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. Hand-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)

Enterprise Wearable & Immersive Tech 2018: Magic Leap, Exosuits and VR Training, Training, Training

This year was going to be the year of augmented reality, but by the end of 2018 market analysts were pointing to 2020 or 2021 as the “golden year” of AR. While wearable technologies, including wearable XR, didn’t exactly “blow up” this year, the technology did further entrench itself in enterprise—the number of companies in the evaluation stage rose significantly, several large deployments made headlines, and solution providers continued to partner and expand their products to more platforms. Magic Leap finally dropped to mixed reviews and BrainXchange published its Definitive Guide to Adopting Wearables, AR and VR in Enterprise. Going into 2019, the industry eagerly awaits HoloLens 2 and Glass Enterprise Edition 2, as rumors swirl around the possibility of AR glasses from Apple and/or Facebook in the near future. Read on for a recap of the major developments that took place in 2018:


Enterprises that made the news for using wearables:

In 2018, major retailers got more serious about XR in hopes of competing with Amazon and improving the shopping experience. Walmart was very active, beginning with its acquisition of VR startup Spatialand in February. Just three months ago, the company revealed it’s putting 17,000 Oculus Go headsets in Walmart stores for employee training. In March, Macy’s announced it would use VR to sell furniture in 50 of its stores. The pilot, which used an iPad and HTC Vive powered by Marxent’s 3D Cloud Service, showed that VR increases average order value by 60%. And this year, Lowe’s extended its use of mixed reality to employee training and rolled out more XR experiences aimed at solving customers’ challenges.

Training, of course, was a huge application area, with banks and even restaurants employing XR to recruit and train the next generation of workers. Among those using AR/VR for training were logistics company DB Schenker, telecom giant Verizon, and hotel chain Hyatt. Honeywell also announced plans to use XR to transfer skills to millennials and revealed the new Honeywell Connected Plant solution for industrial field workers, which combines the RealWear HMT-1Z1 with Honeywell’s Movilizer platform.

In aviation and aerospace, Lockheed Martin’s space division received attention for its use of MR headsets and software by Scope AR to build spacecraft faster, as did Bell Helicopter for using HTC Vive to drastically accelerate the helicopter design process. Meanwhile, Boeing and Delta Air Lines have been testing exoskeletons to augment employee safety; and both companies joined the exoskeleton advisory group X-TAG launched by Sarcos Robotics in March.

The auto industry’s adoption of wearable and immersive technologies showed no signs of slowing down in 2018, from Porsche’s new Tech Live Look system to Ford’s Immersive Vehicle Environment Lab (FiVE). Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Audi and Mazda all drank from the XR Kool-Aid; and RealWear’s HMT-1 was the device of choice for pilot programs at Lexus and Volkswagen. In addition to using XR for vehicle design, Ford also rolled out the EksoVest to 15 of its plants to reduce injuries.


Hardware announcements:

Head-worn

After years of secrecy and hype, Magic Leap finally released its first developer kit in August for $2,295. At its first developer conference in October, the company spoke of a few upcoming enterprise-facing apps; and in November, Magic Leap announced a creator fund to encourage designers to develop apps for the Magic Leap One. The company’s direction is unclear.

As usual, Vuzix was incredibly busy in 2018, demoing the first Amazon Alexa-enabled smart glasses at CES; launching the first commercial release of Vuzix Blade; receiving its largest M300 order to date from AMA XPertEye as well as a follow-up order by SATS; partnering with Plessey Semiconductor to increase the processing power of future Vuzix smart glasses; and completing pilots with companies like H-E-B.

RealWear had a great year, which included the unveiling of the intrinsically safe HMT-1Z1 at AWE USA; the release of RealWear Foresight cloud platform at EWTS 2018; and an announcement in October that Colgate-Palmolive is rolling out the HMT-1 across 20 facilities. Epson announced Upskill’s Skylight platform for the new Moverio BT-250 ANSI Edition; and, in a move to expand its audience, launched the Moverio BT 35-E Smart Glasses, which can connect to popular output devices for new enterprise applications. Toshiba upgraded its software engine to create Vision DE Suite 2.0, and expanded the partner program for its dynaEdge AR Smart Glasses to include Atheer’s AiR platform, Ubimax’s Frontline application suite, and ACS’ Timer Pro. HoloLens got a major software update, and Microsoft introduced new enterprise mixed reality applications like Microsoft Remote Assist and Microsoft Layout.

In other hardware news, Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon Wear 3100, a new low-power chipset designed for smartwatches; as well as the Snapdragon XR1, the first chip specially made for standalone XR devices with accompanying reference design. Kopin announced the Golden-I Infinity, essentially an attachable smart screen that turns any pair of eyewear into an AR display.

In the virtual reality space, HTC targeted enterprise with the debut of the Vive Pro VR Kit intended for work applications like training and design. In November, the company launched Vive Focus, a standalone HMD for enterprise, as well as collaboration tool Sync. And in July, Oculus began shipping Oculus Go for Business, a bundle including not only the headset and accessories but also an extended commercial warranty and dedicated support, for $299 each.

Body-worn

In 2018, Gilbane, Bosch Power Tools and KPE Building all adopted Triax’s Spot-r system to detect falls, track the location of workers and equipment, and improve safety on the job. Meanwhile, Samsung’s Gear S3 smartwatch continued to make inroads into the enterprise: Samsung partnered with DataXoom to provide LTE data coverage for custom-developed smartwatch applications; worked with Viceroy Hotel Group and hotel operations platform ALICE to create a smartwatch solution for the hotel industry; and teamed up with HSBC to test the Gear S3’s impact on customer service in banking.

Exoskeletons have arrived. In addition to Ford’s rollout of the EksoVest this year, Hyundai began testing exoskeletons to aid workers with repetitive overhead tasks and two new exoskeletons came onto the market: Comau’s MATE for repetitive tasks and the LG CLOi SuitBot for heavy lifting and tool operation. We also learned that Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO and XO Max exoskeletons are coming out in a little over a year; and on the haptics side of VR, the HaptX Gloves Development Kit debuted, offering touch feedback and natural interaction in VR training and design applications.


Software developments:

In 2018, the platforms we know (and love) matured and expanded to a broader array of devices: In March, Scope AR announced ARCore support for its Remote AR application. Soon after, the company merged Remote AR with its WorkLink application, creating one new AR platform offering real-time remote assistance and smart instructions. Scope also revealed it achieved 99% faster completion rates for some of the tasks in Lockheed Martin’s manufacturing operations.

AMA and Proceedix partnered to deliver a comprehensive solution for industrial sites with multiple use cases for smart glasses. Atheer revealed the “world’s first Augmented Reality Management Platform,” a cloud-based, device-agnostic solution aimed at helping companies tackle challenges related to change, connectivity, talent and complexity. Upskill unveiled Skylight for Mobile as well as support for Microsoft HoloLens, allowing customers to leverage the Skylight AR platform across multiple devices and experiences; and RE’FLEKT built a new standard enterprise operating system atop REFLEKT ONE. With an extensive partner program, the new system enables workers to use visual (AR) guidance as an out-of-the-box integration. In June, RE’FLEKT also launched Sync, a software solution designed to further simplify the transformation of existing technical documentation and CAD data into AR applications.


Interesting research:

A number of reports and studies circulated in 2018. Notable among them were AREA’s ROI report, calculator and case study; an ABI Research report predicting that the AR hardware market will eventually diverge according to differing enterprise and consumer requirements; and research out of the University of Maryland indicating that people learn and retain information better through immersive experiences.

EPRI continued to study the potential benefits and risks of equipping utility workers with AR devices; IDC relieved worries about declining VR headset shipments, pointing out that commercial pilots are picking up; two-thirds of respondents in a Capgemini survey said they believe AR will be more applicable to their organizations than VR; and a joint report by PTC and Aberdeen showed that AR adopters have best-in-class factory operations, service and training.


