, Fortune 500 companies in the news for using AR/VR included Audi (Volkswagen), ExxonMobil, Nissan, and even Farmer’s Insurance. Deloitte estimates that over 150 companies in multiple industries, including 52 of the Fortune 500, are testing or have deployed AR/VR solutions. The 6th annual EWTS is the proof.

Reality check
It helps that the tech is steadily improving, of course. This was the first year that I walked around AWE and was truly amazed by the quality of immersive experiences I tried. So, here’s a reality check: AR/VR is having an impact across business and industry and it’s not going away. It’s not future tech; it’s now. And it’s not just AR/VR glasses and headsets but body-worn wearables, as well, sometimes in conjunction with VR as well as in applications warranting an entire day – the third day of EWTS 2019 – devoted to below-the-neck and safety wearables. We’re talking biometric, environment and location tracking, employee ergonomics, partial and full-body exoskeletons—it’s all here today in the enterprise.

 

Image source: The Verge

Is Digital Transformation for Men? Female Factors in Wearable Tech Design

In 2015, NASA celebrated over 50 years of spacewalking. Three years later, in March 2018, the agency called off the first all-female spacewalk due to a shortage of smaller-sized spacesuits. The walk-back led to a Twitter storm, with women sharing hundreds of stories of their own ill-fitting work uniforms and oversized ‘standard’ gear; but “It’s not just spacesuits,” one woman tweeted: “It’s public spaces like bathrooms, cars, cockpits, office air conditioning, microwave installation heights, Oculus, military fatigues…an endless list.”

In December, I wrote about the phenomenon of patriarchal coding. A feeling that today’s VR headsets were not designed with women in mind set me on a trail of research that revealed I’m not alone in feeling this way and that the majority of the products and systems we use every day are designed by and for men. This phenomenon affects every aspect of women’s lives – it even endangers our lives – and it’s unintentional for the most part, which makes it all the more frustrating. Sexism is so ingrained in our society that women’s unique needs and biology (like the fact that we have breasts) are excluded from reality, even of the virtual kind.

My main point then was that wearable technologies – the body-worn sensors being integrated into organizations’ EHS efforts, exoskeletons taking a load off workers’ backs, and VR headsets being hailed as the future of job training – exhibit coded patriarchy and risk further alienating the female workforce. Wearables that are replacing or supplementing traditional PPE (personal protective equipment) cannot succumb to the same biased or negligent design as have automobiles, office buildings, etc., for the future economy and growth of the workforce depend upon improving job prospects and working environments for women.


The history of man

Women and the female perspective are largely missing from human and world history (as is often the non-western point of view) and entirely absent in the fundamental research underlying the foundations of modern life, including economics and urban planning. The star of the show is “Reference Man,” a 154-pound Caucasian male aged 25 to 30, who has been taken to represent humanity as a whole when it comes to the design of everything from power tools to the height of a standard shelf. Take medicine: Though women process drugs differently, medications are tested only on men. Cars: For decades, car safety testing has focused on the 50th percentile male. The most common crash-test dummy is taller and heavier than the average woman, with male muscle-mass proportions and a male spinal column. This is how “standard seating position” was determined. Women, however, sit further forward in the driver’s seat and thus are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash. In 2011, the US began using a female crash-test dummy, though not an anthropometrically correct one. Testing with a pregnant dummy? Forget it.


Beyond product ergonomics

It’s annoying that so many gadgets we use are one-size-fits-men, and it’s dangerous. The world is less safe for women because we haven’t been factored into the design of not only physical products but also the software behind everything. Consider navigation apps, which provide the quickest and shortest routes to a destination, but not the safest; or voice recognition and other AI tech, which is male-biased and also becoming indispensable to how we interact with our devices and how systems make major decisions affecting humanity. Google’s voice recognition software? 70% more likely to accurately recognize male speech. Apple’s Siri? When she launched, she could help a user having a heart attack but didn’t know what “I was raped” means. (Side note: the heart attack symptoms healthcare professionals are taught to identify are actually male symptoms.)

Last year, Amazon had to scrap an experimental recruiting tool that taught itself to prefer male candidates for software development and other technical jobs. How did this happen? Because the computer model was trained to observe patterns in resumes from the previous ten years, most of which were submitted by men since the tech world is notoriously, overwhelmingly male. What’s frightening is that in a 2017 survey by CareerBuilder, over half of U.S. HR managers said they would make artificial intelligence a regular part of HR operations within five years. That means women will have to combat unfair algorithms in addition to unconscious bias in order to advance in the workforce. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty says it’s up to businesses to prepare a new generation of workers for AI-driven changes to the workforce. In a world in which AI will impact – and perhaps determine hiring – for every existing job, the fact that women and minorities are disproportionally left out of the teams behind the AI revolution is tragic.


The data gap at the heart of the workplace 

Occupational research has traditionally focused on male workers in male-dominated industries. Few studies have been done on women’s bodies and job environments, so there is little occupational health and safety data for women. The uniforms in most professions are therefore designed for the average man’s body and the why behind trends like the increasing rate of breast cancer in industry remains unknown. Relying on data from studies done on men may explain why serious injuries in the workplace have gone down for men but are increasing among women workers. This despite that, for the last three years, women have been entering the workforce at more than twice the rate of men. (You do the workers’ comp math, employers.)

When we talk about using wearables for EHS applications, oftentimes we’re speaking about body-worn sensors that can detect biometric and environmental data affecting a worker’s health and safety. The software behind these applications might send an alert to the worker or wearer when a reading reaches a certain threshold, but how is that threshold – the danger zone – determined? Say we’re tracking a worker’s exposure to a particular chemical. Women and men have different immune systems and hormones; women also tend to be smaller, have thinner skin, and have a higher percentage of body fat than men—differences that can influence how chemicals are absorbed in the body. Without female-specific data, the threshold at which a wearable device is set to alert the wearer would likely be higher than the toxin level to which a female worker can be safely exposed, putting women at greater risk of harmful exposure. The problem is two-fold: We don’t have data about exposure in “women’s work” and we’re clueless when it comes to women (increasingly) working in male-dominated industries. At this point, it would take a working generation of women to get any usable data on long-latency work-related diseases like cancer.


