Using AR/VR for Assurance in Insurance

I recently watched a Netflix documentary about the Fyre Festival. Two things from the story really stuck with me: 1) Festival owner Billy McFarland failed to get festival insurance; and 2) He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) listen to reason, as multiple people told him it would be impossible to pull off such an ambitious festival in under six months. At one point, someone tried to show Billy – using a map spread out on a table – that the island venue could not accommodate the number of festivalgoers and luxury villas that had already sold. While watching, I thought about Virtual Reality, not because it’s my job but because immersive technologies might have prevented the disaster that Fyre Festival turned out to be. What if those around Billy had used VR to snap him out of his delusions? Or what if Billy had tried to get festival insurance? Might an insurance agent have used VR to “preview” the festival and ultimately denied coverage? Perhaps that would have convinced Billy to cancel the event.

The insurance industry is, in fact, exploring virtual as well as augmented reality for a number of applications, including risk assessment, accident recreation, remote claims handling, and customer education. AR/VR may also be a solution to the insurance sector’s labor concerns and the answer to rising customer experience expectations.

State of the Insurance Industry

Insurance companies are not exempt from digital disruption or the need to create a more flexible and even virtual workforce for the digital age. As some manual and traditional industry tasks become automated, insurers will need to both recruit and upgrade their talent at a time when the labor market is incredibly tight. This is especially true for the tech, data science and actuarial labor pool (Deloitte). Furthermore, employees impacted by automation as well as Baby Boomers with irreplaceable institutional knowledge will need to be repurposed, which means retraining and leveraging cutting-edge technology to facilitate remote expert mentoring of new workers.

The traditional insurer-insured relationship can be boiled down to a monthly bill or claims submission when something goes wrong; but today’s insurance customers – many of whom are millennials – want more: More convenience and more personalization in the insurance buying and claims processes. Consumers want more control over their coverage through digital channels; they want insurers to leverage advanced sensors and analytics for tracking trends and results that will lower their payments (as in auto and homeowner’s insurance), and they want more innovative and hybrid types of coverage. These and other new expectations are clashing with the long-established culture of the insurance industry, pressuring companies to look for technology that appeals to a new generation of adults seeking insurance.

Applications for AR/VR in Insurance with Real-life Use Cases

Though the insurance sector is usually slow to adopt new technology, augmented and virtual reality are beginning to show up in the ways insurers market and provide their services. Insurance companies are exploring AR/VR as part of marketing strategies, for educating clients, to estimate damage, for employee training, and more:


Customer-facing Applications:

Insurance is a large and valuable market; and with new players offering fast, efficient, digital services, it’s also a fiercely competitive one. Traditional insurers are turning to technology – both the enabler and accelerator of digital transformation – to stay relevant to a changing customer base:

Explaining Insurance Plans

AR/VR can make the complex process of buying insurance easier by simulating real-life situations to showcase the value of various life, health and other coverage plans. Far more powerful than a brochure, website or salesperson, immersive simulations can drive home the need to save for retirement, simplify pension planning, etc.

Consumer Education / Risk Mitigation

In a similar vein, AR/VR can be used to warn clients about dangers and help them prevent the need to file a claim. By allowing insurers to demonstrate both common and exceptional risks in a virtual, risk-free environment, immersive simulations can improve the safety practices of different types of policyholders. For instance, doctors could use VR to practice on a new machine before using it with real patients, employees could learn to identify workplace risks, and homeowners could learn to prevent floods and fires.

Insurers are also toying with VR incident management and training programs that would give customers a fairer rate (ex. virtual driving tests for auto insurance). After successfully completing such a program, the customer would send her results to her insurance agent, verifying her enrollment and qualifying her for discounts (reduced premiums).

Marketing and Customer Engagement

With the ubiquity of AR-capable smartphones, companies today are increasingly incorporating AR into their brand apps and other marketing strategies. Insurers are no exception: AR experiences and VR simulations that create awareness about the importance of buying different types of insurance are part of new marketing and customer engagement plans. In general, insurers are looking to attract and retain new and existing customers by providing informational and entertaining content. This represents a significant move away from the usually distant or aloof position of an insurance company vis-à-vis its clients.

Customer Service

One way to improve the customer experience is to increase an organization’s operational efficiency; for instance, faster order picking in a warehouse leads to faster delivery and higher customer satisfaction. Another way is to focus on those times the customer directly interacts with the business. In insurance, these times are when a customer purchases a coverage plan, files a claim, or contacts support.