Into 2019:

I think we can safely predict that VR training will be huge in 2019 and expect to see more see-what-I-see applications for smart glasses and hopefully more content-creation solutions for non-AEC organizations. In the new year, I’d personally like to see more peer-reviewed, scientific research on the health effects of wearables on different user groups, including prolonged use of XR HMDs and exoskeletons. And with the arrival of Magic Leap and a storm of rumors about upcoming consumer devices from Apple and Facebook, I think 2019 is finally the year to talk about consumer-facing AR/VR applications in enterprise.

 

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: ZDNet

The Definitive BrainXchange Guide to Adopting Wearables, AR and VR in Enterprise

Introduction

In 2015, the newly-formed BrainXchange put together the first-ever event devoted to the business and industrial use of wearable technologies. Back then, the team was taking a risk on a category of technology that seemed promising only if you read between the lines of the numerous articles talking about “Glassholes” and fitness trackers. There have now been five Enterprise Wearable Technology Summits, with a sixth scheduled for September 2019.

Over the last four years, BrainXchange and the EWTS community have grown together and witnessed the birth of a fourth industrial revolution that promises to make humans more agile, connected, and mobile than ever before. During that time, we spoke with thousands of enterprise innovators and decision makers about their wearable tech and extended reality efforts; and saw numerous use cases and next-generation platforms influenced by the early adopters who got on the EWTS stage to share their stories. What follows is knowledge resulting from BrainXchange’s experience in the space and specifically with enterprise end users themselves.


Steps and Best Practices for Successful Adoption

POC/EVALUATION STAGE:

So, you’ve discovered smart glasses and see their potential; or, you’ve been directed to look into wearable technologies to stay competitive—where do you start?

STEP ONE: IDENTIFY AN ENTRY POINT

The first step is also the most important and difficult one: Choosing a use case. Early adopters agree that the best practice is to engage with end users. Go into the field or onto the factory floor and interview frontline workers, the ones who will actually wear the technology. Ask employees outright about their pain points using the guiding questions below; and even consider setting up a kind of innovation hub where employees can try out different technologies on their own and imagine what they might do with them. Let users tell you where they find value for the technology.

Guiding Questions (ask of end users):

  • What tools and methods do you use to access task-based information, get help from others, record or verify your work, and interact with customers? Do you have any complaints about the tools you currently use on the job or the workflow for a particular task?
  • Do you find yourself at times fumbling with devices and manuals when you need both hands to work?
  • Have you come up with any makeshift solutions or hacks to speed up your own work, make your job easier, or make yourself more comfortable on the job?
  • When you encounter a problem, how do you report it? Do you have to leave your work area to tell someone? Do you find yourself communicating the issue multiple times? Do you typically wait around for someone to look at or fix the issue for you?
  • Are there times vital information is not at the ready or delivered to you in an inconvenient manner? Are there times you wish the directions for a task were right in front of you?
  • Do you have to remember a lot of information for certain tasks? How do you commit that information to memory?
  • What kind of training did you undergo for your job? How was the training carried out? Do you think it was adequate? Can you still recall your training or do you feel you learned mostly on the job through trial and error?
  • Are there times you feel your safety or performance is at risk due to cognitive stress, physical strain, or other factors in the work environment? Would on-demand information and support, glanceable safety alerts, or real-time biometric and environmental data help you feel more situationally aware?

More Guiding Questions (ask of the business):

  • Where in the business do workers still rely on paper instructions, lists, manuals, or schematics? Could you digitize this information and deliver it to users via a wearable?
  • For which tasks are hand-held devices used and does it interfere with hands-on work?
  • Which tasks require point-of-work instructions? Where is the needed information located, in what format, and how do workers access it? Is information retrieval ergonomically in line with the task? Could the information be made more readily available to the worker?
  • Do workers have to fill out forms or perform manual data entry for any tasks?
  • Which tasks require documentation or record keeping for compliance, proof of service, or quality assurance? How is it done and how much of the worker’s time does it consume? Is reporting standardized or is there room for misinterpretation? Are workers limited in any way in recording information?
  • Do employees need to put down what they’re doing or walk away from their work to record data, file a report, or get assistance? When do workers wait on SMEs to solve a problem?
  • What factors delay repair of equipment and vehicles?
  • Which jobs involve a high level of customization or variability, with different instructions for every variation? Does this slow workers down or lead to errors?
  • For which tasks do workers carry heavy loads, work in non-ergonomic positions, or perform repetitive tasks?
  • Which tasks could be performed remotely to save time and money? (Not just remote guidance but also remote inspections, design reviews, customer service, etc.)
  • Other tasks to consider:
    • Tasks with many simple steps
    • Tasks for which the company doesn’t provide much training
    • Tasks for which employees need to read instructions while working
    • Tasks where small errors can have big consequences
    • Tasks with a shortage of qualified workers

Even more:

  • Are you using the best and fastest training methods for a shrinking, multigenerational workforce? Are trainees engaged, and do they remember their training in the real work setting?
  • Do workers need to train for dangerous situations or anomalies that are hard or undesirable to simulate in real life?
  • How do you preserve the knowledge of veteran workers near retirement? What is the onboarding process for new hires? Is employee retention a problem?
  • Are you a global company? How do employees across the company work together or share complex information (telepresence, face-to-face meetings, etc.)?
  • Where are your customers and partners based and how do they interact with the business?
  • Do any aspects of the business suffer from poor planning and communication among stakeholders?
  • Is there a backlog in any area of the business?

The two most common and proven points of entry for enterprise wearables are vision picking and remote support with smart glasses. There are plenty of real-life pilots and rollouts you can use as examples. You can also look at prior years’ safety, uptime, quality, etc. data (if you have that information available) to pinpoint sources of error, injury, fatigue, paid travel, rework, machine/worker downtime, profit loss, and customer dissatisfaction.

Be realistic! You may only have one chance to prove your case, so make sure it’s based upon a real business problem and that those closest to the problem have input. The simplest use cases like ditching a hand-held scanner for a wearable one can have tremendous impact.


STEP TWO: NAVIGATE THE SOLUTION STACK

After you’ve identified a high-value use case with a low barrier of entry (not overly complex), familiarize yourself with the market. Talk to vendors; try out as many different devices as you can. You might also consult with an analyst or team up with a university or industry association. There are many product offerings out there and while each one has a role to play in someone’s business, it might not be right for your particular use case.

Some things to remember:

  • The use case determines your choice of hardware (not the other way around)
  • The device has to fit the use case, satisfy the end user’s needs, and meet industry requirements
  • Wearables aren’t right or necessary for every worker, task or area of the business

To narrow down the options, ask what device abilities or features are needed for the use case. For example, a good camera and connectivity are necessary for remote support; a lightweight device for long shifts. Get feedback from users. To demystify the technology, consider hosting events for employees to test devices. You might start out with a more familiar form factor or even a consumer wearable if you need immediate buy-in (ex. starting with mobile AR on smartphones and tablets before introducing smart glasses). You can also test multiple devices for comparison; just factor this into your pilot plan.

There is an ecosystem of mature partners and support in place; so in addition to a software partner, you may require the assistance of a systems integrator like Accenture or Deloitte or a security solution provider like airwatch or Augmate. As the wearable technology market is constantly changing, there is also a chance that the hardware you choose today will be obsolete two years from now. Ask if the hardware is scalable and make sure multiple platforms are supported on the software side.

BONUS: Which device for which application?