No PPE for you

Construction is one of those male-dominated industries in which standard equipment and PPE has been designed around the male body. Though there is little data on injuries to women in construction, a study of union carpenters did find that women have higher rates of wrist and forearm sprains, strains and nerve conditions than their male counterparts. To comply with legal requirements, many employers just buy smaller sizes for their female employees but scaled-down PPE doesn’t account for the characteristics (chests, hips and thighs) of a woman’s body. Moreover, it doesn’t seem cost-effective for employers to meet the order minimum for those sizes when women make up less than 10% of the construction workforce. Giant overalls are one thing, but the straps on a safety harness not fitting around your body? How is a woman supposed to perform at the same level as a man if her clothing and equipment are a hindrance? If oversized gloves reduce her dexterity, a standard wrench is too large for her to grip tightly, or her overly long safety vest snags on a piece of equipment? Already a minority in the sector, women don’t usually complain about ill-fitting PPE. Instead, they make their own modifications (with duct tape, staples, etc.). And it’s not just women; dust and hazard eye masks designed for the Reference Man also put many men of color at a disadvantage.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. A standard-sized bag of cement could be made smaller and lighter so that a woman could easily lift it. Exoskeletons might be a solution, but so is going back to the drawing board: Jane Henry’s SeeHerWork, for example, is an inclusive clothing line for women in fields like construction and engineering, fields with lucrative, equal-pay careers and massive labor shortages—fields that need women.


Designing the workplace

Guess what? Men are the default for office infrastructure, too, from the A/C (women tend to freeze in the workplace, which hurts productivity) to the number of bathrooms and stalls (a single restroom with urinals serves more individuals). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent nearly two-thirds of all reported cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, which indicates that workstations are less ergonomic for women. Open office plans are conducive to socializing and breaking down hierarchies, right? No, they actually encourage sexist behavior. A 2018 study documenting the experiences of women in an open office designed by men – lots of glass, identical desks, group spaces – found that the lack of privacy created an environment in which female workers were always watched and judged on their appearance. Designers today are beginning to use virtual reality to design factory layouts and workstations, even assembly processes, but that doesn’t mean they’re factoring in female anatomy or putting headsets on women workers to get their input.

I spoke with Janelle Haines, Human Factors Engineer at John Deere, who uses virtual reality to evaluate the ergonomics of assembly, about her experiences performing evaluations on women workers. Most of the people she gets to put in a VR headset are male; however, there are a few female employees available at times for evaluations. “Fitting the job to the worker hasn’t [always] been a focus. Even in the last fifteen years that I’ve been studying ergonomics, there has been a huge shift in learning to focus on ergonomics. It has become a kind of buzz word…There are some jobs that have been at John Deere for years and years, since we started building combines, that aren’t a great fit for women, but going forward with new designs we’re using VR to make sure the workstations and what we design do work for women.” Ergonomics aren’t a new area of study, but Janelle points out a promising shift in thinking and a deliberateness that’s necessary “going forward.”


The future of work: Uncomfortable = unproductive

Smartphones have become standard work tools in many jobs. Men can use the average smartphone one-handed; women cannot (smaller hands). This kind of oversight cannot be carried into the next wave of mobile: Wearable technology. That women have different muscle mass distribution and vertebrae spacing, lower bone density, shorter legs, smaller wrists, lower centers of mass, etc. matters when it comes to the design and application of wearable devices like partial and full exoskeletons, connected clothing and gear, augmented reality smart glasses, and virtual reality headsets. Early decisions in developing transformative technologies can create a weak foundation for the future of that tech.

Already women are at a disadvantage in VR. As far back as 2012, researchers found that men and women experience virtual reality differently and a growing body of research indicates why. Motion parallax (preferred by men) and shape-from-shading (preferred by women) are two kinds of depth perception. What creates a sense of immersion for men is motion parallax or how objects move relative to you, and this is easier to render or program in VR. For women, it’s shape-from-shading, meaning if a shadow is ‘off’ it will ruin the immersive experience for a woman. As shape-from-shading is more difficult to emulate, most VR tech uses motion parallax. Then there are the poor ergonomics of most VR headsets for women (too heavy, too loose, etc.). Why does this matter? Because VR is being hailed as the future of learning and job training; VR is going to be crucial for filling millions of vacant positions and for upskilling the workforce as automation advances. When one half of the population experiences the technology differently than the other half, that’s an unequalizer, especially when all indications point to people spending more time in VR in coming years.


Stop defaulting to men 

The long legacy of researchers overlooking women – not wanting to pay for double the testing – has looming implications at a time when we’re collecting data from more and more ‘things’ and powerful computers are making important decisions for us. It’s bigger than a spacesuit; we’re making decisions based upon biased, incomplete data, feeding that data into algorithms that can exacerbate gender and other inequalities, create risks among certain populations, and encode prejudices into the future. The answer? First, inject more diversity into the labs and back rooms where the future is being designed and engineered. Second, hire female designers and stop using men as a default for everything!

 

 

In writing this article, I drew heavily on the efforts and writings of a number of inspiring women; including Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” Abby Ferri of the American Society of Safety Professionals, and Rachel Tatman, research fellow in linguistics at the University of Washington.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and speaker lineup, available on the conference website.

