In 2013, Google made an international splash with the launch of its new Glass wearable computer. The concept was simple and highly advanced for the time: The tech giant had fitted a microcomputer into a pair of eyeglasses. These glasses served many of the same functions we’ve come to rely on our smartphones for. You could take phone calls, for example. But thanks to the glasses’ special lens, which doubled as transparent micro-computer screens, you could also surf the web, access apps or social media, or take and send pictures and video. And, because continued line-of-sight and safety were critical for the Google Glass wearer, many of these actions were displayed using “augmented reality” – a view in which the computer overlays information, graphics and schematics against a person’s normal line of sight.
The process works a lot like heads-up displays, which have been used in military aircraft for years, and started appearing as luxury options on automobiles in the 1990s. Vital information is superimposed over the wearer’s normal field of vision. In theory, this allows the user to continue walking, running, or doing other activities, without having to stop and look at a smartphone.
Almost immediately, other tech companies, including Apple, Android, and Sony, launched their own wearable computing systems. But the overall take rate for these products was relatively small. Consumers instead opted for wristwatch-style wearable computers from Apple, Google, Samsung and Android.
But there were several professions where the Google Glass concept was a hit. Doctors, for example, liked being able to readily access information on critical medical procedures, including real-time instructions from other experts while performing surgeries. Workers in high-tech warehouses use them to help pick product.
And around the same time, truck OEMs and suppliers began to see the mating of wearable computers and virtual- and augmented-reality technologies as a new way to train technicians and boost maintenance efficiencies for fleet maintenance professionals.
New ways to look at the world
Augmented and virtual reality are coming to the forefront now at a crucial time for the truck maintenance field and other heavy industries, explains Matt Johnston, division head, commercial solutions, for Design Interactive, a developer and manufacturer of maintenance-focused Augmentor AR and VR software programs.
At a time when technicians are in short supply, and vehicle systems are becoming more complex at a constantly accelerating pace, many of the most seasoned and knowledgeable professionals in the maintenance world are preparing to retire.
“Baby boomers are starting to retire and leaving their professions at a high rate,” Johnston says. “This is having a real impact on our economy and many different industries, because most companies are not prepared at all for these departures. Because in their wake, these retiring baby boomers often leave a void of skills and knowledge that companies are struggling to replace. There are just not enough young technicians coming into the trucking industry to make up for this talent deficit. And the ones that are coming into trucking often lack the necessary training on modern vehicle systems.”
This, Johnston says, is where AR and VR technologies are stepping up to make a difference.
“AR allows a user to look at the work around them, and then overlay digital information over that real-world setting,” he explains. “If you’re a technician working on a Cummins X15 engine or a Bridgestone tire, and you’re having a problem you can’t resolve, you can reach out to experts – either in your own company, or perhaps from the OEM itself – and get real procedural information and instructions to appear in your field of view, while you are working on the issue, to help guide your through that process.”
VR is a bit different, Johnston notes. With this technology, an OEM – Cummins, again, as an example – can create a completely new world within a headset, to give a technician an up-close and personal view of design changes inside or a new engine, to educate them on the differences with older models, and to help them understand the maintenance requirements the new engine will have going forward.
“The difference between the two technologies is that with VR, you are completely immersed within that virtual world,” Johnston says. “With AR, you can still see, interact and act in the real world – only using information that is available to you, on a miniature screen, that is presented right in front of you.”
Wearables change the game
Anyone who’s driven a nice car or played a video game in the past 20 years understands that none of this technology is new. But what is different now is that many different technology, software and maintenance guidance providers are now beginning to join forces to bring age-old technical information to technicians in a brand-new way.
Sanjay Jhawar is co-founder and president of RealWear, a developer and manufacturer of industrial head-mounted wearables, and serves on its board of directors. He says his inspiration for wearable computers goes back to the bounty hunter Boba Fett in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
“Just like Boba Fett’s helmet-mounted targeting eyepiece, RealWear computing products can be worn on a technician’s head, on glasses, a hardhat, a ball cap or a headband,” Jhawar says. “Our display screen is hinge-mounted and can be positioned up and away, or anywhere in a user’s line of sight – about an inch away from their dominant eye.”
Despite the screen’s close proximity to the user’s eye, Jhawar says that when focused on, the RealWear screen appears as a 7-inch tablet screen would to the technician. “Our key breakthrough is the user interface,” Jhawar says. “This is a complete hands-free system that uses various voice commands to access information and present it to the user. There is no touch screen present.”
The advantage with this system, Jhawar says, is that technicians can do whatever they need to do, while still retrieving vital technical information, and having it available for instant use with just the flick of an eye. “They can climb up on trucks, shine a light on an engine, or turn a wrench, all while watching videos or being coached in real time by a mentor who is watching what they’re doing via a camera mounted on the RealWear system. You can literally be coached through a challenging technical problem by an expert who may well be sitting in an office hundreds of miles away from the truck you’re working on.”
Johnston stresses that these systems have all the capabilities of a modern smartphone, tablet or even a laptop computer. “Using these technologies, technicians can access anything they need to complete a job – from web searches, photos, 3D models overlaid on the engine being worked on, as well as notes from other technicians, videos or even PDF technical manuals.”
Even more alluring, from a fleet management perspective, Johnston says these systems will soon be fully integrated with vehicle and OEM telematics systems. “Very soon, a technician will be able to see the entire maintenance history of a vehicle, order parts and note delivery times, look at video of past issues from the same vehicle, and access repair information as needed – all without having to walk over to a shop computer, visit a parts department, get on a telephone, or pull a maintenance guide off of a shelf.”
Both Jhawar and Johnston say that currently, the price point on these new wearable AR and VR computers is limiting overall penetration into truck maintenance. But given interest in the products, and the economies of scale that will come into play as sales volumes rise, prices will likely begin dropping soon.
“At the moment, our products cost a little more than a ruggedized tablet does,” Jhawar says. “But not by much. And I think soon we’ll be at a price point where fleets will be able to justify equipping more of their technicians with this technology.”