Through the looking glass

Augmented reality – including technology like Google glass – could revolutionize workplace
By Melissa Campeau
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/07/2014

A pediatric nurse in training prepares to give a needle to her first live patient. She’s nervous but knows her instructor can see exactly what she sees and will guide her through the process, step by step. That’s because the nurse is wearing Google Glass, which features a built-in camera to send point-of-view video to the instructor, and a screen overlay on her right lens that allows the teacher to guide her to the precise injection spot.

While this scene may not be playing out in medical schools just yet, it’s not too far away, thanks to augmented reality (AR) technology paired with devices such as Google Glass.

Augmented reality is a live view of your environment supplemented by computer-generated images, sounds, video or GPS data.

A typical smartphone, for example, can be turned into an augmented reality device by simply uploading an app.

“If you’re travelling for business and you’re looking at a menu in another language, you can hover the camera over the menu and in real time it will transcribe the menu into your native language,” says Marc Saltzman, a Canadian author and technology expert based in Toronto. “You’ll see the English words superimposed on the screen.”

Taken to the next level, augmented reality becomes a wearable technology, where an AR device is wirelessly tethered to a smartphone or other computer.

But augmented reality does have its limitations, says Saltzman.

“Unless you’re in a Wi-Fi hotspot, you won’t have any Internet access if there’s not a smartphone nearby,” he says.

Despite the limitations, new devices are entering the marketplace at a rapid pace.

Smart Glasses by Samsung, for example, allow your fingers and hands to become a virtual keyboard. And Epson recently announced a necklace projector, designed to turn your hands into a screen for emails and texts when held in front of the projector.

The device with the most buzz, though, is Google Glass. Resembling a futuristic set of glasses, the device is touch- or voice-controlled and allows people to see information displayed via one lens, overlaid on the field of vision. It also lets the user hear information through a bone conduction speaker, sending sound to the inner ear through the skull.

Essentially, Glass can pick up what you’re seeing and hearing and send you visual and auditory information too.

There’s an app for that

Practically speaking, this technology could be a very big deal. Stanford University recently live-streamed a demonstration of Google Glass used in surgery. Doctors wore the device while performing an incision to remove a mass, directing their gaze at a particular area of skin on a patient. A display on their lens (in their field of vision, thereby eliminating the need to look away) illustrated the procedure, step by step.

There are everyday medical applications as well.

“There’s a CPR app for Google Glass,” says Saltzman. “When you’re looking at a person, it will tell you, by digitally imposing
images onto the real person, where to put your hands so you’re doing compressions properly.”

And other fields also stand to benefit.

“Think of all the instances where manual dexterity and precision really matter,” says Katherine Jones, vice-president of HCM technology research at Bersin by Deloitte in Oakland, Calif.

“You’ve got thousands of uses in business, from manufacturing to production lines.”

In forestry, people could use Google Glass to show which trees are digitally tagged for cutting and at what angle you should be cutting, without even having to hold anything, says Saltzman.

Oil, gas and mining industries can also envision practical applications for the technology.

“Augmented reality could help with telemetric data used by people driving big machinery and vehicles,” says Van Zorbas, managing partner at Deloitte in Calgary.

Whether the information is displayed on a lens or another kind of AR screen, access to critical information such as oil pressure, temperature and other details could prevent machinery breakdowns, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost productivity.

“That’s something that oil and gas and traditional mining industries are looking at right now, and that’s one of the things that’s closest to being a reality too,” says Zorbas.

One more potential upside to the technology is greater accessibility for formerly marginalized employees.

“Where it’s going to make a difference is in our ability to train and to employ handicapped people who may have been precluded from certain types of work because they didn’t have the manual dexterity to do it or there was some kind of impediment,” says Jones.

Not all rose-coloured

However, there is a downside to just about every new and promising technology.

“Anytime you have a new technology of any sort, somebody’s going to say, ‘I’m never doing that, that’s wrong, that’s invasive,’” says Jones. But, eventually, the dust settles and new technologies become commonplace.

“Remember just a few years ago when cellphones first took pictures? You would have thought the world was coming to a crashing halt,” she says. “Everyone was so worried about the violations that were going to take place.”

Privacy and security issues are top-of-mind for many organizations considering Google Glass and other wearable AR.

“Already some Atlantic City casinos have banned Google Glass… because you could be sitting at a poker table and using software that’s digitally counting your cards for you,” says Saltzman.

Some bars have banned Google Glass from their premises, too, to protect patrons from being filmed without their knowledge.

Uphill battle?

For some organizations, believing in the technology and its ability to enhance operations will be an uphill climb.

“Traditionally, oil, gas and mining haven’t been early adopters because of the nature of their industries,” says Zorbas. “So layering in a new technology to be more productive is a mindset shift.”

One of the biggest challenges for those organizations will be believing these technologies really can propel productivity, he says — and first-hand experience may be what finally seals the deal.

“They’ll have to see it, feel it, touch it to understand how it works and how it will change the game.”

To encourage people to use the technology — and use it effectively — might require some training and a little persuasion.

“If you’re asking someone who’s done a technical job for many, many years for the oil industry to suddenly adopt a new technology, how can you manage that change?” says Zorbas.

“People in these roles often have a long tenure doing this kind of work. It’s a particular challenge when it comes to change management.”

Before diving in, HR would also need to establish policies for using the technology and iron out any potential legal concerns.

“It’s important for an organization to consider all the legal risks in order to make sure they feel comfortable from a compliance perspective if things go wrong… and to understand who’s at fault and who’s not,” he says.

Sticker shock

It’s still anyone’s guess how quickly technologies such as Google Glass will become part of everyday business. Despite the hype, many experts predict a fairly slow adoption.

“I don’t think it will take off as quickly as some predict,” says Saltzman. “The price point is still unknown. They’re hoping for under $1,000 (per unit) but they don’t know for sure.”

They also have to work out some issues with the battery life, he says, and the functionality is still limited because you have to have your smartphone with you.

“There are a lot of applications for the technology in the long run,” says Saltzman. “But, in the short term, it will be reserved solely for early adopters with deep pockets.”

Melissa Campeau is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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