  • Hands-free (heads-up) information
    • From an ERP system (requires system integration) – Smart glasses
    • Safety alerts and task prompts – (monocular) Smart glasses, smartwatch
    • Documentation and recording – Smart glasses, some smartwatches, body cameras
    • Verification (typically requires object/visual recognition capability) – Smart glasses
  • Remote viewing
    • Remote support (requires front-facing camera and connectivity) – Smart glasses
    • Remote collaboration (more interactive) – Augmented Reality glasses, Mixed Reality headset, Virtual Reality headset (for virtual meeting spaces)
  • Design and asset visualization – XR (AR, VR, MR) headset (requires 3D content)
    • Visualization of machine or other complex data
    • Building/layout planning
    • Design and process reviews
    • Product development
  • Training – XR glasses/headsets
    • AR glasses for on-the-job learning through step-by-step instructions, digital content overlay, or remote teacher
    • MR headset for training on real equipment
    • VR headset for more immersive training simulations
  • Sales
    • Bringing the sales pitch to the customer – MR/VR headset
    • Visualizing product or project options – XR headset
    • Enabling remote shopping – Smart glasses (worn by sales associate)
    • Marketing (virtual or remote tours, in-store experiences) – XR headset
  • Service
    • B2B customer can instantly and remotely connect to an SME at HQ – Smart glasses (worn by customer)
    • Creating a more personalized customer experience by delivering information to the employee at the point of sale – Smart glasses, smartwatch
    • Streaming or recording first-person video on the job for customer’s remote observation – Smart glasses
  • Safety
    • Tracking employee biometrics and environmental factors – Body-worn sensors (embedded in a variety of form factors)
    • Physical behavior modification (monitors user’s form and provides alerts, haptic or otherwise) – Body-worn (ergonomic) sensors
    • Support for physically-demanding tasks – Partial or full exoskeleton 

Develop Internally or Partner?

Today, the enterprise wearable technology ecosystem has matured to the point where most hardware companies have multiple software partners and many software solutions work on a variety of devices (including smartphones and tablets). If you have a particular device in mind, check out the companies that vendor has partnered with. You can also benchmark with peers and use resources like the annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit and the EnterpriseWear Blog to educate yourself about the space before committing to a solution. It is important to find a software partner who understands your needs and will work with you to overcome challenges at every step.

If you are thinking about developing internally, do not take content for granted. Become familiar with common software engines and don’t underestimate the development or integration effort that will be required. If not working with an external partner, make sure it’s a turnkey solution with OTA updates that doesn’t require building an application from scratch, supports a broad range of hardware and use cases, and has self-service capabilities allowing you to add functionality and update content without relying on the solution provider.

Locate or Create Content

Content creation is a common bottleneck especially for XR (AR, VR, MR) applications in the enterprise. Most non-AEC organizations do not have existing computer-generated content that easily translates into wearable AR/VR applications. Lack of content can rack up costs and delay adoption, even force you back to step one, so before proceeding to the pilot phase determine your content needs.

The ideal situation is to repurpose existing digital content: Take inventory of the company’s existing digital information stores. What ERP information or external data sources could the wearable solution tap into? What 3D digital assets could you obtain from OEMs or engineers in other areas of the business? What information do workers currently rely upon to perform the task in question; do you have the capacity to digitize this information in-house? If not, who do you need to hire or partner with?

Most enterprises begin with basic textual overlays or static visualizations of 3D models in a heads-up display. More dynamic, contextual AR experiences and highly immersive VR experiences have to be built from scratch, requiring specialized expertise; while experiences anchored to specific objects or places (ex. pieces of equipment, locations in a warehouse) require special markers or more advanced object recognition technology.

The good news is that vendors are trying to make content creation easier for non-programmers. Companies are taking advantage of new drag-and-drop authoring platforms, using 3D scanning, and capturing content with 360-degree video. If you hire a developer, look for someone with a strong foundation in programming (not necessarily someone with XR experience). When selecting a partner, keep systems integration and content maintenance in mind. 


STEP THREE: GET BUY-IN

You’ve engaged with end users, chosen a use case, narrowed down a wearable device, and partnered with a software provider. To go any further, you will need the support of IT, EHS, and/or other department(s) in the organization to determine operational factors and work around barriers. Turn these business units into stakeholders with a sense of ownership in the project. If you require content owned by an OEM or someone else in the business, tell them why you need the content. A lot of pushback is rooted in fear of new technologies making our jobs obsolete. Make it personal, explaining the potential benefits of the use case to the business, to the team, and to the individual worker.

Getting employee buy-in (push vs. pull):

  • Give employees the chance to be hands-on with the technology. Be mindful that this may be many workers’ first contact with wearables/XR.
  • Explain the benefits to them: Help workers understand what the technology will do for them, how it will make their jobs easier. You may need to engage differently with the older workforce than you do with younger employees.
  • Manage perceptions: Provide a forum to hear and address employee concerns and misconceptions. Find your champions in respected workers who can help socialize the technology internally. Make champions of opponents by taking the time to find out what they really fear.
  • Consider distributing surveys for feedback, bringing in outside experts to assuage fears, making pilot participation voluntary, and anonymizing any user data collected by the technology.
  • If your use case involves collecting data on employees (or is perceived to do so), clearly explain how the information will be used, stored, protected, and managed. Also explain how the data will not be used (ex. for punitive purposes), where and for how long it will be stored, and the options for permanently deleting the data.

When you have IT and other business units on board along with pull from employees, making your case to management is easier. Of course, pilots don’t just happen; they require financing which may be out of your control. By now, securing a preliminary budget to evaluate wearable technologies (obtaining devices, attending events) shouldn’t be difficult. There are, again, plenty of use cases out there you can share with superiors to bolster your case. Wearables are no longer fringe technology; even AR/VR has come more into the mainstream, and your competitors may already be using the tech.

Making the business case is really presenting a hypothesis. Here are some tips:

  • Present the use case and how the wearable will improve the way the job is currently done. Connect the wearable solution to real business outcomes like productivity, time savings, sales conversions, etc.
  • Invite C-level representatives to try out the technology themselves, and to sit in on meetings with vendors and end users.
  • Explain how the technology could (hypothetically) pay for itself while also communicating that trials are critical to working out problems and vulnerabilities and may involve lesson-teaching failures.
  • Assuage any security and viability concerns: You’re working closely with IT and your software partner has a good track record and flexible solution. There are ways to work around potential issues. (Ex. a very common workaround is to deploy a wearables-only wireless network in order to get going without exposing the main network. If you have sensitive, proprietary data, avoid the cloud and keep the solution on-site.)
  • If you need a slam-dunk use case, consider choosing one in which the solution is self-contained. Take advantage of the basic features of smart glasses (hands-free, front-facing camera) to make small but significant improvements; go with simple software that doesn’t require much maintenance; etc. 

PILOT PHASE:

STEP ONE: PILOT SETUP: DETERMINE LIMITS and REQUIREMENTS

Determine all the operational factors that need to be accounted for in a real deployment, including:

  • Security
  • Connectivity
  • Safety
  • Usability
  • Device Management
  • Training
  • Content Creation
  • System Integration

Given these factors, what needs to be addressed, worked around, created or changed before the pilot begins? If you brought in the right people within the business in the POC phase, these factors should not pose roadblocks. You should also benchmark with others in the industry and study pilot programs for similar use cases at other organizations.


STEP TWO: SET THE PILOT PARAMETERS

  • Pilot size: How many workers will participate? How will they be selected and grouped? How many devices will be tested? How will these be acquired, paid for, and managed?
  • Pilot location: Where will the pilot take place? In just one facility or at multiple sites? Are there any aspects of the pilot environment or site that might interfere with use? Have you accounted for industry safety requirements and other regulations? Review with data privacy, security and compliance teams.
  • Pilot duration: How long will the pilot be active? (Three to six months is ideal for the actual pilot. Keep in mind that setting up the pilot and working through IT security and other issues can take many months.)
  • Pilot results: Prepare to measure results and gather feedback. What KPIs will be tracked? How will results be measured? Work with stakeholders to define pilot objectives and agree on a method of measuring success. Consider adding additional sensing technology (ex. to track heart rate, stress, satisfaction) to more accurately assess user response and engagement.

