All of the News Out of EWTS 2019

The 2019 Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) took place last week in Dallas. While it was the largest EWTS yet – with over 1,000 attendees and 60+ exhibitors – the show still managed to retain its characteristic intimacy. 2019 was also the most diverse year on the EWTS expo floor, which showcased a variety of hardware and software including AR/VR devices, exoskeletons, haptic gloves, and training platforms. Past and longtime EWTS attendees caught up, first timers were exposed to the top industrial AR/VR and wearable solutions, and everyone took away something to fuel the next year of innovation at work.

While this event has always been about the end user, the immersive/wearable tech market has also grown here. This year, a number of exhibitors chose to announce new partnerships and launch products at EWTS. Here are all of the announcements that came out during the show:

THIRDEYE

ThirdEye launched its X2 mixed reality glasses, a lightweight enterprise AR headset retailing at $1950. What sets the X2 apart is its light weight of only 9.8 ounces (the smallest on the market). Designed for small, mid-sized and large-scale companies, the X2 is strictly for enterprise. (For comparison, HoloLens 2 costs $3500 and the Magic Leap One $2295.) Learn more


IRISTICK

Iristick announced that its Iristick.Z1 smart safety glasses are now compatible with iOS smartphones (in addition to Android), which is great news for early enterprise adopters with a strict iOS company policy. Learn more


QUALCOMM

Qualcomm announced a new initiative designed to help XR companies accelerate the development of business solutions. The Qualcomm XR Enterprise Program – part of the company’s broader Qualcomm Advantage Network – connects XR headsets based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR Platform together with enterprise solution providers in a broad array of industries. Learn more


QUALCOMM, PICO INTERACTIVE AND ZEROLIGHT

The three companies announced and showcased a new, fully wireless PC concept called Boundless XR, a precursor to Boundless XR over 5G—an untethered walking VR experience that will enable users to configure and explore a range of Cadillac vehicles in high definition thanks to ZeroLight, without the need for external sensors.

Using a Pico protoype headset, Qualcomm replicated the high bandwidth and low latency of 5G at its booth by rendering on a PC and streaming directly via a local 60-GHz wireless connection. The 5G version will move from local hardware to 5G Mobile Edge Compute (MEC). Learn more


CIRCUIT STREAM

The company launched a new look, new site and new product at EWTS 2019. “EWTS is where the seed of the idea was planted by innovative companies saying, ‘This is the solution we need’. It’s the perfect place to share our new SaaS product with the XR industry. Learn more


JUJOTECH

Jujotech introduced and demonstrated Fusion Inspect, “the first market solution for smart headsets with rich media customizable reports and fully integrated with remote assist (Fusion Remote).” Fusion Inspect provides hands-free inspection and reporting to improve AEC and Telco productivity. Learn more


TEAMVIEWER

TeamViewer announced the integration of TeamViewer Pilot remote connectivity platform with RealWear, Vuzix and Epson smart glasses. Learn more


MAGIC LEAP

If Magic Leap had to choose one event to establish itself in enterprise, EWTS was the right choice. At the same time, Magic Leap announced Concepts, “free apps with limited functionality meant to garner feedback, experimentation and support from the broader [ML] community.” One new concept already released is the “Wall Street Journal Stock Data Concept” from The Dow Jones Innovation Lab. Learn more


BEBOP

The company announced the new BeBop Sensors Forte Data Glove Enterprise Edition, a comfortable, one-size-fits-all, wireless VR/AR haptic glove built for business. The glove provides real-time haptic feedback allowing users to “feel” textures and surfaces and move around digital objects. BeBop also won a U.S. Air Force contract. Learn more


EPSON 

Epson’s see-what-I-see remote assistance solution Moverio Assist is now commercially available at a low cost. Using the Moverio smart glasses, wearers can view high-quality instructions, photos, PDFs and videos while communicating with remote personnel in real time. Learn more

 

*Image source: J&J Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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


E: What exactly do you do at AIG?

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


E: Is ergonomics slightly newer?