In addition to helping consumers understand insurance plans, AR/VR can provide real-time guidance to policyholders on how to fill out claim forms, resolve billing issues, and more. Some insurers are experimenting with virtual customer service (like a virtual support center) and enabling policyholders to interact with adjusters and begin documenting damage in real time through AR. Whether it’s through an individual’s mobile camera or, one day, smart glasses, adjusters can be “on the scene” with the policyholder, reviewing the damages, even taking exact measurements; allowing for faster and more accurate documentation of loss and faster case resolution.


Employee-facing or Operational Applications:

The game of insurance is about risk avoidance, the goal being to convert consumers and businesses into policyholders while driving down claims. AR/VR can be an effective tool for reaching these goals, not just through customer education but also by improving employee performance, making insurance workers shrewder and more efficient:

(Ongoing) Risk Assessment

AR/VR open a number of new capabilities for risk assessors to reduce cost and loss ratios. As mentioned above, auto insurers are considering administering virtual driving tests to determine whether someone is a safe driver before insuring them. VR is also being used to model risk: Assessors can navigate a building before it’s built, thereby improving insurance estimates, and better judge the safety of, say, a warehouse by simulating potential accidents within and evaluating the locations of exit doors and stairs. During risk inspections, assessors could use smart glasses to instantly document and record notes hands-free, and to connect with remote experts who might point out weak spots by augmenting the user’s field of view.

The Internet of Things (ex. smart automobiles, smart homes, etc.) is huge for insurance, enabling predictive analysis and preemptive actions that should reduce the number of high-frequency, low-impact claims. This paves the way for innovative insurance models, like plans that trigger based upon forecasts of loss as opposed to an actual event. Insurers might also use the wealth of data from IoT technologies along with statisticians to visualize and analyze complex data sets in a virtual setting.

Damage Estimation

Most early use cases of immersive tech in insurance come from the property and casualty side of the industry. This is because AR/VR present the ideal tool for safely recreating real-life disasters and estimating repair costs. Through the use of digital building plans and real-time sensor information overlaid on top of a damaged building, AR glasses-wearing agents can carefully review the damage on-site, doing things like seeing behind walls to determine the location of gas lines and other critical or hazardous objects.

Claims adjusters can overlay images of a building’s pre-loss condition for comparison, document damaged areas hands-free (useful for later VR accident simulations) and confer with remote experts. This makes it possible to more precisely estimate damage and process claims quicker, which, of course, pleases customers. AR glasses also allow for remote damage assessments, where an adjuster shares the view of a colleague at the incident site (wearing smart glasses) or looks through the customer’s mobile device to assess the damage without physically being there.

Remote Guidance and Employee Training

Accenture has found that 85% of insurance executives are interested in leveraging AR/VR solutions to bridge the physical and informational distance between newer and experienced employees and between agents and customers. This is especially key in the training of claims processors, who have one of the most important jobs in the industry (investigating claims). As studies show that people learn and retain information better when it’s presented in context over their real-world view, insurance employees should be able to train faster and more effectively “by doing” whether in a virtual environment or via AR-powered remote guidance on the job.

Indeed, leading insurers are finding AR/VR great for training agents at a lower cost, giving them virtual experience that raises their confidence and the accuracy of their work. Immersive training programs can also help insurance agencies prepare employees to work in specific sectors (ex. auto insurance reps learning about engine repair; home insurance reps learning about maintenance lifecycles), so they can make more informed decisions and offer policy-specific recommendations to clients. Remote technical experts might also provide a second pair of eyes, training agents in real time using AR.

Visual Claims and the Claims Process

Alluded to above is the potential for AR/VR to enhance and speed up claims processing by unlocking new methods for evaluating claims and detecting fraud in the field. With AR, multiple agents are no longer required to visit the claim site; just one employee equipped with smart glasses can go, while experts look on, inspecting damages and calculating losses remotely from the office. The time and money saved leads to greater employee efficiency and higher customer satisfaction. Customers themselves can serve in this role using an AR-enabled mobile device or perhaps smart glasses received upon purchasing a policy.