Pilot Best Practices:

Begin with a small, manageable deployment of one or two groups of volunteers—ideally workers representing a range of age groups with varying levels of experience in the industry. Prepare these pilot participants by training them on the solution beforehand and provide lineside support, whether from your software partner or a fellow worker who gets the technology. Remember that no plan survives first execution intact; expect the pilot to change course when something doesn’t work the way you planned and be ready to adapt and learn something from it. Test the technology in an iterative fashion, making observations and capturing lessons to improve over time, and get continuous feedback. Look out for weak points and vulnerabilities in the use case, hardware issues, software glitches, and other changes that will need to be worked out before the rollout phase.


STEP THREE: MEASURE ROI and DEFINE SUCCESS

Extracting numbers and percentages from these pilots is difficult, especially when there are a lot of factors to the KPI. Take efficiency: Many variables impact workplace efficiency, so how do you determine the percentage effect of introducing a wearable? How do you measure productivity or retention of knowledge over the short lifespan of a pilot program? In this early stage, there are few long-term studies of wearables in the workplace to go on. It will take further adoption and more time for that research to develop.

ROI is not the only relevant factor in determining the success of a pilot or justifying further use of wearables. Success shows up in more ways than a dollar return, such as improved employee or customer satisfaction. You should be looking for both quantifiable and qualifiable ROI. Workers’ comfort and quality of life are important KPIs that you can track in many cases more easily than increased uptime or reduced risk of injury due to wearable technology. Consider less calculable, even emotional indicators; and interview pilot participants to uncover non-numerical improvements like reduced strain and better focus. Do not disregard the impact on non-users who could experience indirect benefits down the line, as well.

You can have a strong thesis even without a lot of hard evidence. For instance, replacing a bulky handheld barcode scanner with a hands-free wearable is an obvious enhancement. If you require more exact ROI, set up a controlled experiment or situation comparing the wearable solution with the old technology among two groups of similar users performing the same task. You can also conduct time trials and review past data to compare travel costs, number of errors, etc.

 


CONCLUSION

The wearable journey is one of discovery; if you don’t move on wearable and immersive technologies today, you will lose opportunities your competitors will seize. This guide should help you get started on the right track, so you can fail faster and rebound quicker on your way to a full-blown deployment.

 

photo credit: nodstrum Man with VR headset looking away at the objects – Credit to https://www.lyncconf.com/ via photopin (license)

Challenges of Enterprise Wearables, AR and VR: A Changing Landscape, Budget, Battery, and More

In this largely Q&A-driven panel discussion from last month’s EWTS 2018, Tacit’s Todd Boyd and members of the audience question IT leaders from Worthington Industries, HB Fuller, Ford, JetBlue and The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) on the cultural and technical challenges of adopting wearable technologies. Some of the challenges addressed include keeping people engaged, dealing with opponents and a constantly changing hardware landscape, budget and financing, battery life and back-end system integration. Watch now:

 

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.

Build a Culture of Bottom-up Innovation and More Advice for Adopting AR/VR and Wearables

In this video from last month’s Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit in Austin, Upskill’s Brian Ballard leads early wearable tech adopters from Toyota, Duke Energy, Merck and Southern Company in a discussion around strategies for accelerating an organization’s wearable journey. Though the panelists represent very different operating environments; they all agree that an agnostic approach to hardware, end user input and feedback, having systems of bottom-up innovation in place, line-side support during rollout, and room to fail are key components to successful adoption. Enjoy this first-hand advice available nowhere else but EWTS:

 

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.

All the News Out of EWTS 2018

The 2018 Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit took place October 9-10 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. A number of announcements were made at the event—all great news for the future of enterprise wearable technologies. From new partnerships to global deployments, here are the developments announced at the event:

RealWear Announces That Colgate-Palmolive to Roll Out HMT-1 Hands-Free Wearable Computers to 20 Manufacturing Sites in 11 Countries

Colgate-Palmolive is rolling out RealWear’s voice-operated HMT-1 among hundreds of its mechanics and engineers across 20 of the company’s largest manufacturing facilities in 11 countries. Colgate-Palmolive employees will use the technology to receive support from remote SMEs, equipment suppliers and manufacturing teams, as well as to retrieve and capture documents and video.


Vuzix Receives M300 Follow-On Orders from SATS to Outfit Ramp Handling Operations with Smart Glasses at Changi Airport

SATS, the chief ground-handling and in-flight catering service provider at Singapore Changi Airport, began piloting the Vuzix M300 to increase accuracy and efficiency in its ramp handling operations in mid-2017. The company is now expanding its use of the technology, deploying smart glasses to over 500 employees at Changi Airport. Wearing Vuzix M300 Smart Glasses, workers will be able to receive real-time loading instructions and scan barcodes on luggage and cargo containers, hopefully reducing loading times by up to 15 minutes/flight.


Toshiba Adds Voice Commands and Enhanced Camera Capabilities to Create Vision DE Suite 2.0

Toshiba has upgraded its software engine to include voice commands, enhanced camera capabilities, and other new features. Vision DE Suite 2.0 delivers live video collaboration, photo/video capture and viewing (plus image resolution control), real-time file synchronization and alerts, a remote management console, and flexible controls to dynaEdge AR Smart Glasses users. The upgraded software is now available for purchase, while existing customers will receive a free upgrade.


RealWear Rolls Out Zero-Touch Deployment Solution with RealWear Foresight Cloud Platform

In other RealWear news, the company announced the RealWear Foresight cloud platform with zero-touch deployment, now a built-in feature of the HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1. The solution accelerates early enterprise deployments, allowing RealWear to ship devices directly from its fulfillment centers and organizations to immediately and securely deploy the technology by adding any app from the RealWear app catalog. Companies who’ve optimized their apps for the HMT-1/HMT-1Z1 include HPE, Librestream, PTC, Ubimax, and Upskill.


AMA Partners with Proceedix to provide advanced remote assistance solutions

The integration of XpertEye and Proceedix delivers the most comprehensive solution for remote assistance and work flow support on mobile and wearable devices, maximizing usage and benefits for end users. The alliance of the two solutions is designed for industrial sites with multiple use cases for smart glasses, so that a worker can use the same pair of smart glasses to view heads-up, hands-free work instructions and receive real-time support when needed. See what the CEOs of AMA and Proceedix had to say at EWTS here.


Atheer Announces the World’s First Augmented Reality Management Platform, Creating New Enterprise Software Category

Atheer revealed the “world’s first Augmented Reality Management Platform for industrial enterprises,” a new category of enterprise software aimed at helping companies tackle challenges relating to change, connectivity, talent, and operational complexities. The device-agnostic platform supports natural controls, see-what-I-see video collaboration, digital asset management, contextual awareness, predictive and performance analytics, and more. Aragon Research calls it “an important milestone” for enterprise AR. Check out the White Paper that accompanied the announcement.


Upskill launches support for Microsoft HoloLens

Upskill announced the early release of its AR/MR platform Skylight for Microsoft HoloLens. The move opens up more real estate to display information and extends Skylight into the spatial computing environment, offering a new experience for Skylight customers. Users can use hand gestures and simple gazes to navigate in virtual space and view multiple windows at the same time. Building on HoloLens’ Windows 10 capabilities, the solution securely connects to back-end systems to pull information into the mixed reality environment. Watch the video.


Three trends to watch in enterprise wearables

The Glass team shared their experiences at EWTS 2018 in a blog post, recapping the trends they’ve observed working with their partners and customers. Read it here. Jay Kothari and his team at X, the moonshot factory, say they are continuing to improve Glass based on user feedback.