All the Enterprise News Out of AWE USA 2019

One of the major takeaways from the 10th annual AWE last week was that enterprise is where the AR/VR market is growing. It was clear that there are serious – and real – enterprise applications providing ROI today to both large and small companies. AWE USA 2019 also saw a number of launches and updates from enterprise AR/VR solution providers. Catch up on all the enterprise news below:

Atheer

Atheer announced expanded support for devices that can control and provide input to smart glasses via gestures. The enhanced support for gestures – achieved with advanced machine learning tech – makes it easier to control more types of smart glasses outside of the limited group of smart glasses with dedicated depth sensors and enhances other modes of interaction. Learn more


Bose

In addition to being on track to have over one million BoseAR-enabled devices in consumer hands by the end of the year, Bose – an unlikely enterprise player – is building an industrial BoseAR wearable for loud, noisy and distracting work environments. Learn more at EWTS 2019 Sept. 17-19 in Dallas, Texas, where Bose’s Ilissa Bruser is speaking. Bose will exhibit at EWTS.


Jujotech

Jujotech’s latest solution Fusion AR with WorkLogic  provides connected workers on the job with quick access to IoT-enabled machine information and remote expert guidance. WorkLogic, an open API, works within Fusion AR to send digital work instructions and checklists to AR glasses/headsets, tablets and smartphones. Learn more


Lance-AR

Lance-AR launched at AWE! The consulting and integration company specializes in AR enablement for the enterprise market. Its Enterprise AR Deployment Services are focused on enabling scaled enterprise deployments that deliver real, near-term value with the AR hardware and software available on the market today. Learn more


LogistiVIEW

LogistiVIEW announced its partnership with Fetch Robotics, which combines the AR company’s Connected Worker Platform with Fetch Robotics’ autonomous robotics solutions. The combo enables robot-assisted processes to achieve a “complexity and scale rivaling traditional fixed automation.” It also costs less and is more flexible than traditional automation. Learn more


Logitech

Logitech’s VR Ink Pilot Edition – still a 3D-printed prototype – is like an oversized stylus that lets you draw and design in virtual reality. You can trace designs in 3D space or sit at a table and draw on its surface. The harder you press on the button or tip of the stylus, the thicker the line. The tech offers more precision than a game controller and is more natural to use for creators and designers. Logitech says it’s close to a final design. Learn more


Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Smart Viewer reference design debuted last week. Built on the Snapdragon XR1 Platform, Smart Viewer is designed to help speed up product development for AR/VR headsets. It takes advantage of the XR1’s processing power to enhance the content AR/VR headsets can offer to consumers and enterprise, distributing the workload and tapping into the compute power of host devices. Additional features like eye tracking and six degrees of freedom (6DoF) controllers unlock even more immersion. Learn more


RE’FLEKT

The Munich-based company announced that the REFLEKT ONE ecosystem now includes Siemens Teamcenter. Siemens customers and business units can easily source live data from the Siemens PLM system for content creation on the REFLEKT ONE platform. The connection should dramatically increase the speed and accuracy of AR/MR content creation. Learn more


Rokid

Rokid provided a sneak peek at its next-generation mixed reality glasses called Rokid Vision, which are distinguishable from the Rokid Glass (now ready for mass production) thanks to a dual-screen display and 6DoF technology. The sleek design includes an RGB camera, two depth cameras, and a simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) module that offloads complex 6DoF calculations from the mobile CPU. Rokid is tethered, requiring you to connect it to a USB-C device with DisplayPort support. Expect the Rokid Vision SDK to be released in the third quarter of 2019. Learn more


Scope AR

Scope AR made a few announcements at AWE, including a new customer (medical device company Becton Dickinson) and an expansion of its integrated AR platform at Lockheed Martin. The company also launched an upgraded version of its WorkLink platform, including session recording. This addition means users can capture and save live sessions between themselves and an expert (the live remote video support calls and AR annotations) for later reference—a great way to retain and pass on tribal knowledge. Learn more


ThirdEye Gen

The creator of the world’s smallest MR glasses (X2) announced a new Software Partner Generate Program intended to expand its developer community and provide exclusive partnership opportunities to individual developers as well as large AR/MR software companies. Learn more


Ubimax

Ubimax expanded its industry-proven Frontline platform to support HoloLens. The integration of HoloLens 2 into Ubimax Frontline extends the benefits of Ubimax’s software into mixed reality environments, making it easy to enrich existing and new AR workflows with holographic 3D objects. Preview here


Varjo

Varjo was certainly a crowd favorite at AWE, where the company announced and demoed its new industrial-grade headset. Varjo says XR-1 Developer Edition delivers on its promise of making mixed reality indistinguishable from the real world. The video pass-through headset is capable of producing images with a resolution of more than 4K per eye, making the XR-1 the only device that can seamlessly blend the real and the virtual. Varjo will begin shipping XR-1, which connects via wire to a powerful PC, to developers, designers and researchers in the second half of 2019.

Varjo has also teamed up with Volvo, which uses its tech to test-drive virtual car designs on the road. Check out VentureBeat for more specs and examples of industrial applications for XR-1. In addition, hear from Volvo’s Amanda Clarida at EWTS 2019.


Wikitude

Wikitude now supports all leading wearable technologies, not only standalone devices like HoloLens but also a new spectrum of tethered smart glasses starting with the Epson Moverio BT-35E. This means users can engage with AR content wearing head-mounted devices connected to 5G smartphones. Learn more


Vuzix

The smart eyewear maker revealed that the Vuzix M400 Smart Glasses are now available for purchase at a cost of $1,799 as part of an early adopters program. The device, however, won’t actually ship until September. With a larger memory profile, improved voice recognition/noise cancelling, a new touchpad, built-in GPS, OLED display, and Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 at its core, M400 promises improved interactivity, power consumption and thermal efficiency. Learn more

Catch Atheer, Bose, Lance-AR, LogistiVIEW, Qualcomm, RE’FLEKT, ThirdEye Gen, and other leading enterprise AR/VR solution providers at EWTS 2019.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and speaker lineup, available on the conference website.