Policyholders are becoming fans of visual insurance claims, which promise more efficient claims processing and quicker payment. AR-powered video solutions can expedite claim settlements by enabling remote inspections at the First Notice of Loss and reducing adjustors’ time in the field (thereby lowering overhead). Customers can show a contact center agent the cause and extent of, say, a car crash, through a live video connection; giving the agent immediate, real-time access to information, including valuable pieces of temporary information like road conditions, vehicle position, skid marks, etc. This significantly shortens the claims process, eliminating not only the usual site visit but also any lengthy back-and-forth communication between agent and customer. The result: More accurate appraisals and faster resolution time.


Conclusion:

The transition from old industry methods to new ways of working with augmented reality will produce a more efficient and cost-effective insurance marketplace, transforming the ways agents interact with customers, enforce policies, and assess claims. Moreover, business and personal use of AR/VR technologies will open new categories of risk exposure leading to entirely new types of insurance.

End Users Share Real Challenges of Wearable Tech Software

Finger Food Studios’ Graham Cunliffe leads a panel discussing the current state of the enterprise wearable market and the challenges of deploying business-ready wearable applications. Graham is joined by Caterpillar’s Jeff Lind, Southwest Airlines’ Chris Grubbs, Walmart’s Steven Lewis and United Technologies’ Peggy Wu. They discuss the considerations that help an organization determine appropriate software solutions. Common pain points include the scalability and portability of solutions across devices and the relative lack of off-the-shelf solutions. The panelists guide us through resolving functionality gaps for end users, the difficulties of establishing and navigating software partnerships with vendors, and the handling of data within the enterprise for seamless integration across digital platforms.

Insider Secrets to Adopting Wearables

Watch this throwback 2016 expert panel led by Upskill’s Brian Ballard, in which enterprise end users from Jacobs Engineering, Powerstream Inc., the AES Corporation, and Intel share their secrets to adopting wearables. Some key insights include referring to the people closest to the problem (i.e. the workers), getting them involved early in the process and allowing them to opt in; creating a partnership between the business and IT sides of your organization; and talking to the standards bodies for your industry from the get-go. In addition, don’t underestimate the impact on your company’s infrastructure, as content and information management are key challenges in this space, especially when it comes to AR.

When is the time to talk about consumer-facing AR apps in enterprise?

The release of Magic Leap One was supposed to be the “magic moment” for consumer AR, the development that finally got consumers excited about augmented reality glasses. Needless to say, it wasn’t. Despite the billions in funding, awesome concept videos and mainstream media attention, Magic Leap did not suddenly big-bang the consumer AR market into existence with the launch of its much-hyped headset.  

Though Magic Leap the product may be “just another HoloLens” aimed at consumers; Magic Leap the company did a lot in 2018 – through strategic partnerships with AT&T, Sennheiser, and Wayfair – to impress upon consumers the potential for augmented reality beyond Google Glass and Snap filters. In addition, 2018 saw a number of relatively normal-looking smart glasses hit the market, including Focals by North and Vuzix Blade, which make a far stronger case than Google Glass did in 2013 for putting our smartphones (and AI assistants) on our faces. And just this week at CES 2019, nreal debuted colorful, 3-ounce AR glasses that look like everyday sunglasses and ThirdEye unveiled its X2 Smart Glasses, “the smallest standalone 6oz mixed reality smart glasses with built-in SLAM.”

Why should any of this matter to enterprises? Is it still too early to talk about consumer-facing AR applications in enterprise that aren’t branded mobile apps? I don’t think so. It’s possible to serve the existing enterprise market and simultaneously prepare for one that doesn’t yet exist. Today’s companies know they must prepare for a future in which augmented reality glasses are a standard tool in the workplace, even if they’re not yet deploying AR solutions; why should companies not prepare for a future in which consumers own smart glasses (or, if not own, are at least accustomed to AR in a heads-up form factor)?

Though AR Insider estimates there are only around 129 million active mobile AR users; there are nearly one billion AR-enabled smartphones around the world capable of exposing their owners to the benefits of AR. This represents a huge potential market with opportunities for new revenue streams and services in retail, travel, hospitality, airports, even field services. There are untapped applications for AR glasses in the consumer-facing aspects of business in industrial sectors, as well: Manufacturer AGCO, for instance, uses smart glasses on the plant floor and for public tours of its factories. With the number of consumer-friendly devices now (or soon-to-be) available, the time is now for organizations to begin innovating around these products in order to engage with customers in new ways, including providing pairs of smart glasses for temporary use by customers during interactions with the business.