3 Steps to Escaping Pilot Purgatory & Nailing Your Wearable Tech Pilot

Ever since I became involved in the wearable and immersive tech space, I’ve wondered how a digital revolution really gets underway in an organization. What goes on behind the scenes within organizations? What’s the best starting point? What are the most common mistakes made during the pilot phase? What should enterprises know before piloting or adopting wearables, and how can they avoid pilot purgatory? I spoke with Sanjay Jhawar, co-founder and president of RealWear, maker of the HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1, to get the inside scoop. Read on for best practice advice, pilot lessons, and steps to nailing a pilot:

In a May 2017 survey of companies exploring digital manufacturing strategies, 84% of respondents said they had been stuck in pilot mode for over a year, while less than 30% were beginning to scale (McKinsey & Co.) In another McKinsey report, 41% of industrial firms surveyed said they were in pilot limbo and 30% were still discussing how to start a pilot—that’s 71% stuck in pilot purgatory. Though these findings aren’t wearable tech-specific, a similar story holds across the industry spectrum—pilot purgatory remains a common dead end for companies pursuing wearable technologies like smart glasses and mixed reality headsets.

“Every sales cycle looks like this: Evaluation, pilot, deployment, scale-up. What’s exciting is that we have hundreds of evaluations and pilots, and a large handful now moving into full-scale, large deployments for their enterprises.” – Sanjay, RealWear

Though enterprise wearables are new tech, we’re beyond the first mover stage. At this point, there have been hundreds of pilots by early enterprise adopters for newcomers to learn from. Over the last several years, companies big and small in all areas of industry have tested wearables, making mistakes, establishing some best practices, and even making it to the rollout phase. Solution providers have also learned lessons. At RealWear, according to Sanjay, “the more pilots we do the faster they go.”  So, why do pilots fail? One root problem is the use case itself.

Step number one to nailing a pilot is finding a high-value, hole-in-one use case, and the best place to start is with those closest to the problem, i.e. real workers.


Step 1: Choose a viable use case

“The biggest pitfall is when there’s a customer [looking] for an AR wearable to solve a problem that may not exist. We’ve found that in the conservative world of industrial, pragmatic applications that provide value now as opposed to eye candy demos of AR are the way to go. When we get engaged with the operations, quality or training executive who owns the profit and loss for the specific problem, that’s when things go fast—solving for a specific pain point that yields measurable ROI.  We need to be talking to the executive that owns a seven-figure dollar problem that they must address in under 6 months.” – Sanjay, RealWear

Start simple by matching a known business problem or need to a wearable solution. To identify a “good” problem, you can, of course, look at past safety data, quality statistics, etc. to figure out where the business incurs the greatest risk of injury and profit loss; you should also brainstorm with actual end users by going out into the field or onto the factory floor and speaking with respected frontline workers.

Ask employees what tools and methods they use to access task-based information, get help from others, verify or record their work, and interact with customers on the job. Do they have any complaints about the tools they use? Have they come up with any makeshift solutions or hacks to speed up their work or make themselves more comfortable? When is vital information not at the ready or delivered to workers in an inconvenient, inefficient manner? Are you using the best training methods for a multigenerational, changing workforce? Try to pinpoint sources of error, fatigue and injury, paid travel and rework, downtime and customer dissatisfaction; and consider inserting a wearable. And if you have the resources, consider setting up a kind of hub for employees to try out new devices on their own.

Choosing a use case around a clear business problem will help you determine an appropriate wearable form factor and guide you to the right software partner. The enterprise wearable tech ecosystem has matured to the point where most hardware companies have multiple software partners and many software solutions are cross-device/platform. If working with a hardware provider like RealWear, consult with them to find a software match for your use case.


Step 2: Determine requirements

“[Our] type of customer, which is medium to heavy industrial, is very concerned about not violating any of their sacrosanct safety standards. We’ve also seen a heightened awareness in IT security.” “My biggest advice is to involve IT from the start, rather than hiding your project from IT in the hope that it will go faster…Try to understand and address IT’s objections as soon as possible, even if takes a few months, because when IT has weighed in as an internal stakeholder, you’ll have IT pulling for you. Remember that wearables are part of IT’s jurisdiction as it’s connected to the enterprise.” – Sanjay, RealWear

Security reviews following software selection are often the greatest hold-up in the pilot phase. It’s so important not to lose momentum, so engage with IT right away. Give them a sense of ownership, as Sanjay said, and they’ll try hard to make the solution compliant to the business’ needs. Support from IT will also be critical to scale up down the road.

In this step, work with IT as well as EHS (Environmental Health & Safety) to determine all the operational factors you would need to account for in order to deploy the technology. This includes security as well as usability, safety, connectivity, mobile device management, and training. Sanjay perfectly summarizes the process of setting up a pilot: “It’s really to say if we had to deploy this headwear, how would we do it?”

How would you integrate the tech into existing processes, systems and facilities? Determine the limits and requirements of the workplace and use case, including:

  • How many devices you will need to test and where the funds will come from
  • Who will participate and what are their needs (comfort, safety, ease of use)
  • How you will measure the results (what KPIs you will track) and for how long
  • Any aspects of the work environment itself that might interfere with use
  • The scope of current MDM platforms and policies
  • Industry safety requirements

Given these factors, what needs to be addressed, worked around or changed before the pilot begins? A common workaround, for instance, has been to deploy a wearables-only wireless network when the existing network’s security protocols are incompatible with the new tech.


Step 3: Wrap it up in 6 months or less

Time. Kills. All. Pilots. The longer it takes, the more risks there are that something will happen: The budget goes away, a new shiny object steals the focus, an organizational change or your sponsor changes roles or jobs. If it takes more than six months, it’s almost not going to succeed by definition. A successful pilot should take three months. What we recommend is to have entry and exit criteria defined and agreed in writing up-front while designing your pilot.”  – Sanjay, RealWear

Before pressing “Go,” prepare to measure results and gather feedback. Work with all stakeholders to define the pilot objectives and agree on a method for measuring success. Prepare the workers involved, as well, clearly explaining to them the potential benefits, assuaging concerns, and providing a channel for honest feedback. Hopefully you chose a use case based on a problem the entire organization wants to solve.

Common pilot killers:

  • Not knowing what problem you’re trying to solve (going tech-first)
  • Overly complex use case
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of top management and IT support
  • Employees weren’t properly trained on the devices
  • Too much time: You want a quick win to prove the business case and justify next steps

A successful pilot should expose security vulnerabilities and opportunities for improvement to work out and apply in the rollout phase. I asked Sanjay from RealWear if he could share any examples of improvements made to the HMT-1 as a result of pilot feedback:

The core hardware hasn’t really changed, but the software and accessories have evolved. On the accessories side, as one example, we started out with a head strap to attach the device to your head and clips for different types of hardhats…We eventually came up with a succession of different baseball cap mounting options but we didn’t have a way to accommodate an existing baseball cap without damaging it.”

In that case, workers wanted to be able to use the HMT-1 with their own baseball caps, so RealWear had to innovate, figuring out a way to combine form, function and user preference. The company recently came up with a special clip that achieves this. In another example, Sanjay recalled customers having trouble with Wi-Fi password entry using RealWear’s voice keyboard. While the voice tech was great for words or commands, it was less so for entering secure, enterprise-standard passwords. In response, RealWear is preparing to release a new voice keyboard with a radically improved user experience for entering complex text. The company also built more functionality into its smartphone companion app, allowing users to enter a Wi-Fi SSID and password and generate a QR code that the HMT-1 is scanning for with its camera, right out of the box on the very first power-up. “From using another device to configure, we’re moving towards a single sign-on in the Cloud which will take away the need for passwords altogether. That has been a lot of learning from end users and customers.”  – Sanjay, RealWear

 

About Sanjay Jhawar:

Sanjay Jhawar is Co-founder, President and Chief Product Officer at RealWear, makers of the world’s first head-mounted tablet computer, a wearable that completely frees the hands of industrial workers. Known as a strategist, innovator and leader for over 25 years, Sanjay has a deep product background in mobile devices, including smartphones and wearables, mobile SaaS cloud services, client apps, accessories and core network infrastructure. Prior to RealWear, Sanjay served on the senior executive teams at three tech startups:

  • VP/GM Solutions and Marketing at Sonim Technologies, maker of the world’s toughest mobile and smartphones for industrial and public safety users, a private company that quadrupled revenues to $115M in a 3-year period during Sanjay’s tenure
  • SVP Marketing and Product Management at BridgePort Networks who invented the telecom technology that lets you use voice and messages to your phone seamlessly between Wi-Fi and cellular networks
  • VP Marketing, Bus Dev and Product Management at Sendit AB in Sweden, a mobile email pioneer acquired by Microsoft in 1999 for $128M

Sanjay also product managed the world’s first Java based smart phone at Motorola and co-founded WAP Forum, the standards body for the early mobile Internet. Sanjay started his career at IBM and has also spent time in venture capital in Milan and Boston, and in consulting. He holds a Masters with Honors in Electric Engineering from Cambridge University.

