One year ago, we introduced the Zebra HD4000 head-mounted display to the world with our development partner Six15.
If you recall, our goal at the time was to make augmented reality (AR) accessible to all workers, especially those who spend all day searching for the right shelf location during inventory picking, put away, and cycle count workflows. That’s why we also rolled out the Zebra FulfillmentEdge™ solution that same day. This complementary software platform gives HD4000 users the real-time operational insights they need to successfully execute every assigned action. They know where to go and when and what to do or grab when they get there – and all of this information remains in their line of sight at all times, so they maintain better situational awareness as they’re moving about the facility.
Of course, when we set this goal, we were operating under the premise that workers needed a full AR experience to achieve their objectives. We also thought e-commerce would remain on a stable growth trajectory, businesses of all sizes would continue on their slow-and-steady journeys to becoming more “intelligent enterprises,” and “peak season demand” would in fact remain seasonal. We also assumed that customers would have time to test the HD4000 and FulfillmentEdge solution in their environments before implementing.
With the business applicability of head-mounted displays still somewhat new, we accepted that there would be some barriers to adoption that we’d have to work with customers to overcome – the largest of which is trust in and comfort with the solution. We all wanted to make sure that workers felt good wearing the glasses all day long and knew how to use the data being fed through the lens. Our innovation roadmap accounted for the continuous improvements we would need to make based on customer feedback.
At the same time, we recognized the need to clearly define what AR means in enterprise environments. “Augmented reality” is a loosely-used term, and we were beginning to realize that workers benefit most from "assisted reality” tools that provide contextual information about the best next task – not necessarily the full-blown overlaid AR experience like you see when playing Pokémon Go.
Then COVID-19 blindsided everyone.
Eight weeks after the launch, nearly every projection we had made regarding market demand, time to value and adoption rate was rendered inaccurate. Customer and partner interest skyrocketed, especially as the pandemic progressed. But we weren’t that surprised.
The HD4000 hardware and FulfillmentEdge software were primed for use in high-tempo, safety-first operations such as the ones warranted – and sustained – by the COVID-19 pandemic. This wearable solution can:
- Help create a more hygienic environment for warehouse staff and others working furiously to fulfill online orders and keep store shelves stocked. As my colleagues Dan Baldwin and Jeff Schmitz have noted previously, rugged wearables built for shared use are designed to tolerate frequent sanitization. Many wearable solution accessories – such as the commercial safety glasses used in our head-mounted display – can even be assigned to workers as “personal” items to minimize cross-contamination.
- Immediately deliver measurable benefits in terms of productivity, efficiency and accuracy. Saying that COVID-19 forced supply chain organizations to boost efficiency overnight would be an understatement. Manufacturers were under extreme pressure to produce more items in record time – and warehouse operators and logistics providers had to figure out a way to deliver those items to residential and commercial customers without delay. In many cases, they were being asked to do the impossible based on current resource availability. They had to find a way to augment labor if they were going to meet fulfillment deadlines without making any mistakes or compromising anyone’s safety in the process. The head-mounted display was a simple solution. As evidenced in early pilots and further proven in large-scale deployments, head-mounted displays – especially when used in conjunction with software such as FulfillmentEdge – can significantly increase the number of accurate picks completed per hour.
This wearable technology can also reduce the spin-up time for new employees, reduce error and rework rates, and decrease the time to satisfactory task completion. With hundreds of thousands, if not millions of workers, migrating to jobs in these sectors in a matter of weeks, there were several training, onboarding and measurement implications – many of which could be addressed by simply integrating head-mounted displays into existing mobility solution architectures. The subsequent boost in productivity metrics would also prove key to competitiveness and delivery to service-level agreements (SLA).
In other words, the benefits that our customers would gain by investing in head-mounted displays were somewhat predictable, even in uncertain times.
What we couldn’t foresee, even as social distancing became the standard, was that the HD4000 head-mounted display would suddenly be in such demand by workers assigned outside the four walls – or in facilities located far from “corporate” resources. Our innovation priority immediately came into focus.