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


The history of man

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


Beyond product ergonomics

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

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


The data gap at the heart of the workplace 

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

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


No PPE for you

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

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


Designing the workplace

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

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


The future of work: Uncomfortable = unproductive

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

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


Stop defaulting to men 

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

 

 

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

 

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

Alternative Enterprise Wearables: Vests, Visors and Hearables

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


Smart Suspenders and Other Accessories

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

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

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


On the High Seas 

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

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


Personal Blinkers

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

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


In and Behind the Ear

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

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

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

 

Image source: Panasonic

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

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

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

Trends and Pain Points in Travel and Hospitality   

Shift in Target Demographics

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

Competition

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

Heightened Consumer Expectations

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

Labor Gap

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

A Testing Ground for New Tech

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

Applications for Immersive and Wearable Tech in Hospitality

Virtual booking

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

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

Marketing

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

Operations

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

Entertainment & Tour Guide

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

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

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

Convenience

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

Training 

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

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

Insider Secrets to Adopting Wearables

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

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.

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

EHS 2.0 with Digital Advancement: How General Electric is Digitizing Safety

Improving worker safety is a mission that never seems to end. Hazards in the workplace are always evolving, as are the gear, tools and methods developed to mitigate risks. Our understanding of safety in the workplace is also evolving: For instance, though it’s hard to quantify, we know that safety has a great impact on productivity. Nevertheless, according to Nationwide, 51% of businesses don’t have an Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) specialist on staff while 38% don’t offer any formal safety training.

Though wearable technologies, including body-worn sensors, heads-up displays and robotic suits, are being touted as promising safety solutions for industrial workers; it was only two years ago that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the highest number of work-related deaths in nearly a decade. The rise of fatal injuries on the job, however, does not mean that wearables aren’t ready for primetime or that companies aren’t using them. It means organizations are not yet leveraging these technologies to their full capacity as part of a larger, connected and proactive system for safety in the workplace.

There are, in fact, effective wearable safety devices today. According to Sam Murley, EHS Digital Acceleration Leader at GE, General Electric is exploring and deploying them in nearly 40 pilot and deployment programs around the globe: “These are things that can save lives today, the same way insulated gloves and hard hats do…These technologies don’t live in labs; they’re ready to go. The obstacles lie in communicating the value when in place and identifying new stakeholders to help drive broader adoption.” Plenty of GE-league companies are, at the very least, piloting wearable solutions—enough so that for the first time the EWTS 2018 program will devote an entire afternoon track to safety and training case studies. The devices range from simple sensor-embedded bracelets to VR headsets and partial exoskeletons, and cases are springing up across all sectors: In addition to Sam, speakers from retail giant Walmart and multinational brewing company Molson Coors will share first-hand experiences of using wearables to increase safety in their organizations.

A number of factors could explain why wearable safety tech isn’t exactly making waves in enterprise: Lack of awareness (a lot of the focus is around AR/VR), the challenges of choosing the right use case and gaining internal support and funding, the complexity of Big Data (translating raw wearable data into actionable safety insights), and even generational differences (Millennial business owners are leading the adoption of connected technologies for safety). While there is a lot of buzz around augmented and virtual reality devices for heads-up information, training and remote support (all of which influence the user’s safety); wearables that track employees’ physical condition and blend into their work attire are less glamorous and less obvious when it comes to showing ROI. Take something like location tracking: A simple GPS-tracking band coupled with geofencing could help keep employees out of known hazard zones, but how do you quantify that in terms of cost savings? More exciting tech like exoskeletons poses the same challenge: If you have 10 less injuries than last year after giving exoskeletons to a group of welders, what is the ROI?

When asked to give advice to EHS managers just beginning to look at emerging technologies, Sam Murley said “Know what problems you’re trying to solve and leverage what has been done in the past.” Taking that advice, here are a few recent initiatives at GE that provide not only example use cases but also best practices and a look into the future of wearable and other emerging technologies in EHS: In the very near future…we’ll completely digitize the way risks are managed…Workers will have a digital toolkit of wearables at their disposal as required PPE [personal protective equipment] as well as optional tools they’ll use to augment some of their work. As long as it doesn’t over-innovate the user and has data value, EHS in organizations could potentially get to zero quo.” – Sam Murley, GE


Working with and wearing robots:

Robots are increasingly taking over dangerous and repetitive tasks in the workplace. At GE, the choice between deploying a companion robot with a human worker and augmenting the worker with an exoskeleton comes down to “how hazardous the task is and how long you need the human brain involved in the process.” In the case of the dangerous and dirty job of inspecting a dark chemical storage tank, GE has been testing a 4-foot-long, snake-like robot made by Sarcos Robotics. Equipped with magnetic tracks, ‘Guardian S’ can slither up and down the walls of the storage tank and across the debris- and grime-covered floor, using embedded sensors in its head and tail to perform the inspection and share information with workers outside the tank. There’s no need to stop the operation or have rescue services on standby.

