As in past crises, the last year has spurred technology to advance faster than it otherwise would have, forcing innovation that truly meets the moment.
In the world of strategic energy management (SEM), many practitioners have found ways to leverage new technology to continue helping participants remotely. At Cascade Energy, we have been experimenting with “wearable tech” and developing some tips and tricks along the way.
Early in the pandemic, it became clear if we wanted to continue our SEM work while adhering to the relevant COVID-19 safety protocols, we would have to figure out a way to do our treasure hunts virtually. The treasure hunt, typically one of the first steps in an SEM engagement, is a guided site tour of the participating facility to learn about their industrial processes, where we basically ask “why” a few hundred times a day, seeking opportunities for energy savings (the treasure, if you will). Running these tours effectively without being on site, though, proved challenging.
For industrial sites, so many of the energy saving opportunities are found by physically following the process or product flow, noting equipment and technologies being used, workflow and process bottlenecks, employee workarounds, and control settings. Without the ability to walk through a facility, it’s harder to find those opportunities that the plant staff simply “don’t see” anymore, because they’ve been looking at them for years.
To succeed in conducting remote treasure hunts, we knew we needed to get creative.
We decided to purchase and pilot a realwear-brand HMT-1 – a WiFi-connected Head-Mounted Tablet that clips to a hardhat or is worn using a head harness and allows the wearer to take Cascade engineers on a virtual tour of their facility.
The device transmits video and voice from the wearer, so the remote team essentially sees what the wearer sees. The unit also has a small video display located just in front of the wearer’s face, which creates a screen size similar to a 7” tablet. Using voice rather than touch, the wearer can interact with the tablet display (e.g. calling up files, turning pages of scanned drawings or manuals, interacting with websites, etc.) while they walk around.
Sounds pretty cool, but how is it in real life?
Based on our initial experience, the best things about the HMT compared to a phone or tablet are:
- Safety. Using a phone typically requires that you hold the phone in your hands, which can draw your eyes off what’s in front of you. The HMT allows fully hands-free operation via the head-mounted tablet and voice commands that work well.
- Convenience. Your hands are totally free, so it’s easier for the user to maneuver through industrial spaces or verify information that requires hands or tools.
- Communication. The noise cancelling microphone is amazing – when the user wears tight fitting in-ear headphones, you can have a normal conversation inside a loud engine room.
- Collaboration. We’ve had 3-4 people on the call, so if a question came up that the user in the field couldn’t answer, the control room operator could look it up and chime in.
During a virtual-tour of a wastewater facility using HMT-1 device, the operator stopped to show a sludge hopper and explain related potential water savings.
Our biggest issues with it, so far, are:
- Limited bandwidth and Android software have caused laggy video. The software was recently updated so this has improved significantly, and with 5G rolling out, we are expecting to upgrade the LTE modem in the future for more bandwidth.
- Connecting to the conference call was the hardest part. We use a QR code generator and scanner to connect to the conference call, and if the user misses a step, it gets confusing.
- The field-user generally has to be told to slow down, move smoothly, and stare at things for what might seem like an uncomfortably long time! There is a software upgrade that removes some of the shakes and jerks of the original version, but the camera still moves with the wearer’s head. So, the video feed during transit, on stairways, and during fast walking can be tough to watch.
Here the operator has moved in closer to show the water connection.
Next steps and features we hope to incorporate:
- Using the “tablet” feature for the wearer. For example, if we captured a still photo, we could mark it up with the items we would like to focus on and display it on the device for the wearer.
- Similarly, it would be easy to have a cheat sheet of set points for different equipment that could be pulled up by the wearer for each process area or piece of equipment being inspected. This function could be handy for those settings that cannot be changed from the control room, such as bucket timers, VFD settings, compressor controls, and thermostats, among others.
The view from the realwear HMT-1 video device as our guide “followed the pipe.”
We have been pleased with the ease of use and relatively seamless performance of the technology.
It has proven to be an effective method for coaches, tech leads, and subject matter experts to interact with field staff on virtual treasure hunts. Additionally, since the feed can be recorded, snips of video can be used for training, sharing with more site staff, and obtaining additional help from experts who weren’t available at the time of the walkthrough.
If you are thinking about trying this or other technologies out, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
We are happy to share what we’re learning as the world moves toward virtual and augmented reality more and more every day, pandemic or not! Send us a message.