You’ve probably seen augmented reality (AR) smart glasses in a “Mission Impossible” movie, or at a trade show. Maybe a friend has told you they are revolutionizing work processes for line workers in aviation, auto, medicine or manufacturing. There are certainly plenty of versions available, from top brands in the industry who’ve all found different ways to deliver AR by putting a computer on the user’s head.
But with all that hype, you’ve probably still never seen your local FedEx driver, or utilities worker, or mechanic, actually wearing a pair of smart glasses. The reason is that, like most new technologies, AR has great potential – with some persistent challenges.
The Promise of AR
For workers, AR devices are designed to help access job-enhancing information, while keeping hands free. No more typing, swiping or tapping keyboards or screens. Workers simply wear a head-mounted display — in the shape of eyeglasses — so computer-generated content can be superimposed on top of the ‘real world’ and delivered to their line of sight.
Listen to Silicon Valley and you’ll think we’re all on the cusp of this next landslide technology revolution. There’s certainly reason to believe. As of 2017, 52 of the Fortune 500 were testing, or had already deployed, AR solutions. Hands-free computing has also been steadily creeping into the assembly line, assisting such operations as machinery inspections, medicine, emergency response, and delivery truck driving. It’s even been used for training, benefiting everyone from miners to astronauts.
The Problem with AR
But despite all its potential — and as much as Hollywood and Silicon Valley would have us believe otherwise — smart glasses are not yet a guaranteed new technology craze.
Of course, there are the typical obstacles of skepticism and resistance among workers. This is especially true of those who worry it could interfere with their job — or take it over entirely.
But that’s not the whole story. When it’s done right, employees can be open to, and even evangelize, technological changes. In fact, the “paper to processors” movement happened because advances in mobile connectivity and computing power influenced even the most blue-collar sectors. Yes, it took some convincing, but eventually the ease and convenience of information-on-the-go won workers over.
But mobile technology — accessed at your discretion—is different from wearing a computer over your face. The unique challenge of smart glasses is that to use the technology, you have to wear the technology. Selling this idea to millions of people doing practical, hands-on work means manufacturers will have to persuade them that this ridiculous-looking technology is a useful, essential friend.
Historically, new technology waves have been nudged into mass adoption by a “gateway” industry. Some examples include the way Wall Street glamorized the mobile phone, and law enforcement and healthcare popularized tablet computers. In the world of smart glasses, field services (such as Utility workers, Telecom workers, Energy, First Responders, Warehousing, Insurance Adjusters, etc.) is considered the gateway.
But that comes with a potentially daunting challenge: these workers are often the most resistant to adopting new technology.
Ask any industrial-spec device salesperson how often they’ve seen paid-for-but-untouched technology stacked in field offices, all because it didn’t fit the workflow or comfort zone of the intended users. The reason could be an unfamiliar user interface, or that the device is too bulky, or fragile. Maybe it simply doesn’t save all that much time. Sometimes it’s just plain unsafe to use a computer in certain environments. Even with a technically sophisticated and eager workforce, the best intentions have been known to fail.
The Way Forward for AR
Possibly the best way to achieve adoption among field workers is by simplifying. In other words, remove the complications of technology to make it useful for every day, mundane tasks. Too often engineers and designers fall into the trap of building technology for perceived problems, not actual ones. The result can be a product deemed too exotic, too expensive, and therefore unnecessary.
This is probably nowhere more evident than in AR smart glasses squeezing ‘tech for tech’s sake’ into a pair of head-worn frames, rather than focusing on the human factor first. When designing for field workers, remember that your end user may be standing knee-deep in sewage, climbing a 40-foot electrical pole in a storm, or riding a cherry picker bucket through tree limbs – all while trying to access data.
So, while companies often start building technology by focusing on a specific work problem, the successful ones then pump the breaks to let it evolve and get users familiar with the device. Ideally, the technology will become so useful that it will organically lead to requests for added features and applications in future versions.
Assist the intended user, don’t impose upon them. To help users feel comfortable enough to engage with a new technology, designers need to build trust by delivering products that feel good to use – and that users want to have at their disposal.
Besides appreciating the challenges of coaxing workers to try new technologies, consider costs. A recent Perkins Coie survey found that user experience, lack of content, and cost are the three biggest obstacles to mass adoption of AR technology.
Sure, the ROI from your smart glass technology might improve efficiencies by 50 percent immediately, but what are the costs associated with training, buying new applications, incompatible peripherals, or even just replacing broken or lost devices? Most organizations dislike changes to their hardware and software because the cost is much more than ordering one new device. To fully integrate technology into a work process, it must significantly deliver increased efficiency, while also driving down an entire cost ecosystem.
Those inside Silicon Valley and the AR industry need to acknowledge that they may not understand the actual needs of the customer. Instead of foisting technology on them, they would be better served by listening to all their needs – practical and financial. Ultimately, the end user knows the job they do, and what will help versus hinder.