 

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 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

Embracing Digital Transformation: Real-life Use Cases in Energy & Utilities

A handful of utilities are piloting and, in a few cases, even deploying wearable technologies, but the greatest share of interest is and has been around augmented reality. There is an impressive, concerted effort in the utility space by researchers and vendors to thoroughly investigate the technology to see if it’s safe and a right fit for the industry. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has taken on a great deal of forward-thinking testing of AR, recognizing that standards will have to be determined if there’s to be widespread adoption.

EPRI

EPRI has been a part of several companies’ efforts to pilot AR in electric and utility operations, including Duke Energy and Con Edison. With Duke, EPRI deployed Atheer’s AiR platform to demonstrate how hands-free AR improves productivity and safety and shortens power outage recovery time. In addition to enhancing power restoration, another possibility is using AR to bridge the techno-generational divide. In other research, EPRI is studying the health and safety impacts of AR on workers, keeping an eye out for risks like eyestrain and reduced situational awareness; and sensor-equipped non-AR wearables that can help keep workers safe.


Duke Energy 

Duke’s emerging technologies unit has been a lead experimenter with augmented reality, trying out multiple tools like Atheer’s AiR platform with EPRI for inventory management and basic equipment maintenance, since 2014. Duke also sees potential for training and remote collaboration/troubleshooting in the field. Duke and EPRI worked with Verizon to simulate a storm response, equipping line workers with RealWear’s HMT-1 which uses GIS to provide critical information for repairing damaged infrastructure (ex. where a downed utility pole should be located). The solution could also send automatic equipment/parts orders to a utility warehouse, saving a lot of time.


Con Edison

EPRI teamed up with the New York utility to test various uses for AR, including substation switching, a task that can be dangerous, disrupt electricity and rack up costs, and substation inspections. Con Ed sees further potential in AR for improving worker safety, grid operations and maintenance.

AR glasses could help Con Ed employees in the field with complex tasks like locating buried transmission infrastructure and then making the necessary repairs. They could use smart glasses to access remote expertise. AR could also prevent errors by pointing workers to the right piece of equipment, showing relevant maintenance history and equipment specifications, etc.  


GE Renewable Energy

GE Renewable Energy successfully trialed Upskill’s Skylight platform for smart glasses to the tune of a 34% improvement in productivity in initial trials. It was, in fact, the first time the workers participating in the trial had ever use smart eyewear. Testing took place at a factory in Pensacola, Florida; where wind turbine assembly workers would have to stop what they were doing to check if they were installing parts correctly, referencing a manual or calling someone to make sure. Wearing glasses that projected digital checklists, diagrams, instructions, images and videos that one would otherwise view on a 2d screen directly in the user’s line of sight; employees were able to work more efficiently. A video released by GE makes a strong case for AR. It shows a side-by-side time-lapse comparison of a technician wiring a wind turbine control box the standard way and that same worker doing the wiring 34% faster guided by AR instructions in his field of view. How quickly hands-free AR glasses could tighten the skills gap!


Siemens

Siemens partnered with DAQRI to study the benefits of augmented reality in gas burner assembly training. The trial focused on different “personas” to see how an AR gas burner training app might affect the performance of different types of workers. At the Siemens Power Service Training Center in Berlin, four workers – two novices, one expert, and one worker who had last done an assembly a year before – participated in the pilot, using the app under realistic conditions. Testing revealed benefits to all the worker personas, reducing training time for new trainees and more experienced employees alike. In addition to accelerating learning time, Siemens believes AR could help avoid errors, streamline data collection, and speed up report generatio.


Scotland’s Fife College

In June 2017, students at Fife College in Scotland, “the next generation of offshore wind turbine technicians,” began learning in the school’s new Immersive Hybrid Reality (iHR) lab. The lab provides highly realistic XR training environments and scenarios that are difficult or impossible to simulate in real life. For instance, an actual offshore wind turbine would be over 325 feet above the water. In the lab, students are able to perform detailed inspections of the top of a virtual 7-megawatt offshore wind turbine – even under changing weather conditions, with the sound of the wind around them – while still seeing their own hands and holding real tools.


Toms River Municipal Utilities Authority

This year, the New Jersey utility piloted vGIS, a geographic information system (GIS) visualization platform by Meenim for visualizing overhead and underground infrastructure with Microsoft’s HoloLens headset. The solution essentially allows the wearer to “see” utility lines in real time (for ex. when digging up a street) and it supports both voice and gesture controls so the user has free use of his hands. Take the scenario of a downed telephone pole in the street; with vGIS, all field personnel are able to see the utilities under their feet, which is critical to planning and maintaining critical infrastructure.


We Energies, Milwaukee

For an industry-backed study including Marquette University, EPRI researchers recently visited a We Energies coal plant to observe workers using both monocular (RealWear) and binocular (HoloLens) AR headsets to perform different jobs. In multiple field tests, special attention was paid to the ergonomics of using AR in an industrial environment, with cameras and sensors monitoring users’ eyes, head, neck and shoulders. The question was whether the headsets would assist or distract/inhibit utility workers, who typically work 12 hours, walk several miles and examine 300 pieces of equipment in a day. We Energies workers seemed to prefer RealWear’s device to view checklists, while the research team is looking forward to when more meters, poles, etc. are connected to the IoT and AR becomes even more useful. More devices will be tested at other sites before the final report is released in 2019.


NYPA

I’ve saved New York Power Authority, the largest state-owned public utility in the country, for last due to its impressive digital roadmap. In December 2017, a utility collaborative on the use of wearables to monitor workers’ health was announced, NYPA included. But NYPA’s interest in emerging tech goes beyond wearables: The utility is aiming to be the first full-scale, all-digital utility with a digitally-enabled workforce. To that end, NYPA is installing sensors, smart meters and other data collecting devices in its customers’ buildings and facilities, creating digital twins of its large clients’ energy systems; the data analytics from these efforts should increase productivity and create new value-added services for NYPA’s customers (like helping them optimize use).

The company has created a smart operation center for its power plants, transmission lines, and substations; here, data like temperature, power loads, vibrations, pressure, emissions, moisture and strain is fed, with the goal of becoming proactive vs. reactive. “Digitizing everything” will allow NYPA to predict problems, reduce unplanned downtime, lower maintenance costs, and minimize operational risks. And how do you bring the workforce into this digital grid? Through Augmented 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 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

Empowering the Power Sector: The Use of Wearable and Immersive Tech in Utilities

Today’s power and utility companies are navigating a period of uncertainty: Political, environmental and social pressures are making it critical for the power sector to evolve the technology and business models by which it has traditionally operated. Radical policy changes such as regulation rollbacks and tax reforms, severe weather including historic floods, hurricanes and fires, a rapidly retiring workforce and changing electricity needs are testing utilities, compelling them to embrace digitalization… with caution.

And it’s not just in the U.S.; energy markets around the world are changing. As power grids become smarter, electricity gets cleaner, and consumers have more choices; utilities are rethinking how they generate and sell electricity, how they can make their operations more intelligent and give customers more control while safeguarding reliability, affordability and safety.