Current Consumer AR Market:

Furniture retailers like Ikea and beauty brands like MAC are already capitalizing on AR via new try-before-you-buy features in their mobile apps. Although companies aren’t sharing the data, AR shopping experiences built with ARKit and ARCore presumably help to increase conversion rates and average order values while reducing returns. But are consumers aware that this is augmented reality? Are Snapchat users aware that AR tech powers the app’s face and world lenses? In a recent study by GlobalWebIndex, 70-75% of respondents aged 16-44 said they were aware of AR. Awareness, however, is not the same as experience: In the same survey, only 35% of 16-34s said they had experienced AR in the past month. The best way to sell immersive technology is through experience, the level of which is currently low among consumers. There have been no killer AR apps and I suspect that many smartphone users do not register that they are experiencing AR when they do. I expect this to change as AR is integrated with other everyday form factors, including car windshields and kitchen ovens.

One day, according to analysts and futurists, smart glasses are going to replace smartphones altogether, but the transition to head-worn mobile computing is proving less predictable and slower than imagined. The reality is there are a number of significant barriers to consumer smart glasses adoption as well as a number of positive signs for the future of the consumer AR market. What’s throwing us off, as Charlie Fink points out, is the comparison to smartphones, which took only two years to reach mass adoption. Charlie argues that while the iPhone was innovative it was still a mobile phone, whereas smart glasses are an entirely new product, a new purchase much like the personal computer was in its day and the Apple Watch was in 2015. The adoption factors are similar, too: Design (form), user interface (function), utility (content), enjoyment, cost, and social acceptance.

Both personal computers and smart glasses require(d) big changes in consumer behavior. Mass adoption of PCs took 15 years. I was one of the first kids in my class to have a computer at home. My father, a lawyer, had his own computer at work, so he purchased a laptop for his home office. My brothers and I played games on it (floppy disks!), leading to the purchase of a second “family” computer. Might the new wave of consumer-friendly smart glasses follow this pattern, with businessmen, designers and technologists first to adopt and convert the rest of us?


Positive signs for consumer smart glasses in 2019

Apple is very serious about augmented reality; Tim Cook calls it a “profound platform” and market researchers are predicting a release date for the company’s rumored AR glasses as early as 2020 (2022 or 2023 is more likely). Given Apple’s design cred and clout with consumers, it’s not hard to imagine Apple being the first to come out with sleek smart glasses that look no different from regular glasses and offer enough style and functionality to make hands-free AR apps a part of everyday life. After all, the Apple Watch has made watch-wearers out of people who never used to wear a watch.

In addition to Apple’s belief in AR and the latest iPhones, which seem to be built for running AR apps, there are other positive signs for consumer augmented reality: Magic Leap is offering $500,000 grants and support to developers who build design, engineering, architecture and other creative software for its headset; and it was just announced that the company’s partnership with AT&T is expanding to include enterprise AR. AT&T has also promised nationwide 5G by 2020, which is necessary for higher quality AR experiences. I can see Magic Leap finding a niche in B2C use cases, which would increase consumer exposure to wearable AR beyond in-store retail apps and social media.

Source: Vuzix

Vuzix Blade and Focals by North are promising, as well, not only because they’re more stylish and lightweight than anything that came before but also because of popular apps like Alexa integrated with the technology. Vuzix and North have taken bold steps into the consumer market: Vuzix, for instance, was marketing Blade on Instagram and at New York Fashion Week. While the company hasn’t even cracked 1,000 followers on Instagram, it is smart to experiment on the social platform that gave rise to influencer culture and has become mandatory for brands today. Vuzix also recently partnered with AccuWeather to provide local weather information to Blade users, who can tap on the glasses or ask Alexa to bring up forecasts right in their field of view. Blade went on sale to the public earlier this month for $999, a price point that’s still too high for consumers but just right for what Vuzix calls “light enterprise” use cases.

I have to say that Focals are better looking than Blade. The cost is the same but the mainstream appeal of North’s branding, social presence, and Warby Parker-esque sales model make Focals (in my opinion) the best effort yet in consumer AR. Focals can replace one’s prescription glasses, sync with Android and iOS devices, and offer a degree of customization: Shoppers can choose between classic and round frames in black, tortoise or gray, and you have to get fitted at either North’s Brooklyn or Toronto showrooms. The integration of Uber and exclusive in-store availability are genius, yet even Focals won’t make smart glasses mainstream.