XR in HR: AR/VR for a Different Kind of Training in the Workplace

A report released last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) contained some shocking findings:

  • 45% of harassment claims made to the EEOC are sex-based.
  • At least one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Around 90% of employees who experience harassment – whether sexual or on the basis of age, disability, nationality, race or religion – do not file a formal complaint.
  • 75% of victims who do report harassment experience retaliation.

The bottom line

Every year, sexual and other types of harassment cost companies dearly in time and money. According to the Center for American Progress, workplace discrimination costs businesses approximately $64 billion annually. Hostile work environments also negatively impact productivity, contribute to high turnover, and harm a company’s reputation. And it’s not just harassment. According to McKinsey, unconscious bias is a 12 trillion-dollar issue, which means we could add $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025 by ‘simply’ advancing gender parity and diversity in the workplace. Gartner finds that inclusivity is profitable, especially at the executive level—inclusive companies outperform industry standards by 35%, generate 2.3 times more cash flow per employee, and produce 1.4 times more revenue. Evidently, diversity pays in money, innovation, decision making, and recruitment.

In compliance with federal and state laws, Fortune 500 companies and startups alike spend more than $8 billion on anti-harassment and diversity training each year. Nevertheless, the above stats are not improving; in fact, at current rates, it will take over a century to achieve gender equality in the workplace. Lab studies show that today’s methods for diversity training can change a person’s attitude for only about 30 minutes and can actually activate a person’s bias. Harvard studies of decades’ worth of data back this up, showing that diversity training is largely ineffective and even counterproductive.

Corporate diversity programs are failing. Harassment training at work is not making an impact. Only 3% of Fortune 500 companies today disclose full diversity data, while 24% of employees say their superiors fail to challenge sexist language and behavior in the office. What to do?

Current methods

Most onsite sexual harassment training consists of a speaker, video and/or awkward roleplaying. There are also classroom-style slide presentations, seminars, written content, and online courses. In other words, traditional corporate harassment prevention training is pretty lackluster and unlikely to end a culture of enabling harassers and dismissing victims’ claims. It’s now standard for employers to offer anti-harassment and discrimination training, but bias training for hiring and performance reviews is less common. This is a serious weakness, for employees who don’t understand their bias don’t know when that bias influences critical business decisions.

A better way

Virtual reality is gaining traction in enterprise for job training, especially for industrial environments. Studies show that people are quicker to understand abstract concepts and retain information longer in immersive environments compared to traditional training methods. Used by professional sports players and manufacturing workers alike, VR can create muscle memory (ex. operating heavy machinery) and simulate an infinite number of real-world customer service scenarios (soft skills training), but can the technology change attitudes?

Stanford researchers have been studying the impact of VR on human behavior and the medium’s ability to inspire empathy. In a recent study, they found that VR is more effective than our imagination for combating inter-generational bias. Because VR requires less cognitive load yet feels real, it encouraged subjects of the study with negative group attitudes to adopt the point of view of the “other.” If VR can affect cognitive behavior at the heart of real social issues, it suggests a profound tool for changing workplace culture.

The first time you can actually walk in someone else’s shoes – real uses cases of VR for anti-harassment and unconscious bias training

NFL

In 2016, the NFL turned to Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab in an effort to confront racism and sexism in the league, which struggles to retain women and minorities in leadership positions. The Lab had been developing scenarios designed to unsettle the user and engender empathy. The NFL wanted to use these scenarios with league staffers and players, to put them in the role of the victim. In one scenario or virtual simulation tested by the NFL, the user’s avatar was that of an African American woman being angrily harassed by a white avatar. When the user would reflexively lift his arms in self-defense, what he saw was his “own” black skin.

Equal Reality

In 2017, Equal Reality gained attention for its VR unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias is the most universal and stifling barrier to women’s progress in the workplace. Examples of unconscious bias towards women are reflected in findings such as:

  • Female employees negotiate as often as men but face pushback when they do
  • Female employees get less access to senior leaders and mentors
  • Female employees ask for feedback as often as men but are less likely to receive it than their male counterparts

Equal Reality develops virtual simulations, in this case workplace scenarios in which users interact, taking on multiple perspectives in order to learn to identify examples of pervasive bias as well as more subtle discriminatory behaviors. In 2018, realizing that paid actors and ordering a bunch of sailors to sit in a classroom and talk about behavior were doing nothing, the Royal Australian Navy adopted Equal Reality’s solution. Wearing a headset and holding two controllers, sailors are able to experience what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, treated differently and excluded from workplace conversation because of one’s disability.

Through My Eyes

In April of this year, BCT Partners and Red Fern Consulting announced a VR program called Through My Eyes, which trains employees to recognize unconscious bias through virtual scenarios. In one simulation, the user is a bystander, observing how bias plays out in different situations. In another, the user is one of the characters in the scene. Users’ choices and reactions in the virtual environment generate data, which is fed back to them and used to customize the training to each individual.

Vantage Point

Two-time survivor Morgan Mercer started the VR corporate training platform Vantage Point, which takes VR beyond simple roleplaying to illustrate the subtleties of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the user’s response to each situation in Vantage Point changes how the scenario plays out. The scenes involve a lot of grey area and are designed to teach both men and women communal accountability. In one simulation, the user’s talking with four coworkers, one female and three male, about an upcoming conference in Las Vegas. Trying to discuss her presentation and noticeably uncomfortable as the men begin to engage in locker room banter, the woman is suddenly grabbed by her boss who tells her to “pack something fitting.” Depending on how you, a witness, respond, the narrative either escalates or deescalates.