The Biggest Customer Ask of 2020: Augment AR with Virtual (Assisted) Reality for a Better “Human” Connection Between Home Office and Front-Line Workers
When travel stopped in March 2020, many organizations realized quite quickly how challenging it is to fully train and support workers responsible for service, maintenance and manufacturing assembly operations without an expert on site. Onboarding new employees or showing someone how to complete a skilled manual task became frustrating and, in some cases, downright impossible because supervisors and specialists weren’t able to see what the front-line workers were seeing. So, customers started calling us to see if our mobility solutions could be used to virtually transport trainers, supervisors and specialists to job sites so that they could help guide remote teams through assembly, installation, troubleshooting, maintenance and repair actions.
While an on-site technician could technically use any rugged mobile computer or tablet with a built-in camera to show a support specialist what he or she is seeing, technicians need their hands free to complete the recommended action. That means the device has to be put down and the expert loses sight of what’s happening. They can’t tell if the technician is completing the action correctly or see if a new issue arises as a result. The only way that our customers would be able to provide full “hands-on” support to remote teams would be to equip everyone with a hands-free assisted reality solution. So, we immediately began to adapt the HD4000 to support “Remote Expert” applications.
I’m happy to report that, as of today, a new version of the HD4000 software development kit (SDK) is available for download on our website for those who want to turn the head-mounted display into a live remote assistance tool! You can now enable remote experts to be there for your team, helping to diagnose, troubleshoot, make decisions and complete repairs, even when you’re not physically on site.
We have dramatically improved the wearable’s two-way video performance to ensure a sharp image is captured by the HD4000’s built-in camera and that incoming video is crystal clear on the non-occluded display. In fact, users can now stream video from the camera at multiple resolutions and frame rates, including the most popular 720P resolution at 18 frames per second, which delivers a smoother streaming experience and is less demanding on communications bandwidth. And remote experts can stream video to the workers’ HD4000 glass displays at up to 30 fps when needed to demonstrate an action or show training materials.
The SDK also addresses all the HD4000 components through a set of application programming interfaces (API) that allow independent software vendors (ISV) to work with together with templates, sample code and release notes to develop tailored applications that meet customers’ unique needs. In short, this SDK update now enables you to offer/implement true hands-free remote expert applications using the HD4000.
No matter how physically distant experts may be from the front-line worker requiring assistance, they will all see the same thing at the same time to be able to guide or complete directed actions. This is “virtual reality” at its best – and the easiest way to facilitate full (remote) team collaboration in COVID-19 times.
10 More Things We Learned Last Year That Will Help You Benefit More from Head-Mounted Display Technologies This Year
Zebra is known – even lauded – for its collaborative culture. It’s why we immediately adapted the HD4000 to facilitate Remote Expert applications when the need emerged. But it’s also why we spent the better part of 2020 talking with customers to ensure the HD4000 was in fact addressing their current pain points and emerging challenges and empowering them to achieve evolving goals, regardless of how they intended to use the technology.
A number of early movers in the head-mounted display market have offered technology-up platforms rather than customer-down solutions and have fallen foul of issues that require deep sector knowledge. “Clever” solutions don’t always solve real-world problems. New, innovative technologies should be enabling and basic business-to-business (B2B) best practices maintained at all times.
Technology providers and their channel partners must understand each customer's unique pain points before they can realistically develop or recommend a solution. You can’t tell a customer that a specific piece of hardware or software will be beneficial if you don’t understand the opportunity for improvement first. That’s like putting the cart before the horse.
After calling upon our customer and partner base for feedback, we realized that these were the most important things (for everyone: us, customers and partners) to focus on when developing, designing or implementing an AR or VR head-mounted display solution:
1. Understand the candidate workflows fully with an understanding of what improvements are possible. What on-the-job informational and training tools are currently used? Where are they located?
2. Agree on a representative candidate workflow that will enable a deliverable solution. The key here is to minimize any disruption or interaction within key organizational systems.
3. Confirm that all working environments are conducive to all-day use of head-mounted displays. Confirm whether it will be used indoors, outdoors or both. Check out the lighting conditions. Verify the height of assets that will be viewed through the display. (Will workers constantly have to look up or down?) And don’t forget to factor in safety requirements that could impact the comfort or performance of the display, such as special glasses or a hard hat.