Investing in consumer-oriented devices outside the workforce

In 2017, DigitalBridge found that 56% of 18-24-year-olds would be more likely to use AR if it were offered to them via a wearable device, and 69% would be more loyal to the brand that offered this. Retailers are arguably having the most success getting smartphone owners to use AR by solving a real consumer pain point. (IKEA Place was actually the second-most downloaded ARKit app in a 2018 survey.) It seems inevitable that AR will reinvent the shopping experience, but why not also the personal banking experience or the dentist’s office, hotel, post office, etc.?

I don’t know which device will win over consumers or what the breakthrough app will be, though it will definitely be practical as opposed to a game. Nevertheless, with AR invading our cars and homes and startups introducing new consumer-friendly smart glasses, consumers should have more opportunities to experience the technology in 2019. Businesses that regularly interact with consumers don’t have to wait for smart glasses to completely usurp smartphones to begin benefiting from consumer-facing applications of devices like Blade. My prediction is that 2019 will be the year of light enterprise use cases, with companies purchasing early consumer smart glasses for employees to interact face-to-face with end customers and for consumers to use in places of business.

It’s telling that one of the very first use cases of Google Glass involved Virgin Airlines staff processing first-class passengers for their flights and that every automotive manufacturer seems to be experimenting with “loaning” AR headsets to shoppers in dealerships. There is ROI in businesses investing in consumer smart glasses if it solves a customer problem or improves customers’ interactions with the business. The other side to this is that consumers do want to try immersive technologies but they don’t want to pay for the devices right now. Here are three applications I imagine business-wide:

  • Product testing: Enabling consumers to clearly envision a product or service. Right now, mobile AR apps offer this but there hasn’t been much innovation around incorporating smart glasses into the in-person shopping experience, improving the in-store experience, and drawing customers back into stores. (Imagine entering a grocery store and grabbing both a cart and a pair of smart glasses to help you make informed decisions or being able to preview how to use a KitchenAid blender while at Bed, Bath & Beyond.)
  • Guidance and context: Showing directional information via a digital overlay in airports, malls, banks, and other large places of business. No physical signs, reduced frustration, and less pressure on employees to direct customers. Additionally, providing contextual information via digital overlay to help customers make decisions (nutrition information, product reviews, etc.) and get more out of their experience of the business.
  • Engagement: Beyond marketing gimmicks, engaging consumers to interact in new ways with products, buy more and stay longer at the business, increase brand loyalty, etc. (Imagine wearing smart glasses around a wine store to learn about where each bottle came from, hear stories about famous wine-producing regions, read reviews, etc.)

Conclusion

Personally, I’m excited about all the new consumer-friendly AR products, and not because I think they will be a hit or want to buy one myself. The arrival of products like Blade and nreal light marks an intermediate stage in consumer smart glasses adoption in which businesses provide consumers with the opportunity to use these devices risk-free in the (non-industrial) office, at stores, in office reception areas, etc. 2019 should see an expansion in enterprise use cases beyond industry into more mundane areas of business and commerce, in turn providing a much-needed push to consumer AR.

 

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.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, returns to Santa Clara, CA May 29-31, 2019. Join us for the biggest AWE yet and help celebrate the show’s 10th Anniversary! Apply to speak and/or exhibit at AWE 2019on the event website.

 

Image source: nreal

Wearable and Immersive Tech and the Female Workforce

In the three to four years since the release of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the number of VR headsets available on the market has grown. Millions of VR headsets have been sold and PwC expects an installed base of 55 million active VR users by 2022. I work in XR, organizing events and writing about AR and VR for my livelihood and yet, unlike some of my male peers, I purchased my very first piece of VR hardware just this year with the release of Oculus Go.

Go was the first headset I put on that was relatively comfortable, and no wonder: Women were behind its design. Oculus’ Charmaine Hung, Caitlin Kalinowski, Rachel Franklin and Reina Shah put their past experiences with frustrating VR hardware into a physical design that’s more appealing to female VR users than its predecessor (content is another story). Go is untethered, relatively lightweight, a pleasing dove gray in color, and lined with the same material used in women’s bra straps.

A world designed by and for men:

The Oculus Rift, of course, provides a much more powerful, high-end VR experience than the Go. I’d love to own one (never mind the computer requirements), but the headset’s just too heavy for me. To keep the device from falling down and myself from having to constantly readjust, I’m forced to hold it up with my left hand or else tilt my head and neck slightly up, which limits the amount of time I can stand to spend in VR. It’s not just the Rift: I’ve tried on haptic gloves that were too large for my hands and gotten my hair caught in the HoloLens’ adjusting mechanism, not to mention how ridiculous I feel wearing the devices, making me less eager to try these new experiences in public.