State of the Power Sector: Trends and pain points

 Changing Fuel Mix

Power generation today is increasingly diverse and decentralized. The rise of cheaper renewable and distributed energy sources has led to a kind of fork in the road: How do traditional energy providers strike a balance between maintaining and repairing aging infrastructure and investing in the future? The trends towards grid parity and liberalization of the energy market are clear: 50 gigawatts of coal-fired generation capacity were retired between 2012 and 2017, and BMI expects the capacity of renewables (wind, solar, etc.) to double by 2026. Some analysts are even saying the cost of delivering power via grid could surpass that of consumers producing and storing their own energy as early as 2022.


The New Energy Customer

Becoming more responsive to customer demands (and more resilient in the face of extreme weather) requires more than just strengthening poles and wires; it means stemming the tide of outgoing knowledge and training the next generation of utility workers to do their jobs better, faster and safer. It means new services and charging models that give customers more control over their energy consumption and even manage the surplus energy generated by consumers-turned-prosumers. A digital grid powered by automation and data intelligence will help synchronize the new complex network of fuel and power providers to deliver increased flexibility, cleaner energy, faster service, and lower costs to consumers.


Making Sense of the Data

 The large amount and variety of data collected as the grid gets more connected – data from smart equipment, customers (mobile notifications and smart meter data), and even drones (visual GPS, infrared LiDar, etc.) – is a challenge in and of itself. Processed and analyzed correctly, this information could help power companies stay on top of outages and damaged assets, anticipate demand and repairs, optimize scheduling, and improve customer service. But to translate all this data into actionable insight, utilities must invest in advanced data analytics along with the tools to feed information to change agents “on the ground.”


A Dying Breed

With half of their workforce expected to retire over the next several years, it’s critical for power and utility companies to be agile and adapt. The industry, however, is dealing with both decades-old infrastructure unfamiliar to younger engineers and newer smart grid technology alien to veteran workers; not to mention low-tech work tools and inadequate training methods like paper and pencil, slide decks and videos.

In addition to capturing outgoing expertise, utility organizations need to make new employees highly proficient quickly. A Department of Energy survey last year found that there are two types of utility workers in short supply: Those with firsthand knowledge of legacy systems and those with the training or qualifications to move up and replace the former. And though 74% of employees are ready to learn new skills, the number of different devices and generations of technology in a typical substation today – many lacking maintenance and repair records or even user manuals – complicates training.


Applications of XR and Wearables in Utilities

If you’re wondering how utilities are going to maintain revenue as the demand for non-renewable electricity continues to decline; you’re not alone. In order to make necessary investments and keep rates competitive given all the new players, utilities have to look beyond power generation for opportunities to reduce costs and increase productivity. One option they’re exploring are new and continually improving wearable and immersive technologies, especially augmented reality. In fact, despite heavy regulations, energy and utilities are one of the top three verticals buying Augmented Reality glasses (ABI Research).


Efficiency & Productivity

A quick response time in a power outage depends on technicians being able to quickly and accurately assess the damage and expedite repairs; but what if field workers lack the knowledge or experience to do so? This scenario is becoming more common as experienced utility workers retire before transmitting their specialized knowledge to their replacements and as the required skills for the job change and diversify (along with fuel supplies). Smart glasses present a solution in the form of on-demand data, step-by-step instructions, and over-the-shoulder remote coaching. If AR overlays fail – information like asset type, operating stats, maintenance history, etc. overlaid on a piece of equipment – see-what-I-see assistance from an office-based, expert worker would speed the job along while leaving both hands free for actual repairs. This has the added benefit of easing the impact of changing workforce demographics and enabling utilities to do more with less, as one expert in an office can remotely mentor an entire team of younger technicians.

AI-based data solutions and even virtual reality models could help predict failures to distribution equipment and other power quality issues, and furthermore dispatch the closest technician to the job and automatically order replacement parts. And with new data sources, existing utility systems of information like asset management, distribution management and geographic information systems will improve, as will the AR overlays and virtual SMEs guiding workers in the field. All of the above speeds up power restoration, improves customer service, and reduces operating and maintenance costs.


Safety

With employees spread out at multiple field locations, keeping the utility workforce safe is a challenge. Usually, engineers’ status and location are known only if they check in regularly. But body-worn wearables equipped with sensors that monitor location and risk status to workers, including hazards in their environment and key biometrics, allow real-time incident reporting and safety warnings. Real-life examples include smart badges that detect when the wearer has fallen from a pylon, smart clothing that can monitor heart rate and heat stress while climbing a transmission pole, and smart wristbands with built-in voltage detection.


Training

Smart glasses both stream and record, meaning institutional knowledge can be reserved in the form of first-person training videos recorded by seasoned workers wearing smart glasses. Additionally, remote guidance “sessions” can be recorded, serving in the moment to help younger workers on the job and later as training material to look back at. The same can be used to design VR or MR training simulations for incoming employees, as we now have the studies to back up the effectiveness of immersive experiences over traditional learning methods.

By wearing an AR display, utility workers in any job can have immediate access to the resources and real-time intelligence they need right in their field of view. This error-proofs the work of newer employees while simultaneously training them on the job. Moreover, the flexibility afforded by XR in training will be absolutely critical as the skills and knowledge required of the next-generation utility workforce change in sync with power generation itself.


With tremendous industry-wide support, especially from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the power sector is taking a long-term yet effective approach to not only piloting the latest in immersive wearable tech but also producing the studies – hard data – to ultimately facilitate industry-wide adoption. See my next post for use cases!

 

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 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

Exoskeletons Get Real: The Ultimate Wearable Technology?

Exoskeletons are nothing new and far from science fiction; in fact, researchers began developing exoskeletons for military use as early as the 1960s. For the last decade, engineers have been exploring exoskeletons designed to augment human strength and other abilities for military, medical and industrial purposes. Over time, these devices have become less clunky and expensive (from over $100k to under $10k in many cases) as well as more specialized and powerful.

Arguably, exoskeletons, not AR/VR, are the current star of enterprise wearables. Today, real companies with the funds to do so are transforming workers’ productivity and safety by introducing even just a few exoskeletons on the job site or factory floor. Ford recently made the largest order of industrial exoskeletons to date, with ABI Research expecting the market to rise from 67.29 million to $1.76 billion by 2028—exoskeletons have arrived.


Exoskeletons find their sweet spot

Combining the power of robots with the intelligence and adaptability of humans sounds great, but the execution – designing machines that conform to how we’re shaped and the way we move – is challenging. How do you make a machine both lightweight and flexible, adaptable to a wide variety of body shapes and sizes? Nevertheless, there are now tool-holding (partial) exoskeletons, exoskeletons for back support and sitting comfortably in mid-air, and even full-body, sci-fi-looking powered exosuits.

No post about exoskeletons can fail to mention this major driver for the advancement of the technology: Workplace injuries. Exoskeleton development has evolved from military and medical applications to industry, where wearable robotics are finding their sweet spot. Legacy industries like manufacturing that are changing due to automation but still rely heavily on human input; industries like construction and shipbuilding in which productivity hasn’t risen in decades; and industries where awkward positions, repetitive motion, and overexertion are common and employers shell out billions on workers’ compensation are particularly ripe for exoskeleton technology.

Assembling, building, moving… the heavy-duty operations of industry in which workers are required to wield heavy power tools, perform overhead tasks, stand for long periods of time, etc. breed accidents, injuries and long-term musculoskeletal stress. The U.S. alone spends $21 billion on workplace injuries, the price tag of healthcare treatment and lost worker productivity. When you consider that a single rotator cuff surgery can take out a worker for up to seven months and cost employers up to $56,000, wearable robot suits don’t seem so crazy. And major industrial players and startups alike recognize the growing opportunity:


 The market

Where once there were a handful of companies working on industrial exoskeletons, the exoskeleton market today has become quite crowded. Here are some of the companies developing and selling partial or full-body, powered or unpowered exoskeletons:

Tool-holding

Lockheed Martin

The large defense firm has long been interested in human augmentation, mainly in the military arena. In 2014, Lockheed introduced its first industrial exoskeleton product FORTIS (currently $24,750). FORTIS, a passive (unpowered), lightweight exoskeleton that transfers loads from a standing or kneeling position to the ground, makes heavy tools like a giant power drill feel weightless to the operator. Lockheed also sells the FORTIS Tool Arm ($7,149), which reduces muscle fatigue to allow the use of heavy hand tools for long shifts.

