Heads up! Wearable Heads-Up Displays are Coming to a Warehouse Near You

Ready to ditch handheld mobile devices in favor of this hands-free solution? Not so fast, says this technology expert.

An animated type image with a person wearing a heads up display
by Your Edge Blog Team
October 01, 2019

Wearable technologies are all the rage in the warehouse these days, with workers being accessorized with everything from smart glasses to smart watches and even wrist-strapped barcode scanners that promise to increase intelligence and productivity. But, one wearable that warrants a closer look in the coming months is the “heads-up display” or HUD.

Heads-up displays were first used by military fighter jet pilots who needed to be able to see data related to their aircrafts with the head positioned "up" and looking forward, instead of angled down looking at lower instruments. But the military isn’t the only one taking advantage of HUD technologies today.

Auto manufacturers are now integrating windshield-projected heads-up displays as both standard and optional features in certain models to help keep drivers’ eyes on the road in the digital age, and HUDs are being sold by third parties as standalone devices, much like GPS devices were in their early days.

However, the mounted heads-up displays described in these two scenarios are a bit different than the type of HUD technology that other manufacturers and their supply chain partners are setting their sights on right now.

So, we’ve asked our in-house expert Todd Boone to paint a picture of how heads-up display technologies could be used in your factory, warehouse or distribution center and what they will likely look like.

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Your Edge Blog Team: With the proliferation of mobile devices these days, why would warehouse or factory workers need a heads-up display? Can’t they access all the data need on their mobile computer, scanner or tablet, depending on their job?

Todd: The key to improving efficiency in any organization is to get the right information to the right workers at the right time so they can take swift and accurate actions. That may be assembling a car, fulfilling an online order or simply getting the right package to the right customer’s doorstep on schedule. And, for the last 50 years, handheld computers, tablets and scanners have quickly and reliably relayed that mission-critical information in real time to workers in manufacturing, warehousing, transportation and logistics environments, as well as many other sectors.

In fact, handheld mobile devices have been credited time and again over the last five decades with helping supply chain organizations capture their edge. Mobile devices are one of the primary data capture sources at the edge. Smartphones, tablets and even scanners feed front-line intelligence into the artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and Internet of Things (IoT) systems that are designed to analyze that data and distribute meaningful, actionable insights back to workers at the edge – via mobile devices, of course.

However, if you noticed, I used the word “handheld” several times just now. Yet, in warehousing and manufacturing environments, there are many situations in which workers could be even more productive and efficient if they had their hands free – assuming they had a way to access and apply the same information delivered by handheld mobile computers. That’s why heads-up display technology is quickly becoming so appealing.

Your Edge Blog Team: But, aren’t most of these workers on foot all day whether along the production line, on the loading dock or walking the aisles picking and putting away items? Wouldn’t a heads-up display, even though technically a hands-free solution, require them to stay glued to a cart or station or vehicle? Couldn’t a smartphone strapped to their wrist be just as effective?

Todd: Addressing that last part first: yes, a wrist-attached mobile device is technically a hands-free solution. In fact, we have customers who equip their warehouse workers with wristbands that can hold Zebra wearable computers so they can have the device handy if they need it, but can have both hands free to lift boxes, pack items, etc.

A male warehouse worker looks at a wearable on his wrist.

However, this still requires workers to look down at their wrists when they need to retrieve information about their next pick. That means they must stop what they’re doing to look down. The heads-up display allows that information to be literally right in front of them at all times. They never have to stop moving and they can keep their eyes up and ahead at all times.

Now, going back to the first part of your question: you’re right in that the heads-up display that most people are familiar with would only make sense in a lift truck or other piece of heavy machinery with a windshield. That’s why, in order to maintain workers’ mobility on foot and free up their hands, warehouse operators and manufacturers really need to be looking into wearable see-through heads-up displays.

Your Edge Blog Team: Something similar to smart glasses?

Todd: Yes, exactly. Remember, the goal is to get the right information in front of the workers at the right time. A glasses-like heads-up display can keep data in workers’ line of vision no matter the head position. If they bend over to look at boxes on a pallet or tilt their heads up to find an item on a high shelf, the information they need will remain right there in front of them on the display glass.

Although, it’s important to note that the design of the enterprise-grade version may be slightly different from what you might buy for personal use. Engineers designing heads-up displays for use in the warehouse, factory or field have to account for all-day wear in harsh environments while maintaining worker safety. That means that they will likely be made of more durable materials that can withstand drops, water and dust exposure and other environmental elements, similar to what you might see in a rugged tablet or mobile computer. They will also need to be designed for shared use environments in an efficient, cost effective way that preserves hygiene – always a concern when face-adjacent accessories such as this are shared.

Your Edge Blog Team: What about workers who wear prescription glasses? Will a wearable head display like this be a viable option for them?

Todd: Great question! From the discussions I’ve had with customers and others in the industry, any wearable heads-up display is going to have to make a lot of worker accommodations. They’re going to have to be able to be worn with prescription glasses. They’re going to have to take into account a wide range of inter-pupillary distances and consider the fact that not all workers have the same dominant eye. Just like some people may prefer to have the lens in front of their right or left eye.  And, going back to what I said earlier about safety, workers will need to have the option to move the lens out of their line of site without removing the display unit from their heads. If workers have to take the glasses off for any reason, you risk them getting lost or damaged. Plus, that’s just one more thing they have to worry about, and that can be disruptive. It’s for those same reasons that enterprise heads-up display manufacturers will need to focus on ways to minimize eye fatigue. They need to make these heads-up displays as comfortable as possible since the idea is to wear them all shift long.