There are plenty of examples of apps and tools that have been designed in ways that inhibit use by women and/or outright neglect factors that disproportionately affect female users. “Patriarchal coding” can be found in technology, buildings, public transportation, consumer products, and even life-saving medical devices. For instance, temperature regulation in office buildings still accords with standards set over 50 years ago for a 154-pound man. Since men have faster metabolic rates than women, female workers are more likely to freeze in the office, which studies show negatively impacts productivity. (Imagine if due to lower productivity, a woman got passed over for a job promotion that went to her male colleague instead!) Even cars were designed for decades to be safer for men than women, with industry regulations permitting automakers to use just one crash test dummy representing the average male in vehicle safety testing.

The point is that there are real physiological and lived experiential differences between men and women; and in the case of technology worn intimately on the human head and body in the workplace, those differences can alienate the female workforce.


 “That’s a woman’s job:”

In 2016, women made up:

  • 90% of registered nurses
  • 79% of elementary and middle school teachers
  • 61% of accountants and auditors
  • 35% of supply chain workers
  • 29% of the manufacturing workforce
  • 24% of the transportation and utilities workforce
  • 16% of architecture and engineering professionals
  • 13% of the mining workforce
  • 9% of the construction workforce

Though women make up nearly half the labor force (46.9% in 2017), they’re underrepresented in certain industries—in particular, the skilled trades affected by an aging workforce like manufacturing, logistics, construction and utilities. This is problematic, as those sectors desperately need to find and train the next generation of workers and can’t afford to ignore half the population. In business in general, women’s participation in the workforce is more than a social issue; it’s an economic one, too, with researchers finding that barriers to women in the workplace are stifling the growth of the U.S. economy. Whether it’s a historically male-dominant industry in need of a public image makeover or one in which the gender pay gap and unfavorable employment policies (ex. no paid maternity leave) are turning women away; the future economy and growth of the workforce depend upon improving job prospects and working environments for women.


Physiological differences between the sexes:

Of her time at a trade show, Adi Robertson (writing for The Verge) recalled a much-hyped virtual reality headset that was too loose around her head even when tightened all the way, as well as a motion control ring that left a quarter-inch of space between her fingers and the hardware. Wearables, including XR glasses and headsets, body-worn sensors, wrist wearables, and even exoskeletons, are not one size fits all; they’re one size fits most men and it shows: Headsets are often too heavy for female users, frames too large, lenses too far apart, accessory and motion control devices ill-fitting, etc. As a result, women are literally unable to have some of the same (quality) XR experiences as men. Of course, such wearability issues with XR devices are not universal for women but it is a common pain point impacting women’s use of the technology.

Physiological differences between the sexes have major implications for wearable technology, or so one would thinkWomen on average are smaller than men and while sizing is an issue with wearable tech by definition, the problem is magnified in the case of wearable XR devices that require precise calibration to deliver the experience. If the fit isn’t just right in VR, the simulation can be blurred, distorted and/or nauseating for the user, yet today’s VR headsets are made to fit the average male’s head. This is one reason women experience VR sickness more often than men. The fact that men and women see differently is another: Men have better depth perception and more M cells for tracking the movement of objects in their retinas—a plus in VR. Women can see more of the red end of the color spectrum, but they also blink twice as often as men and their retinas are rich in P cells, great for identifying objects and analyzing color but not for preventing motion sickness. In other words, we’re dealing with advanced optic technologies, yet the two major groups of potential XR users don’t even perceive distance and space in the same way.

In addition to stature and vision, other differences between men and women go right to the bone. For example:

  • Men’s upper body strength is estimated to be 30% greater than women’s.
  • Women have wider hips, broader facial bones, a smaller chin, longer neck, and shorter legs than men.
  • Broader hips mean a wider angle at the knee joint, so females’ knee joints are under more stress than males’.
  • Women’s hands are, on average, 17 mm shorter than men’s. A woman’s index finger is typically longer than her ring finger, while the opposite is true for men.
  • Women hear better but have a stronger emotional response to the anticipation of pain. (Implications for high-stakes, hazardous job training in VR)
  • Men and women use different areas of the brain for navigation: Women navigate using landmarks while men use cardinals and distance.

