Google Glass may have stumbled in the consumer market, but smart glasses have found new life in industry. Workers assembling wind turbines at a GE Renewable Energy factory in Pensacola, Florida, for example, wear smart glasses powered by Upskill, a GE Ventures-backed company that produces enterprise software for wearables.
Before the team started using the devices, technicians often had to stop what they were doing, check manuals or contact an expert to make sure they were installing parts correctly. But with the smart glasses running on Upskill’s Skylight platform, workers can easily pull up digitized directions and study them in their line of sight. The technicians can also access training videos or use voice commands to contact experts for immediate assistance. They can even stream their point of view through a live video connection and show the expert what they are seeing. The expert can then walk the technician through troubleshooting.
An initial study yielded a 34 percent improvement in productivity the very first time the technician used the wearables, versus operating the standard way. “We’ve seen empirically across GE that we can make a heck of a dent in the skills gap by giving workers information on demand to do their jobs more powerfully,” said Brian Ballard, CEO and co-founder of Upskill.
Skylight is already being used by almost every GE business. The applications include complex production and assembly, repair, maintenance, and logistics management. For instance, in a GE Healthcare warehouse in Florence, South Carolina, that manufactures parts for MRI machines, workers wearing smart glasses might receive a new order for fulfillment directly from their devices. Skylight then helps guide staff to the correct storage area and bin to locate each item in the order. In this scenario, GE Healthcare saw a 46 percent improvement in order completion upon first-time use of Skylight. “Imagine how much productivity is usually lost just trying to figure out where these products are located,” Ballard says. ”When you can digitize that information so that its available and dynamic in real-time, the opportunities for efficiency are quite meaningful.”
Ballard got his start with the National Security Agency working on supercomputing and software intelligence for counterterrorism. He later served on a National Academy of Sciences committee overseeing a study on using augmented and virtual reality as a medium to interact with data. “That was the idea that stuck in my head,” he says.
In 2010, Ballard started APX Labs, which he recently renamed to Upskill. The company initially focused on smart glasses for the military but in 2014 moved to solely develop its software platform for commercial use. A year in, he says, Google Glass debuted and helped boost awareness of the technology. Wearables from companies like Vuzix and Daqri quickly followed. “Everyone’s imagination was pulled into the conversation,” he says. “The challenge for our small company was where to put the firepower. We aimed to focus on how to deliver information available today in a manner that is intuitive, easy to understand and configured in a way that isn’t disruptive to existing workflows and business processes.” In addition to GE, the company now works with several other Fortune 500 companies including Boeing, Johnson & Johnson and Lockheed Martin.
Ballard’s wearables solution aligns well with GE’s vision for the brilliant factory, where technology enhances human capabilities. “When you’ve got a brilliant factory, you’ve got smart machines and a digital twin,” Ballard says. “Without a brilliant workforce able to interface with that data, it’s not a completely efficient process. Our technology solves that problem and helps people become participants in the data exchange.”
Ballard expects his wearables to continue to evolve. “The human computer interface paradigms are going to continue to change over time,” he says. He says he can envision Upskill supporting new form factors like contact lenses, interactive conference rooms or maybe even some sort of mind interface. But he says his company will never lose its focus, which is simple: to empower humans to be more efficient at their jobs. “We’ll always need a way to work with people.”
Find out more about the impact of augmented reality on work efficiency in this Harvard Business Review story written by Upskill’s Executive Chairman Magid Abraham and GE’s Chief Economist Marco Annunziata.