If you’re wondering what happens to the workers relieved of this hazardous task by Guardian S; they become the operators and decision makers or are otherwise reassigned to less dangerous jobs. GE’s interest in robotics is not about replacing humans but rather augmenting them, allowing workers to complete tasks in hazardous, inaccessible, and unstable environments without putting themselves at risk. Not only does Guardian S keep human workers safe; it’s also better and faster at its job. The human-managed technology can even be customized with features like magnets, boom cameras, and ultrasonic thickness sensors to perform tasks in a variety of work environments, from power-generation facilities to oil sites and wind turbines.

Sarcos Robotics also makes a pair of track-mounted robotic arms to help users lift heavy objects and is working on a load-bearing exoskeleton to enhance human strength. GE is very interested in wearable robotics to improve and simplify EHS and increase productivity across its operations. Along with other big companies like Delta and BMW; GE has joined Sarcos’ new Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group (X-TAG), created to advance exoskeletons in industry. The technology has enormous potential: Robotic suits will match human intelligence and improvisation with machine strength and precision. Workers’ physical performance and wellbeing will improve; less manpower will be required to do the same amount of work; and workers’ compensation, healthcare and downtime costs will decrease.


A proactive stance on safety with AI & wearables:

When asked what makes a killer application of new technology at GE, Sam Murley replied, “When you have edge-to-edge systems that can protect the worker directly and push data from the worker and environment back to a system to intervene…Those are killer platforms and there are a few out there that we’re using right now.” GE began piloting such a platform in 2016—specifically, two injury prevention systems by StrongArm Technologies that combine wearables, data analytics and machine learning (AI).

GE workers at several sites worldwide wore ErgoSkeletons (like a cross between a smart harness belt and a backpack) while lifting and carrying heavy loads, performing repetitive tasks, and during highly complex procedures. These passive exoskeletons work by redistributing weight from a central point of the user’s body across stronger areas of the body or by supporting arms and legs during overhead work, thereby preventing back, shoulder, arm, and leg injuries while increasing product quality. The exoskeletons can be worn with or without StrongArm’s FUSE ergonomic sensor which tracks the user’s ergonomic movement through their data analytics software and provides live coaching via haptics for safer posture and physical technique.

In addition to getting workers to perform better and use their full body (relieving strain on the arms and lower back), the solution generates real-time data that can give insights into EHS at GE. With AI, GE managers can isolate problematic ergonomic areas and make preventative changes to the work environment as well as figure out which workers need intervention and training.


According to IBM and Cisco, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day, and most of it is never captured, analyzed or used. Wearable technology can provide gigs and gigs of safety-related data but if that data lives in a vacuum, it’s wasted: “I think the most successful technology gives you immediate feedback while measuring some activity in the human body or environment and tying it back into a decision-making platform.” – Sam Murley, GE   

GE is taking a well-rounded digital approach to EHS, using wearable and other emerging technologies to digitize safety. Beyond robotic enhancements and ergonomic sensors; heads-up displays, VR headsets, lone worker management devices, hazard-sensing bands, and even drones are presenting EHS pros with new ways to protect and empower workers, make training more effective, reduce injury and costs, and enable data-driven decision making on both a micro and macro level.

*For more expert insight on how GE is finding solutions, setting up pilots and working through deployment issues, read our full interview with EHS Digital Acceleration Leader and EWTS 2018 presenter Sam Murley here.

 

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. Apply to exhibit, submit a talk and buy Super Early Bird tickets now at www.aweeu.com.

 

*Image source: Sarcos Robotics

Where are the simple but effective wearables?