Can you imagine how such differences might work against women in XR or how exoskeletons and other wearables could be more beneficial to male workers simply because the fit is better? If a female worker has to stop a VR training simulation due to motion sickness, will she be able to get the training she needs? If a pair of smart glasses constantly slide down a female worker’s face, will she be less efficient than her male coworker who’s comfortably working heads-up and hands-free?

What about menstruation and pregnancy, two conditions unique to women? Research indicates that the hormonal and physical changes involved affect a woman’s balance, dexterity and coordination, making her more vulnerable to injury on the job and more prone to VR sickness. The sad reality is many women are pressured to work throughout their pregnancies and return to work soon after childbirth; yet I can’t recall a wearable tech article or actual enterprise product that singles out pregnant women, let alone female enterprise end users. (By the way, it took until iOS 9 for the Apple Watch to finally track menstruation.)

Where an employer may see reason for assigning fewer physical tasks or limiting work hours (and thus pay) for a female employee, I sense an opportunity for working women to leverage wearable technologies to reduce the risk of injury when at their most vulnerable, to alleviate physical and cognitive stress, and to work longer and safer during the course of pregnancy. The problem is I don’t think designers have potentially pregnant users in mind when creating wearable devices. We as a community talk a lot about taking a user-centric approach to hardware and its applications for enterprise, but are all workers truly reflected in the form factors and user experience of enterprise wearables today? If not, how can we expect wearables to ever go mainstream in enterprise?

Betting on a future with more female industrial workers:

Standard worker health and safety gear in general has been designed for male users, without regard for the unchangeable physical limitations of women (or anyone else for that matter). The fact that tools and work stations aren’t really designed for the female frame may be one reason women suffer a disproportionate number of ergonomic-related injuries in the workplace. As a single upper extremity claim can cost an employer upwards of $20,000, you would think more attention were paid to whether standard work processes, essential equipment, and the working environment allow women to work with the same efficiency, productivity, and safety as their male coworkers. And with companies strapped to find and train new workers, you would think employers are doing all they can to source, retain and enable people to work for them.

Women currently make up a smaller portion of the workforce in sectors set to be dramatically transformed by wearable and immersive technologies, but that doesn’t justify the continued use of the male as a default. There are many women today performing hands-on, deskless work on the assembly line, in the warehouse, etc., with more to come in the future, and they need hands-free, well-fitting, performance-enhancing tools they can wield comfortably and efficiently.

Future looking: What does XR’s potential to make job training faster and easier mean for women just entering the workforce or changing careers? If XR makes it theoretically possible to learn any skill or trade, could it solve both gender inequality in the workplace and the skilled labor shortage, expanding the talent pool in many male-dominant sectors, by lowering the barrier of entry for women in industry? One thing I know: Wearables and XR will never reach their full potential if the user experience is inferior for women than men.


Technology “for men:”

“The form factor design of so many wearable XR devices, as with so many everyday objects, has gender bias and ableism baked into design. This is the new equivalent of work gear that only comes in men’s size large. Head gear, glasses, watches, controllers – so much of this stuff is conceptualized and designed to standards that don’t meet the basic functional, ergonomic or aesthetic needs for a multiplicity of users.” – Margaret Wallace, Founder, KijiCo & Playmatics 

“[VR] controllers are too big for the hands of many of the women I demo to. Headset straps are too small to fit around large textured or styled hair, or things like turbans. Don’t get me started on [external] battery packs that expect you to have belts or pockets.” – Becca Little, software developer, State Farm

“…it took me a year to get the HoloLens to fit right for my head. The Magic Leap One has a smaller size for smaller heads and faces, so that helped tremendously, but none of the smart glasses fit my face right yet.” – Evo Heyning, CEO & Founder, Light Lodges

“For me, it’s not about looks but size. I am a petite female, so nearly all gear is heavy and adjustment elements don’t adjust small enough, from the face of a watch on your wrist to the focal adjustment of lenses inside a headset, to the Velcro and clips of a haptic vest. I know weight can’t be avoided much yet, but I’m afraid that targets are not low enough to be ergonomically friendly for those of us with smaller frames.”Jamie Woodard, Senior Solutions Engineer, Instructure