In another simulation of a colleague’s going-away party, a male coworker approaches the new female manager taking over the position. The user must grapple with what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s a joke and what crosses the line, and when charisma becomes chauvinism. In the end, he or she must make a choice between speaking up or calling HR.

Vantage Point has three training modules: Bystander intervention, identification of sexual harassment, and responding to harassment when it happens to you. Last year, Tala (a fintech startup) and Justworks (the payroll platform) piloted the technology. In addition, Mercer draws on scientific research to develop best practice guidelines for the solution, which she hopes will become the standard for sexual harassment training. Though it’s too soon for any hard statistics, Vantage Point is receiving a lot of interest from investors and Fortune 500 companies alike.

Protecting workers

VR doesn’t tell you how to behave; it places you in the proverbial shoes of another, compelling you to empathize with that person because it feels like whatever is happening is happening to you. Doctors today are using VR to better understand the patient experience and improve their bedside manner. Further proof of the technology’s power is its use in PTSD treatment programs and transition programs for soon-to-be-released prisoners. In enterprise, anti-discrimination and harassment training doesn’t have to be a box checked off by HR; with VR, this training might actually end real-world harassment and boost company performance.

 

Image source: Equal Reality

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and early confirmed speakers, to come on the conference website.

Alternative Enterprise Wearables: Vests, Visors and Hearables

What is the most successful piece of wearable technology in human history? Arguably, it’s the hearing aid. In fact, hearing aids might be considered the original hearables. Yes, I said hearables. Wearables are a broad category of devices – broader than you might think – encompassing not only smartwatches and smart eyewear but also embeddables, hearables and ingestables—any connected device that can be worn somewhere on or inside the body. We can extrapolate this to define an enterprise wearable as any electronic device that a worker wears (or ingests) to improve his or her performance and safety in some way. Then, there are items of clothing and gear equipped with today’s advanced sensors. In many industries, these wearables are a worker’s last line of defense against injury in the workplace. Read on for some alternative enterprise wearables – non-watch and non-eyeglass form factors – under development or currently available for enterprise:


Smart Suspenders and Other Accessories

Amazon has over 100,000 robots in its warehouses. Funnily enough, as efficient as these robots are at moving containers of items to help human pickers fulfill millions of online orders, they (or rather their on-board sensors) aren’t all that great at recognizing their human coworkers. In human-robot workplaces, most accidents occur during non-routine actions. At Amazon, robots operate within a designated area or enclosure, but if one breaks down or drops an item, a human employee must enter that space and that’s when a collision is most likely to occur.

Over 2018, Amazon introduced the Robotic Tech Vest (RTV) to more than 25 facilities. Though called a vest, the RTV is more like a utility belt with suspenders that sends a signal to the robots when a human is nearby. The RTV can actually signal the wearer’s presence from farther away than the point at which the robot’s built-in sensor tech can recognize a human being, adding an extra layer of safety to the robots’ ability to scan for obstacles. This also gives the robot more time to slow down and reroute so as to avoid a collision. Amazon has reported that in 2018 the RTVs alerted robots to avoid human workers over a million times.

Other items of clothing and gear can be decked out with sensors to gather information, improve safety, and improve productivity across the workforce. There are heated jackets and cooling vests for extreme work environments, even self-charging work boots that track fatigue and provide lighting for jobs in low light. Such wearables could also be used for geofencing, alerting employees upon entering a restricted or unsafe zone. Earlier this month, Fraunhofer presented a prototype of another smart vest called the ErgoJack, a wearable soft robotics system with real-time motion detection and analysis. Designed for workers who lift heavy objects or spend long hours bent over a component, the ErgoJack can distinguish between ergonomic and unergonomic movements and alert the wearer in real time to prevent back pain and premature spine wear.


On the High Seas 

Working (and vacationing) on the open ocean comes with risks, especially in treacherous conditions far from the shore with limited visibility should someone get lost at sea. There have been a number of IoT projects and products aimed at improving safety at sea, including the EU project LYNCEUS2MARKET (L2M) and In:Range by ScanReach. Launched in 2015 by a team of cruise ship owners and operators, ship builders, maritime equipment manufacturers, industry associations, and tech companies; L2M came up with several wearable devices, including a life jacket that locates passengers in an emergency situation.

During a maritime emergency, there is often limited personnel available to assist. With In:Range, crew members on a vessel or offshore installation wear low-powered smart wristbands that tether users to sensors located throughout and outside the ship. This keeps the crew accounted for, allowing people from fleet management, coastal services, rescue departments, insurance companies, etc. to locate them in real time and, if necessary, intervene with a targeted rescue operation. In addition to real-time location, In:Range can also act as a safety alarm, means of area access control, and man-overboard device. To protect sailors’ privacy, the wearer’s location is not tracked until an alarm is triggered by motions indicating stress or by the wearer herself.


Personal Blinkers

As I sit here writing this, despite having classical music blasting in my noise cancelling headphones, I’m distracted by the numerous phone conversations taking place in my office and especially by one coworker who paces while on the phone (you know who you are). This is why I’m rooting for a recent prototype developed by Panasonic’s design studio Future Life Factory. Wear Space – a curved, flexible strip that wraps around the back of the head and extends like a shield for your peripheral vision – is designed to help people focus by limiting noise and other distractions in busy work spaces and open-plan offices. Essentially, these “wearable blinkers” block off the wearer from his immediate surroundings, providing instant personal space. Fitted with noise-cancelling headphones to block out ambient sound, the Wear Space can also be adjusted according to the user’s desired level of concentration. As open office plans grow in popularity and remote working becomes a norm, a device like Wear Space could do very well. Panasonic hopes the technology will be able to cut users’ horizontal field of view by around 60%.