Your Edge Blog Team: Speaking of comfort, what about weight? Are they heavier than a traditional pair of sunglasses or prescription glasses?

Todd: I can’t speak for all displays, but the ones I’ve seen for enterprise use – those intended for all-day wear – are light as a feather.

Your Edge Blog Team: How is that possible? Especially since they’re likely to have a more rugged design.

Todd: Well, interestingly enough, some enterprise-grade heads-up displays may not have a built-in battery, CPU or wireless radio.

Your Edge Blog Team: Why is that?

Todd:  Studies have shown that comfort plays a big role in worker productivity, especially in the warehouse. So, technology manufacturers know that they have to do everything in their power to make these wearable heads-up displays comfortable, otherwise workers won’t use them and customers won’t be happy. By removing the components I just mentioned and instead hooking the heads-up display into a host mobile computer to pull power, facilitate the wireless connection or run the computer, you significantly reduce the weight of the wearable. Plus, there are health risks to consider when you’re putting a battery in close proximity to someone’s face, such as emissions and heat. Eliminating the battery in the display eliminates those risks.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, reading between the lines, it doesn’t sound like workers can ditch their handheld mobile devices quite yet, even if they are primarily using this hands-free display to receive task-related information.

Todd: That’s right. These smart glasses aren’t going to replace a traditional mobile device right away – if ever. I referred to them as an accessory a minute ago because that’s really what they are. Wearable displays allow workers to put their mobile devices or scanner on their hip or in a pocket so that their hands can remain free and their eyes can stay up and forward as they move about their day. The data they need, whether it’s related to inventory location or verification they’re picking the right item, will show up on the display; they won’t have to pull out their handheld mobile devices for that real-time guidance.

Your Edge Blog Team: Since these wearable heads-up displays are more like an accessory, does that mean they are easier for organizations to implement right now? It doesn’t sound like there would be a need to rip and replace technology. Perhaps just plug and play?

Todd: You’re absolutely right. The beauty of some wearable heads-up displays we’re starting to see come onto the market, at least in my opinion, is that they deliver immediate benefits via directed action applications. Workers don’t have to waste time trying to figure out the “best next move.” The information delivered via the heads-up display tells them exactly where to go and what to do once there. Removing the guesswork out of tasks such as picking or put away in the warehouse or equipment installation, diagnostics and repair in the factory or field will help HUD users work faster, smarter and more effectively from the moment they put on that device. There’s not really a learning curve with this technology, either, so the payoff occurs almost instantly once you put on and plug in the HUD.

As a bonus, organizations can very quickly scale a wearable heads-up display solution such as this without boiling the ocean. Because the glasses tap into the radios in the host mobile computer to connect to Wi-Fi and cellular networks, there are no additional configurations or certifications on your network. And, since they also tap into the host mobile computers that workers have on their waists or in their pockets for battery and processing power, you don’t need to invest in backup batteries or chargers or worry about configuring, managing or securing another computing device.

Your Edge Blog Team: Do you envision warehouse workers being the first to adopt head displays or smart glasses?

Todd: I think they will be among the first given the number of instructions they need during picking, packing and put away workflows and the efficiency they gain by having those instructions right in front of their eyes. However, they are far from the only workers who will benefit from wearable head displays. For example, production line workers or field service workers who need step-by-step assembly instructions could complete tasks a lot faster and with greater accuracy if they don’t have to constantly stop, look down, find their place on the instructions, etc. This is the same with install or repair technicians in nearly every sector.

Honestly, I could even see retailers securing a significant return on investment with this technology for workers tasked with in-store picking fulfillment for same day, curbside or delivery orders. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost crashed with one of these workers at the grocery store because they were pushing their oversized carts filled to the brim with groceries while looking down at their mobile device trying to figure out where to navigate to pick the next item. If they were wearing a heads-up display, they would be able to see me and the other shoppers and more easily avoid a collision with our carts (or feet).

Your Edge Blog Team: Well, we have to say that this is “headgear” that we would be happy to wear! It sounds like it’s going to be a game-changing technology for a lot of workers.

Todd: Yes, indeed. Improving worker productivity is a priority for probably every person reading this right now. And I truly believe wearable heads-up displays are going to become one of the easiest and most effective ways to accomplish that goal. Possibly even one of the most cost-efficient ways too.

Your Edge Blog Team: But, as with any new technology solution, you know some will still be hesitant to invest right away. They want to make sure it’s going to work the way experts like you say it will. They’ll let their competitors lead the way and then pay close attention to the payoff they receive. What would you say to those who may want to “wait and see” if wearable head displays are worth the investment?

Todd: Organizations that have started to test this technology tend to see substantial efficiency gains when the application is tailored to their specific use case. A key gap in the market, though, has been the availability of enterprise-grade solutions that enable them to deploy this technology in volume. In the coming months, I think you’ll see that changing and more enterprises adopting based on the ROI that they are seeing.

The best advice I can give is to start small and test it within your specific workflows and use cases where you see it adding value. Once you test it out and get a better feel for its potential benefit, you could start building into a deployment. Approach it from the standpoint that it does not need to be an overnight switch, but rather can be incrementally added to your operations in a less disruptive way. That way, you can establish the benefits but minimize the perceived risk of a new technology solution.     

Do you agree?

Let us know what you think about this new wearable see-through heads-up display. Would it make your job easier? Would you give it to your workers? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below!

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Editor’s Note: Curious about which other tech trends warrant your attention (and possibly an investment)? Need help understanding some of the buzzy tech terminology being thrown around? Our “Ask the Expert” series will give you the scoop. Catch up on recent conversations below:

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