In 2010, Danish researchers found that the basic premises underlying many advanced electronic products like the mobile phone and even GPS were dominated by male thinking. Not much has changed: The women who were kind enough to share their experiences with me on Facebook and LinkedIn pointed out numerous “sexist flaws” in wearable devices. Their complaints resonated with my own: Hands too small to reach the grips on a VR controller; glossy or elastic headset straps that don’t work for certain hair types; HMDs that sit heavy on the nose bridge or cheekbones; losing the full immersive experience when looking down (being able to see beyond the visor, like breaking the fourth wall); lenses that prove their makers are unaware of the existence of mascara; face makeup smudging and dirtying HUD screens in general; un-adjustable smart bands that slip off the wrist; a lack of female avatars; having to take out braids, ponytails and topknots to put on a headset, and more. Again, this isn’t every woman’s reality with wearables; neither are men immune to discomfort while using wearables. Not all wearable devices exhibit gender bias and those that aren’t very gender neutral weren’t designed intentionally so.

I was unable to find any in-depth scientific research or ergonomic studies specific to XR and wearables for this article, probably because the tech is still emerging. Even so, it’s recognized that technology has long been designed by and for men; and there are enough women having ergonomic issues trying to use wearables and XR to, at the very least, start a conversation. As a new training medium, XR is going to be crucial for filling millions of vacant positions in the workforce. A new wave of technology is an opportunity to examine old workplace tools and processes favoring a certain type of worker and empower all types and shapes of workers. Take manufacturing, where women are one of the largest pools of untapped talent according to Deloitte. Emerging tech like automation and robotics should be used to reduce barriers of entry for women in manufacturing, as should new remote work platforms allow women to work more flexible hours from anywhere in the world. XR should serve as a means of professional training and visual guidance, preparing women for new careers in unfamiliar industries; and exoskeletons should enable them to perform on a more even playing field as their male colleagues, taking on moving, lifting and technical roles traditionally seen as “men’s work.”


All-inclusive wearables:

Women are the least likely buyers of consumer VR, which doesn’t bode well for the consumer market or for companies hoping cool new tech will attract both male and female millennials to fill out their workforces. The answer, however, isn’t to develop an attractive headset that, while less capable than the original, is small enough to fit around a woman’s head; nor is it to offer something like VR training or exoskeletons as an option for workers knowing the tech’s design puts some women at a disadvantage. As women are nearly half the labor force, organizations and enterprise wearable and immersive solution providers must consider hardware and user experience issues unique to female workers.

Field services, manufacturing, utilities, and other sectors struggling to recruit new members to the workforce should make tackling gender inequality in the workplace a priority, from the very tools used on the job to the policies that support employee wellbeing. In addition to paying attention to the needs and experiences of the existing female workforce, enterprises should consider women who haven’t yet entered the workforce, young women beginning to use AR/VR in their education, women forced to change careers due to the skills upheaval expected across business and industry, and women who might never think to take on traditionally male jobs like material handlers, machine operators, etc.

Going forward, hardware and software designers should adopt a more mindful approach to developing solutions for the modern and future workforce, considering the female experience at every stage of the design process, asking for and listening to women’s feedback, and even setting up all-female usability tests. What are the unique requirements of female workers? For example, women tend to wear makeup; how does that affect sharing devices among workers? XR brings sight, sound and touch to the workplace in a new way; do smaller hands, shorter fingers, long nails, different hairstyles, varying levels of visual acuity, even a higher voice have any effect on the mode of interacting with the device? It could be as simple as making a headset more adjustable and developing VR simulations where women can see themselves in the avatars; or it may be more complex, requiring customization of solutions for different user groups.


Conclusion:

When it comes to work, AR and VR are essentially career development tools for the next generation of workers, which is why it’s imperative that women feel comfortable using the technology. Hands-free is the future: From delivering just-in-time information and immersive training to collecting biometric and environmental data for increased situational awareness and augmenting workers’ strength; there are applications for wearable technologies that we haven’t even begun to consider. While the current focus is on the business problems of today, there’s opportunity in wearable and immersive tech to make industry not only inclusive of women but also individuals previously ineligible for some or all kinds of work like the physically and vision-disabled. But first, the hardware needs to be built so everyone can use it and the user experience designed to be equally accessible to everyone.

 

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.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, returns to Santa Clara, CA May 29-31, 2019. Join us for the biggest AWE yet and help celebrate the show’s 10th Anniversary! Apply to speak and/or exhibit at AWE 2019on the event website.

photo credit: Philicious Photos 2018-05-12 05 via photopin (license)