Did you know that noise can harm you at work? Each year according to OSHA, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise on the job, so UK startup EAVE developed hearable tech to protect people’s hearing in the workplace. Consisting of a headset and cloud-based noise monitoring platform, the technology not only protects the wearer from excessive noise in loud industrial environments but also gathers data about onsite noise levels which is used to create a heat map of noise in the workplace. The system, launched earlier this year, is meant to prevent noise-induced hearing loss, tinnitus and other hearing-related conditions. In addition, it creates an audit trail for the organization in case of future occupational hearing loss claims.


In and Behind the Ear

According to IDC, the wearables category is expanding to include hearables and the enterprise hearables market in particular is growing, with solutions aimed at offices/shops as well as more industrial environments. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article titled “The Future of Wearable Tech is Called a Hearing Aid” is all about Livio AI, a new product from longtime hearing aid maker Starkey. Described as “a hearing aid for people who don’t need hearing aids,” Livio AI are barely visible hearables that use tiny sensors plus artificial intelligence (AI) to selectively filter noise, track various biometrics (steps, plus soon heart rate, blood pressure and more vitals), translate 27 languages near instantaneously, and detect falls. With accompanying app Thrive, Livio AI wearers can also choose to amplify specific sound sources (ex. a business colleague sitting across from you in a busy restaurant). Starkey is pitching the platform to doctors and patients, with an expected price of around $2,500 to $3,000.

It’s not difficult to imagine how a discreet in-ear computing device could improve communication (enhance listening, eliminate language barriers) and increase safety (health tracking, equilibrium/fall detection) in the workplace. The ear is actually superior to the wrist as an ideal location for sensors, which explains why a number of smart headphone and hearable startups have been popping up; but why should augmented hearing benefit consumers and not workers, as well? Besides outputting great quality sound, hearables filter out sounds, provide more accurate vital sign data (heart rate, body temp, pulse oximetry, etc.) and might be used for biometric personal identification in secure workplaces. In fact, the NEC recently announced hearable technology that uses sound waves to identify someone based on the size and shape of that person’s ear. More invisible than a pair of smart glasses, hearables could also provide workers with instant, hands-free access to information via voice commands.

You may have heard of the Smart Cap; well, startups Bodytrak and Canaria have developed smaller hearable devices that, like the Smart Cap, monitor occupational fatigue. According to studies, workers suffering from fatigue are almost three times more likely to put themselves or a colleague in danger. Bodytrak’s non-invasive, in-ear device measures a worker’s core body temperature, heart rate (a great indicator of cognitive fatigue), V02 and motion. This data is then sent to a cloud-based analytics platform that provides early warnings to at-risk workers via the hearable. Canaria’s technology is worn behind the ear, next to the skin. It monitors blood oxygen levels and heart rate, can detect harmful gases, and alerts wearers when it’s time to take a mandatory break. Both hearables might be used by workers in harsh, remote environments (ex. a building site in wintertime), factory employees working extended hours during peak season, laborers maneuvering heavy machinery, even nurses with back-to-back shifts.

 

Image source: Panasonic

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and early confirmed speakers, to come on the conference website.

Recreating Disasters and Training Claims Adjusters with AR/VR

Warnings and other use cases of AR/VR in Insurance:

The UK-based insurer Allianz used augmented reality to generate customer awareness around the possibility of home accidents. The company built a model house that had an accompanying augmented reality (AR) app called “Haunted House.” Looking into the house through AR-enabled mobile devices, customers could view a variety of virtual accidents and dangers, including a toaster that starts to smoke and sparkle, a sink flood that breaks the bathroom floor, and a cracked aquarium. In a similar use case, Australian-based NRMA Insurance introduced a virtual reality (VR) car crash simulation that gave Oculus wearers the opportunity to feel what it’s like in a crash situation. The user (wearing a VR headset) experienced the accident sitting inside a real car that moved through a hydraulic system in coordination with the action in the virtual world. The goal of this campaign? To promote safe and careful driving.

Customer Service:

Betting on a future where virtual customer service is the norm, PNB MetLife recently launched “conVRse” – an immersive and personalized customer service simulation – across 10 cities in India. Wearing VR headsets, policyholders at a number of the insurer’s branches in India can interact with Khushi, a virtual customer service representative and life insurance expert. MetLife says this is the first time VR is being used in insurance and hopes the on-demand VR support will be a major differentiator that reaches Millennials and other digital savvy consumers.

Explaining Insurance Plans:

The Group Retirement Savings (GRS) division of Canadian insurer Desjardins Insurance has been developing educational tools for some time now in a variety of media. The newest option for learning about Desjardins’ retirement plans? Augmented reality. GRS created a mobile AR app starring a child character named Penny. By downloading the app your way Desjardins and printing out a “Penny Dollar,” consumers can point their phones and activate videos, each one about a different retirement planning topic. AR is just the latest step in Desjardins’ effort to make the process of choosing a convenient retirement plan less confusing and stressful.

Advertising:

Liverpool Victoria (UK) partnered with Blippar to make AR newspaper flyers that, when viewed through users’ phones and the Blippar mobile app, come alive. What appears is a 3D model of a house that you can explore by tilting your device, discovering in the process all sorts of objects that can be insured within (ex. car, pet, etc.) Users can even order insurance right from the app.

Damage Estimation:

Live video collaboration tool Symbility Video Connect allows consumers themselves to participate in the insurance claim process by helping adjusters collect information for damage estimation at the first notice of loss. Via the policyholder’s smartphone camera, the insurance adjuster can remotely inspect the damaged property, collecting all necessary data to assess the claim object and process the customer’s claim faster. Though the solution currently works with the customer’s smartphone; in the future insurers might offer something similar complete with a pair of smart glasses upon purchasing an insurance plan, allowing their claims adjusters to cover a wide geographic location.

