How Smart Glasses Could Change Your Workforce

Could equipping your manual workforce with smart glasses lead to benefits beyond improved efficiency?
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Feb 18, 2015

A few months back, I interviewed the CEO of a robotics company who was wearing a pair of Google Glasses. From the beginning of our talk, the glasses distracted me... because they distracted him. He stopped mid-sentence and looked over my shoulder, moving his head slightly. Apparently, he was reading some text or e-mail.

Sure, he's a busy man and clearly wants to stay on top of his communications, but it was difficult not to feel like I was a low priority. Given this experience, I was not surprised to learn last month that Google is putting the brakes on its $1,500 Google Glass for consumers, and is instead grouping all of its smart glasses activities into its enterprise-focused Glass at Work program.

As I reported last month, a number of companies are developing or promoting sensor-packed smart glasses for commercial uses, ranging from applications that could make it easier for surgeons to access a patient's medical history without leaving the surgery bay, to enabling customer service technicians to see what a customer is seeing (via video content streamed into their glasses) and then verbally walk that customer through a repair or diagnose a failure.

Last week I spoke with Ed English, the chief marketing and product officer of APX Labs, which makes a smart-glasses operating software known as Skylight, which runs on smart glasses made by Sony, Epson, Google or Vuzix (and is designed to be hardware-agnostic). Boeing recently posted a video describing how employees are trying out Google Glasses to guide them through the steps for assembling a wire harness. This lets them rely on voice commands and visual instructions displayed through the glasses, rather than on their existing paper-based directions.

Smart glasses seem to have tremendous potential in terms of making manual assembly work more efficient, or in helping employees troubleshoot repair issues or provide step-by-step job training. And, of course, the biggest benefit is being able to interact with others or one's work environment and remain hands-free (or, more accurately, remain "hands busy at work").

Yet, I think smart glasses represent an interesting opportunity to employers as well. The glasses can not only empower workers on, say, a production line to perform tasks more efficiently, but they can also put employees in direct synch with back-end systems—enterprise resource planning (ERP) or manufacturing software—that form the digital backbone of whatever products the company makes. In that way, smart glasses could serve as a powerful employee engagement tool.

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