Remote collaboration via smart glasses, Virtual Reality training, design visualization with HoloLens…These are incredible applications of wearable technologies in enterprise today. While a VR headset is definitely more exciting than a connected wristband, an unassuming wrist-worn device equipped with the right sensors could have tremendous value in the workplace. But where are such simple wearables?

No stranger to employee backlash, Amazon is currently taking heat for a pair of patents awarded to the company. The patents – for wristbands that use ultrasonic pulses and haptic feedback to track and guide a worker’s hands in relation to inventory bins in a warehouse – have raised concerns over employee privacy and workplace surveillance. This is not surprising to anyone who follows the enterprise wearable tech space—privacy has been one of the major challenges holding back widespread adoption of wearables in the workplace. Nevertheless, enterprises are managing to work around the issue today by being transparent, allowing opt-in, and taking the security of workers’ personal data seriously.

To those criticizing the employee-tracking wearables as invasive, Amazon insists the technology would be used to track inventory and not individuals. But can you really track one and not the other using a wearable? Yes, the devices would help workers by freeing up their hands and making them more accurate, but they would also provide insights on personal performance as a byproduct. We know that when it comes to smartphone apps, consumers are willing to give up some measure of privacy for discounts and other benefits. The same holds in the workplace—if workers see the benefit, they’re more likely to support adoption.

Should Amazon one day employ the devices described in the patents, employees’ wearable data could be viewed anonymously—a solution some companies have explored in order to collect workforce productivity and efficiency information without invading privacy or sparking fear among workers of the wearable data being used to penalize them. Of course, this requires a degree of trust between employer and employees (which might be difficult for Amazon given the company’s history of strained relations with its workers.)

What I take away from the Amazon story is the concept of simple but effective wearables. Monocular (Assisted Reality) smart glasses are proving effective in many real-life use cases and could be viewed as relatively simple compared to AR/VR headsets, but I’m talking even simpler and more invisible. Simple smart bands, not fitness trackers but rather inconspicuous wristbands that pack a big punch (advanced sensors) and deliver significant results. These kinds of wearables – no-frills devices without screens or buttons or any method of user interaction at all – seem to be missing from the market today.

The simple but effective category of enterprise wearables includes bracelets, patches, and possibly items of ordinary clothing equipped with sensors and haptic technology and aimed at very specific outcomes for improving workers’ lives on the job. Imagine a customizable or modular smart band: You decide what needs to be tracked to achieve your objective – maybe it’s the missing human piece in a greater IoT scheme – and the appropriate sensors are embedded in the device.

There are use cases of enterprises using a variety of minimalistic wearables, mostly the products of smaller companies and startups, to target risk factors for employees in the workplace. In those cases, some biometric (ex. fatigue, body temp) or chemical in the work environment was measured via wearable. Sometimes the same wearable beeped, lit up or vibrated to warn the wearer when a threshold was crossed.

You don’t need a fancy wearable to track employees’ health on the job, just a form factor that can house the right sensor(s.) A simple body-worn device could track a worker’s location in real time or measure the user’s form and movement while performing a task. The objective might be to ensure employees stay confined to safe zones or have clearance to be in a certain area, to optimize the flow of workers throughout a job site or busy airport, to decrease repetitive motion injuries, or to locate workers in case of an emergency.

What about a smart band that acts as a key in lieu of card access to a secure area, or that turns on a piece of equipment? Similar applications are popping up in the travel and hospitality sector, and might provide a layer of security, safety and convenience in a wide range of industries. Which tasks – like clocking in and out of a shift – could be taken out of workers’ hands and made mindless with a basic wearable? And why are there few well-known wearables of this type on the market today? Perhaps we’re not yet ready for implantable chips capable of the same, but Amazon’s employee-tracking wristband is not an ominous sign for the future of work; rather, it is a model more wearable companies should be pursuing.

 

The 5th Annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2018, the leading event for enterprise wearables, will take place October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. 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. For details, early confirmed speakers and preliminary agenda, please stay tuned to the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE,) the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to Augmented and Virtual Reality, is taking place May 30-June 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. Now in its 9th year, AWE USA is the destination for CXOs, designers, developers, creative agencies, futurists, analysts, investors and top press to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times.

 

Image Credit: Amazon/USPTO