In a similar vein, Donan (forensic investigation firm) and Matterport (3D scanning camera company) partnered to enable fire investigators to create highly detailed photogrammetry scans turned into interactive 3D models that can be reviewed from anywhere in the world. Using a VR headset, PC or mobile app, investigators can virtually walk through the fire scene in order to more easily assess damages and write an estimate for quicker claim settlement; they can also include the scans in official documentation for structural fire losses. Moreover, the ability to fully document a fire scene could be a gamechanger for litigation; a lawyer in an arson case, for example, could transport the jury to the scene of the fire with VR headsets, making the evidence come alive.

Risk Assessment:

Zurich Insurance’s risk engineers and field inspectors often need their hands free in order to climb ladders and work in tight spaces; it can be really inefficient and inconvenient for these field workers to access necessary data like checklists or site plans on a handheld mobile device, so the Swiss insurance company turned to AR glasses. Wearing smart glasses, engineers and inspectors can view multiple screens of information right before their eyes and consult with other experts (see-what-I-see communication) from the field.

Employee Training:

In 2017, Farmers Insurance announced it had invested significantly in virtual reality for training employees. At the time, roughly 50 new hires had gone through the pilot program, but Farmers had yet to do any comparison studies. Before VR, the home, auto and life insurance company would send employees to a two-story house in L.A., but as the trainers (teachers) damaged the house in the same way with every class, trainees weren’t exposed to enough situations to really learn the trade. New hires wearing VR headsets, however, could walk through six different floor plans and experience 500 different damage scenarios for thousands of training simulations. The virtual training sessions could also be recorded for trainees to review later. For a novice claims adjuster, the more training scenarios, the more comfortable it is to enter a real customer’s home. Farmers reported positive early feedback, noting potential savings of up to $300,000 a year from not having to pay for new hires’ travel to traditional training facilities.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and confirmed speakers, available on the conference website.

In-flight VR, Smart Bands at the Resort, and AR Glasses for Tourists

Today, “every business is a tech business” and in every industry consumers’ digital customer service expectations are growing. A decade after the U.S. travel and hospitality industry emerged from the 2008 recession; industry players, including airlines, airports, cruises, hotels, and other travel brands, are feeling the heat to compete and earn the loyalty of a new customer base via emerging technologies.

Trends and Pain Points in Travel and Hospitality   

Shift in Target Demographics

Though Gen Y overtook Baby Boomers as America’s largest living generation in 2016, the demographic with the most purchasing power around the world today is millennials, and they don’t vacation like their parents. Travel brands need to both court and cater to millennials, who prefer to spend their money on experiences (like immersing themselves in another culture) over material objects and are more spontaneous and comfortable with tech than previous generations.

Competition

First it was online travel agents like Expedia and Priceline; then came Airbnb and VRBO—OTAs and the sharing economy have rocked the travel industry, altering distribution channels, taking business away from traditional industry players, and forcing airlines and hoteliers to compete online to win back customers. According to ADI, approximately 60% of all travel reservations are now made online despite Loyalty Rewards Programs for travelers who book directly through the airline or hotel. Another consequence of OTAs and millennials’ spontaneity is that the window between booking a ticket and boarding a flight is getting smaller, putting strain on travel and hospitality operations.

Heightened Consumer Expectations

We live in an experience economy, where it’s becoming critical for businesses to have customized offerings and personalized services. Millennials want to do something new and memorable on each trip but they also want personalized experiences and don’t mind sharing their data to receive customized travel recommendations. In a time when a single data breach can destroy a brand, travel companies must walk a fine line between capturing enough data to personalize services and respecting guests’ privacy and security. In addition to personalization, today’s consumers consider sustainability and wellness in their travel choices, expecting hotels to “go green” and have state-of-the-art fitness centers, healthy food and beverage options, even yoga classes.

Labor Gap

Within the leisure and hospitality sector, there are an estimated one million job openings in the U.S. alone. As companies struggle to attract and retain the right talent to fill the experience void, reduced immigration is impacting the supply of transient and hourly workers that have come to make up a large portion of the hospitality workforce. Moreover, recruitment for new job roles needed to incorporate the latest tech into the travel experience is proving difficult and high turnover is discouraging investment in skills development for new and existing employees.

A Testing Ground for New Tech

Historically, the travel industry has been quick to adopt new tech: In the late 1940s, before most consumers had a television set at home, hotels began to install TVs in the guest rooms. Travel companies were also among the first to leverage the World Wide Web to increase sales, with the first hotel websites launching in 1994; and one of the very first use cases for Google Glass came from Virgin Airlines in 2014. But the challenges above call for real implementations and dramatic digital transformation.

Applications for Immersive and Wearable Tech in Hospitality

Virtual booking

“Try-before-you-buy” shopping apps have become an early hit for augmented and virtual reality, especially for big-ticket items like furniture and real estate. Travel, too, is expensive and consumers need a lot of information before deciding to book. Virtual reality presents the ideal medium for selling an experience, giving travelers insight that no amount of text on a website or any number of customer reviews can match by allowing them to essentially preview their trip – from their seat on the plane to the view from their hotel and local attractions – before committing.

In 2017, Amadeus unveiled the first VR booking experience in which users shop for travel in a virtual world. Users can search for flights, review cabins, compare hotel prices, and book rooms all through a VR headset. And while you might think that as VR gets more and more immersive it will replace travel altogether, current research has found that visiting a destination in VR actually makes one more inclined to visit the real place. If VR hits critical mass at $199 per headset over the next few years, VR travel planning and booking may very well be one of the killer apps for the technology.