4. Never underestimate human factors. We’ve prioritised ergonomics since day one because the only way workers will want to wear and use a head-mounted display all shift long is if it is comfortable. However, comfort is subjective and there are multiple workflow, environmental and personal factors that can influence a user’s experience with wearable technology such as this. So, we continually work with our customers and, most importantly, end users to assess the HD4000’s performance and acceptance in terms of:
- Weight (The HD4000 is currently the lightest enterprise-grade head-mounted display on the market as a result of user feedback and design refinements!)
- Image quality, brightness and contrast
- Adjustability between the left and right eye
- Simultaneous prescription glass use
- The way that display data needs to move in and out of the eyeline
- Comfort during whole and half shift continual wear
- Hygiene (Most workers don’t want to share wearables such as this, so we have to ensure the HD4000 can be sanitized to the highest standards and even personalised to each user when possible – without increasing the cost for customers.)
5. Consider the implications of ergonomic needs on the architecture of the solution. Zebra decided to tether the headset to the host terminal, usually a handheld mobile computer, so that we could remove weight and bulk from the head-worn unit without compromising performance.
6. Get the user interface (UI) right. “Comfort” isn’t just gauged by the physical wearability of the solution. They have to be comfortable using the solution as well. Keep the UI as simple and understandable as possible. Anything deemed overly complicated will deter use and slow adoption. (Remember, the number one goal is to make AR accessible to all.) The key is getting the user the right information about the next task or best step at a glance. Putting a smartphone display's worth of information on a head-mounted display results in a poor user experience. The display will undoubtably be too busy. In many circumstances, a multimodal UI will provide the optimal experience from both a vision and voice perspective, which is another reason why Zebra took a tethered design approach with the HD4000.
7. Remember why your workers really need a hands-free head-mounted solution. If your team is relying purely on voice, mobile terminal applications or paper to get through their day, you have a real problem on your hands. (No pun intended!) I highly encourage you to read this commentary from Jeff Schmitz in DC Velocity about why every front-line worker needs wearables these days as well-defined “picking” or “put away” roles disappear and “directed actions” become the key to efficiency and accuracy.
8. Secure buy-in from all affected parties. No one wants something imposed on them. If communicated correctly, the whole team is clothed in the “cloak of innovation” and keen to use of the solution for personal and collective gain.
9. Agree on what success looks like, objectively and subjectively, and then define easily measurable, understandable and communicable benefits in key workflow metrics. In order to do this, though, you must understand the target workflows in detail and clearly define “As Is” and “To Be” states.
10. Don't over-complicate the return on investment (ROI) calculation. Complicated ROI calculators with wider organizational implications, while probably useful and accurate, are impossible to validate quickly. This can cause decision makers to second-guess the value and slow down a proof of concept or pilot project. In turn, your organization could miss out on immediate benefits, especially now that most don’t have the luxury of time on their side. If you want to quickly verify the potential ROI, test in a non-mission-critical area or ring-fenced work group.
A Final Thought
COVID-19 has changed the operational model of every organization in every sector, including manufacturers, warehouse operators, retailers, utilities and service providers. Equipping your team with wearable technologies such as head-mounted displays ensures they always have the insights needed to do more in less time without making more mistakes – whether those insights are generated by a machine or a human expert that’s live on the line “with a direct line of sight” into the issue your worker is facing.
Though we can’t see the future, we can ensure that your workers have a clear view of what lies ahead of them right now. Together, we will continue to apply and refine the HD4000 in a way that targets your pain points and helps your workers get safely from one place to the next without any missteps, even as pressure mounts to work faster in order to meet growing demand.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can turn the Zebra HD4000 head-mounted display into a live remote assistance tool, check out our website or give us a call. As always, we’re also happy to set up a (virtual) meeting to discuss the many other ways that the HD4000 solution can be used for assisted reality applications designed to give workers the “directed actions” they want and give you the operational advantage you need.
Meet the Head-Mounted Display Making Augmented Reality Accessible to All Mobile Workers