Bioservo

Bioservo’s first commercial product, the SEM Glove contained sensors that detected the wearer’s actions and activated motorized support when needed to grasp objects. Based on the company’s patented SEM (Soft Extra Muscle) technology, Ironhand ($9,250) is Bioservo’s newest product and a successor to the SEM Glove. It supports grip-intensive tasks while collecting data to categorize risky use cases and can be worn under a normal working glove. Bioservo bills Ironhand as “the world’s first soft robotic muscle strengthening system.” The company has signed contracts with General Motors, Airbus, NASA, and others.


Support 

noonee

With the Chairless Chair ($4,360) by noonee, employees can create a comfortable, more productive workspace at any time. The lower-body exoskeleton is designed to prevent back pain for workers who spend a large part of the day standing by essentially allowing the wearer to lock in and sit in mid-air while doing her work. The Chairless Chair debuted on several manufacturing lines and is now in use globally by over 100 companies. 

Laevo 

The Laevo (approx. $2,000) is a passive back-support exoskeleton for workers who have to frequently bend forward and lift objects. It works by transferring force from the upper body through the straps and to the thighs, thereby reducing pressure on the user’s spine and back by up to 40%. Laevo describes wearing its exoskeleton as “just like” putting on “a coat”—it adapts to your posture so the wearer has a lot of freedom of movement.

StrongArm Technologies

StrongArm’s FLx ErgoSkeleton ($298) is a data-driven upper-body exoskeleton with sensors that monitor posture and movement, providing feedback to ensure the wearer conforms to OSHA safe lifting guidelines. The solution promotes good posture and safe lifting by encouraging the user to bend at the knees and pivot instead of twist. The V-22 ErgoSkeleton ($629) adds cords to the FLx model; these loop over the shoulders and attach to a worker’s hands to restrict arm movements in such a way as to automate proper lifting. The passive exoskeleton shifts weight from the weak areas of the body to the user’s legs and core.

SuitX

SuitX has three models of industrial exoskeletons – backX ($4,000), legX ($6,000) and shoulderX ($4,000) – individual modules that when worn together form the full-body MAX exoskeleton. With backX to help with lifting heavy loads, legX to support crouching for extended periods of time, and shoulder to alleviate overhead work; the full MAX system allows wearers to perform lower back-, leg- and shoulder-intensive tasks with less risk of injury.


Full-body

Sarcos Robotics (Raytheon)

Not yet commercially available, Guardian XO is a robust, powered exosuit that’s said to enable the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds without exertion or strain. The XO features “scaled dexterous end effectors” and force feedback, allowing highly precise tasks with heavy tools or components. Sarcos says the Guardian XO and Guardian XO Max are “coming soon,” and the company recently secured its second development contract with the U.S. Air Force. Sarcos has also formed X-TAG, an industry-focused Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group, along with executives from Bechtel, BMW, and more.

Comau

MATE (Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton) by Comau is a spring-based exoskeleton designed to ease the shoulder muscles and provide lightweight yet effective postural support during manual and repetitive tasks. Designed in partnership with ÖSSUR and IUVO, a spin-off of The BioRobotics Institute, along with input from factory workers; MATE will be available in December 2018.


New entrants

LG

Household name LG is about to unveil the CLOi SuitBot, which looks like a pair of robotic pants and supports mobility by enhancing the power of the user’s legs. The exoskeleton can work alongside LG’s other service robots as part of a more advanced smart workforce scheme, and it uses AI to learn and evolve over time by analyzing biometric and environmental data. LG hasn’t revealed a price.

Ottobock 

Ottobock is a German artificial limb manufacturer whose close competitor Össur helped Comau design MATE. Paexo is Ottobock’s new project, an upper-body exoskeleton that relieves the strain of repetitive overhead assembly work. Paexo has been tested on 30 Volkswagen plant workers and the automaker is considering using Paexo in series production.


The future of manual labor begins now: Use cases

Betting on the promise of wearable robotics to increase productivity and reduce injuries; a number of construction, manufacturing and logistics companies have begun testing and even deploying exoskeletons. Here are some of the more recent use cases:

Lowe’s

Lowe’s employees can spend up to 90% of their day lifting and moving bags of cement, buckets of paint, etc. So, last spring the home improvement retailer teamed up with Virginia Tech to develop a lift-assist exosuit that would make the workday easier. The result: A kind of harness-meets-backpack with carbon-fiber rods running down the back and thighs. The rods flex and straighten when the user bends or stands, absorbing energy that’s then delivered to the worker when needed. During a 3-month pilot, test subjects wore enjoyment-sensing headsets in addition to providing verbal feedback about the exosuits.

The promised benefits are myriad for Lowe’s: Improved customer service (store staff can fetch items for customers), reduced costs (fewer injuries, reduced insurance premiums), and even better recruitment.

Ford 

In 2017, four employees at a Ford plant in Missouri tried out the EksoVest by Ekso Bionics, an unpowered, adjustable exoskeleton vest that can help workers do things like install carbon cans on cars suspended above them at a rate of 70 cars/hour. The United Automobile Workers Union actually paid for the trial to see if exoskeletons could really reduce common injuries among autoworkers.

Ford has been interested in wearable robotics since 2011, particularly for preventing shoulder injuries, which take the longest to recover from. The ROI is there: If one $5,000 EksoVest lasts three years, the cost comes out to 12 cents/hour/employee. That’s around the same price as a pair of disposable gloves and far less than the cost of even just one shoulder injury.

Just last month following 16 months of testing, Ford went into deployment mode, ordering 75 EksoVests for employees all over the world. This is the largest order of industrial exoskeletons ever placed and the first step in Ford’s plans to launch exoskeletons in factories worldwide.  

The EksoVest provides up to 15 pounds of lift assistance and support (per arm) during the overhead tasks Ford assembly line workers perform millions of times a year. Additionally, Ford is testing a motion-tracking bodysuit and camera solution at one of its plants in Spain, with the goal of making data-driven modifications to workstations and vehicle production processes that reduce physical stress.

Boeing

For as long as Ford, Boeing has been experimenting with exoskeletons to address the problems automation can’t solve. Wiring a Boeing 777, for instance, a task so complex only a highly skilled human can perform it, is a perfect opportunity for an exoskeleton. What attracts Boeing to exoskeletons are not only rising insurance premiums but also the possibility of improving the lives of its technicians who train for years to do their jobs and whose absence or retirement would be a hit to the aerospace giant’s productivity.

Though still in the experimental phase, Boeing has been running pilots to match the right exoskeleton to the right type of work and studying years of safety data to see where injuries are most likely to occur. Boeing mechanics in South Carolina have actually gone through training on the EksoVest, as Boeing hopes to roll out the tech to more workers in 2019. Apparently, Boeing employees love the exoskeletons.


Challenges still ahead

For every new type of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) there is process of adoption, and it’s no different with exoskeletons. The wearable robotics space is evolving fast; prices will continue to fall and the exoskeletons themselves will become lighter and more powerful over the next three to five years, but it takes a lot of testing! A good sign is the interest of the ATSM International, a body that sets manufacturing standards and has created a special committee of 90 organizations focused on exoskeletons and exosuits. Just as walking in areas of a job site without the proper PPE is forbidden, one day workers on construction sites and in warehouses and manufacturing plants will be forbidden to operate tools without the appropriate exoskeleton.

 

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 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

 

Image source: Digital Trends