Marketing

Hospitality brands spend a lot on marketing. AR/VR is becoming a major differentiator in this area, as hotels themselves adopt the technology as a selling tool. Hundreds of hotels now offer virtual tours. For instance, Atlantis Dubai offers a virtual tour on its website so guests can explore the hotel’s luxury rooms and on-site experiences like swimming with dolphins from the comfort of home. Once on the website, consumers are more likely to book directly through the hotel, as well. In 2017, Marriot launched a VR tour of its meeting rooms, allowing corporate clients and event planners to virtually walk through its function areas from anywhere. During an on-site tour, one might even digitally augment the space to get a more realistic feel for a venue’s suitability. Palladium also uses VR, not to inform prospective guests but instead to educate travel agents about its properties. Palladium salespeople go around giving agents VR headset-enabled virtual tours so they can better sell the chain’s hotels to customers. Some hotels even offer on-site AR/VR experiences, usually smartphone-enabled, that both entertain guests and enlist them in the brand’s marketing efforts via social media sharing.   

Operations

There are a lot of moving parts in the travel and hospitality industry, requiring staff to be in constant communication in order to provide seamless customer service around the clock. Management and staff have traditionally kept in contact via two-way radios, a method prone to lost connections and poor audio quality. Looking for a better way to communicate, Viceroy Hotels turned to wearables: At the Viceroy L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills, hotel staff piloted Samsung Gear S3 smartwatches to manage guest requests and resolve incidents more efficiently than they could with a walkie-talkie or phone. The pilot showed response times going down from 3-4 minutes to just 60 seconds; the solution was also less intrusive, sending silent vibration alerts to the staff members best placed to serve a guest’s need. Houston’s Hotel Alessandra also uses Samsung smartwatches for fast and discrete communication among employees, improving the experience for both guests and staff.

Entertainment & Tour Guide

VR headsets are popping up in airport lounges, on flights, and in hotel rooms alongside other amenities. Qantas, for one, has experimented with providing virtual experiences and games on high-quality VR headsets to first-class passengers; and in 2015, Marriott launched its “VRoom Service,” whereby guests can order a Samsung Gear VR headset delivered to their room—a step up from streaming services and on-demand movies. The headsets come preloaded with “virtual postcards” that not only entertain but also sell users on new destinations (where they can stay in a Marriott hotel, of course).

Others are using mobile AR apps and VR headsets for guest engagement. For example, Holiday Inn created an AR app allowing guests to view virtual celebrities in the hotel through their smartphones; while at London hotel One Aldwych, a whiskey cocktail called The Origin comes with a VR headset showing how and where the whiskey was made—a truly unique cultural experience made possible by VR. Hotels and travel brands are also developing custom AR tour guide apps, like a mobile concierge that provides real-time, heads-up navigation and personalized recommendations for loyalty program members, and enhances sightseeing with digital information overlaid on the landmark itself. The Hub Hotel from Premier Inn in the UK does this with special maps on the walls of every room, which, when viewed through a smartphone, display information about local places of interest—an unexpected, value-added feature for the hotels’ guests.

Airlines and hotels can also adopt augmented reality smart glasses to enable flight attendants and hotel staff to personalize customer service, using facial recognition to greet guests by name and tapping into a customer resource management system, social media and other data sources to bring up information relevant to individual passengers.

Convenience

AR certainly provides convenience by supporting guests and passengers in their native language, showing them directions, etc. Below the neck, IoT (Internet of Things) wearables provide convenience, as well. Case in point: Disney’s MagicBand, one of the earliest and most successful (bespoke) wearable devices in the travel sector, widely used today in Disney theme parks as an all-purpose means of payment, admission and keyless entry for resort guests. In 2017, Carnival announced its Ocean Medallion, a small, waterproof device that can be worn or carried, enabling cruisegoers to embark the ship, enter their staterooms, shop, and make reservations. The Medallion works with Carnival’s Ocean Compass app, which displays personalized recommendations for every passenger with the help of 7,000 sensors installed throughout the ship. Likewise, Meliá Hotels has begun offering waterproof, Bluetooth-enabled smart wristbands by Oracle, which, in addition to serving as a payment method on the Spanish resort of Megaluf, also work at nearby participating merchants like Starbucks.

Training 

Compared to traditional teaching methods, immersive simulations have proven more effective for quick learning and retention of knowledge, which is why major corporations around the world are using AR/VR to train new employees and retrain core staff for new roles. In travel and hospitality, immersive tech can help prepare employees for exceptional scenarios that are hard (or undesirable) to train for in real life like diffusing an angry guest. Need to walk a team through new green housekeeping measures or alterations to the menu? Use VR.

In 2016, Best Western partnered with Mursion to develop a series of VR simulations for front-desk staff to practice interpersonal skills. According to the hotelier, the 60-minute virtual guest interaction training sessions contributed to a noticeable boost in guest satisfaction. Recently, luxury cruise line Seabourn worked with Pixvana to create a VR training solution to help wait staff quickly memorize the dining room’s 105 tables and 12 serving stations. Hilton has used VR with its corporate staff to build appreciation and empathy for the chain’s employees, having higher-ups virtually take part in routine operational tasks like cleaning a guest room and arranging a room service tray.

Conclusion

The convenience of wearables is appealing not just to millennials but to most modern consumers, as are enhanced experiences of physical spaces enabled by augmented and virtual reality. VR will surely become a popular way of shopping for hotels and AR a natural addition to sightseeing and other aspects of the travel experience (on-demand, in-context information). Early adopters in the travel industry are poised to define the competition, providing experiences to guests they cannot get at home, attracting new workers with brand new tech for training and carrying out daily tasks, empowering staff to provide superior, personalized customer service, and easily preparing employees for the roll out of new sustainability and wellness features.

*Learn more about emerging tech in the Travel & Hospitality industry at EWTS 2019: Hear from Blaire Bhojwani of Hilton Hotels, Andy Kozak of JetBlue, Jayson Maxwell of Six Flags, and more.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and confirmed speakers, available on the conference website.