Why you should embrace Hands-Free Computing in the age of COVID-19

Before the age of the mouse, computers were operated solely through the keyboard. Even though the concepts for a mouse-type input device had been around since the 60s they didn’t really become popular until the early 1980s.

The idea that you could “touch” your interface (albeit through a corded extension on your desk) made computers far more accessible and visual than they ever were before.

But, you still had to touch them.

The Lay of the Land

Businesses throughout the globe are re-evaluating how we undertake the most basic of tasks. These challenges generally fall into 2 categories:

  • How can I distance my workers from other people?
  • How can I reduce the surfaces they touch?

Yes, you can implement social distancing or undertake a thorough sanitising spree, but there are many times where interacting with people or touching surfaces is just part of the job.

And, we’re starting to see some really creative solutions.

Ford Police Interceptor Utility Vehicle

For law enforcement purposes, Ford has released a software solution for their Police Interceptor Utility vehicles that temporarily raises interior temperatures beyond 133 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than Death Valley on the hottest day — for 15 minutes to help reduce the viral concentration inside the vehicle by greater than 99 percent.

https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/fna/us/en/news/2020/05/27/ford-heated-sanitization-software-police-vehicles-coronavirus.html

But, what if you’re not a major car manufacturer or a law enforcement professional?

Given that the virus can live on surfaces for at least 24 hours, the risk to health and safety in a variety of fields is quite severe.

In the case that you,

  • Have a team of workers who perform remote inspections.
  • Manage a parcel delivery company.
  • Are a doctor performing patient rounds
  • And many more…

We all need to rethink how you go about your daily business.

Hands-Free Computing

Back to the story of the humble Computer Mouse. As we fast forward through the decades, what it means to be a Computer has morphed. It’s increasingly common for computing devices to fall into either a Desktop PC (with a keyboard and a mouse) or a Smartphone/Tablet (with a touch screen).

Despite these form factor changes:

Your smartphone has more than 9,000 times more germs than a toilet seat

Ugh.

So, given that your keyboard and smartphone are riddled with bacteria and the “gunk of the day”, these seem like prime places to start our COVID-tackle.

Imagine a world where you can interact with a computer without touching it. Well, this isn’t some far-fetched reality.

When people think of Wearable Headset Technology they’re immediately reminded of Google Glass. This is regarded as a flop, but is that deserved?

Launched in 2013 to Consumers (or Glass Explorers as they were known) it was hailed to much fanfare. This quickly died out because consumers didn’t really understand why you would need a hands-free device when a modern smartphone can provide much better utility.

What many people don’t know though is that Google Glass lives on, through enterprises. The idea that a worker can operate equipment hands-free means that:

  1. You’re no longer touching anything — these devices operate through voice
  2. Your hands are free to “do your job” — fix, build, inspect etc…
  3. You’re permanently connected to your team, even if they’re not physically with you

In addition, Google Glass Enterprise Edition isn’t the only game in town. Great companies like RealWear and Vuzix have embraced the Hands-Free computing market and launched very compelling devices beyond the capabilities of Glass.

These devices might look strange, but the concept is actually quite straight forward. In the case of both the RealWear HMT-1 and the Vuzix M-400, they are both Google Android devices with speech-driven interfaces.

A worker using RealWear HMT-1

Example — The Field Inspection

Picture this, you’re a maintenance worker in a major supermarket and the main refrigerator has broken down.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The store is busy and people are trying to shop (masked up and socially distant). To make matters worse, if the equipment isn’t fixed soon then the food could spoil.

The clock is ticking.

Your company has previously mandated that all maintenance tasks follow the prescribed procedures. These procedures ensure that all of the fault diagnostics are performed correctly, and, that all “repair” data is correctly captured for further analysis.

You arrive at the faulty equipment, wearing a face mask and have your gloves on. Time to start.

Fortunately, your organisation is forward-thinking and is using a tool like the RealWear HMT-1 with software like WorkfloPlus.

Hands-free you can:

  • Follow the work instructions through voice commands
  • Call a remote expert and have them guide you through any problems
  • Capture any photos or evidence for your procedure

And, because WorkfloPlus integrates through APIs, your back-end maintenance system can be updated in real-time, eliminating the need for paperwork!

Completing a Maintenance Task Hands-free with RealWear and WorkfloPlus

But wait, there’s more…

The above example isn’t just for maintenance workers. These hands-free wearable computing devices can assist anybody who works on their feet, interacts with people or just generally need their hands to do their job.

Instead of reaching for a patient chart at the end of the hospital bed, why not use speech commands to retrieve the patient data? By scanning a QR-Code at the end of the bed you can do this securely without touching anything.

Instead of asking customers to sign when they receive a parcel, why not record a 3-second clip showing them accepting the parcel (with permission of course).

Instead of holding your phone to show a remote-expert what the problem is, wear the camera on your head and use your hands to guide them. The remote expert can then send you schematics through the head-mounted display to assist you.

Having been in the wearable computing industry for over a decade I can assure you that there are many more examples.

Google Glass may have felt like technology looking for a problem to solve. But, in the age of COVID-19, enterprise-grade wearable devices are capable of solving the problems that many workers will face in the coming months and years.

I’m a business — how do I start?

If you’re already facing the challenges above, don’t worry, you’re not on your own. Talk to your existing mobile or desktop software provider and see if they offer a wearable software product.

There are hundreds of software companies out there today that are working with companies like RealWear and Vuzix (and yes, there are other manufacturers).

Some of the Software Partners that work with RealWear

If your software vendor doesn’t support wearable devices then perhaps give them some encouragement. COVID-19 has changed the game and wearable computing has gone from fringe to mainstream.

An example of how major companies are embracing these technologies can be seen with Microsoft. They have recently ported their extremely popular Microsoft Teams software to the RealWear HMT-1. For an organisation like Microsoft to embrace a niche market is a huge effort.

Big business rarely makes decisions lightly, and this is a great endorsement of the wearable industry.

I’m a Developer — How do I port my solution?

This is more likely a “how long is a piece of string” question. However, if you’re already providing an Android application then half the battle is won.

The main challenge with providing a head-mounted wearable solution is that the User Experience is completely different.

If you take away the touch screen, how will a user operate your application?

I’ll likely write a more thorough article on how to answer this question, but here are 3 simple tips to get you started:

Replace your Icon Buttons with Text
Your users will be interacting with your device through speech. If the commands aren’t clear then people won’t know what to do.

Declutter the screen
The resolutions of these devices may be comparable to smartphones, but, don’t think you can fill your UI. Aim to have only 5 actions on the screen at any one time.

Embrace Speech to Text
Devices like the HMT-1 offer the ability to move the screen out of the way, while still wearing the device. Allow your UI to “speak” to the user so they know what they’re doing.

Next Steps

COVID-19 isn’t around the corner, it’s here right now. And, while governments are trying to do what they can to keep the economy moving, businesses too need to play their part.

Workers cannot be “sent out into the field” in the way that they used to.

An organisation that we work with recently told us that they no longer send out pairs of engineers to fix problems. Instead, one engineer is sent out with a wearable device while the “buddy” is watching and interacting from the control room.

The future is here and the time for hands-free computing is now.

If you’re interested in learning how Hands-Free computing can benefit your business, please visit www.intoware.com.

Acknowledgements, some of the images were downloaded from the RealWear Press Kit.

James has been working in software development for several years and loves programming for web and wearable devices.

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