Space Exploration, Defense and Transportation Go Wearable

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Written BY

Emily Friedman

September 18, 2015

From a Canadian hotel resort to a British musical instrument retailer and now the U.S. Department of Defense; wearable technology is rapidly evolving to meet business needs around the world, creeping into some surprising sectors. In this post, we find out how wearable devices are making their way into the Singapore public transport system, the U.S. military, and even outer space.

Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA)

A group of 200 Singapore commuters are currently trialing smart wristband payments for public transport services as well as for retail goods at establishments equipped with “contactless readers” capable of interacting with the bands. To realize the pilot scheme, the LTA teamed up with a number of corporations, including Sony, which provided the hardware for the project in the form of the Sony SG50 SmartBand, and mobile network operator Singtel.

The wearable technology works like so: in order to pay for their transportation, participating commuters need only hold their wrists up to a fare card reader on the bus or at a transit station. When they need to “top-up” or refill the value stored in their smart bands, they hold their wrists up to a different device.

The project, which will run until February 2016, is designed to give commuters a range of options to stay mobile: they can register for automatic wristband “top-up” or refill services for their Sony smart bands, and they can use the Singtel mWallet app to check their bands’ stored value balance while on the go. In addition, trial participants can use the wristbands to pay for services at a number of retail outlets, including – I’m assuming – fast food establishments and even libraries.

The LTA will track the performance of the smart bands in fare transactions in order to determine whether wearable technology has a place in public transit. The hope is that wearable tech will enable “faster, easier and more convenient” transit for commuters. The mobile retail payment services and lifestyle/wellness tracking are just added benefits.

U.S. Department of Defense

The DoD is looking to both the private sector and academia to help the US military keep up with the rapidly advancing wearable technology market. As part of the Pentagon’s newly announced Flexible Hybrid Electronics Hub – an initiative by the Obama administration to develop flexible, high-tech sensory gear that can be worn by soldiers or molded onto the surfaces of various crafts – Defense Secretary Ash Carter awarded $75 million to a consortium of 162 companies, nonprofits, independent research organizations and universities, including the likes of Apple, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

The US government clearly sees wearables as a next major technology frontier, as evidenced by the creation of the FlexTech Alliance consortium. Under an agreement managed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory, the Silicon Valley-based group will receive the $75 million in Defense Department funding over the course of five years. That money will be matched by more than $90 million pledged by industry, academia and local governments over the same period of time; so in total the team will receive $171 million to invest in advancing wearable technologies.

The partnership between the Pentagon and the private sector aims to revitalize and strengthen US manufacturing through the development and production of flexible hybrid electronics. Stretchable electronics can be embedded with sensors and potentially worn by soldiers to monitor their health in real time; they can also be integrated onto ships and aircrafts to monitor the vessels’ structural integrity.

This is not the first time the government has considered the potential benefits of wearable devices for improved health monitoring and connectivity in the military. In 2014, ground support crew at the US Air Force tested Google Glass as a way of extending computing support to dismounted airmen on the battlefield. The experiment was part of the BATMA(N) program, an endeavor to improve tactical decision making and reduce human error in the battle space. Possible applications included medical support—having pararescuemen and other first responders use smart glasses to monitor the vital signs of multiple casualties without taking their hands off either the patients or their weapons.

NASA

In March of this year, NASA announced it would be teaming up with Osterhout Design Group to bring augmented reality glasses to space. Imagine smart glasses becoming essential equipment for astronauts aboard the International Space Station!

The space agency is exploring the potential for ODG’s smart glasses in human spaceflight, particularly their ability to guide astronauts through an experiment or repair job in space. The plan is to create a system of how-to guides that could be uploaded to the glasses, enabling astronauts to follow directions in order to, say, repair a latch on their ship with their hands full.

NASA’s engineering teams were working on integrating the space agency’s software into ODG’s AR glasses, intending to test the technology in an undersea lab to simulate the environment of a space flight before submitting the glasses to NASA’s flight program team for its first trip into space.

Currently, astronauts rely on printed instruction manuals in space, so when something goes wrong they have to flip through a ring of index cards. It’s not hard to imagine that this can be a highly cumbersome process, especially in an emergency. Most astronauts resort to phoning back to base, which – as a ship travels farther and farther from earth – becomes increasingly infeasible, with a message from Mars taking approximately 20 minutes to reach someone at home base.

Recognizing that the traditional method was problematic and inefficient, NASA spent over a decade working on software capable of recognizing objects from video, in addition to voice-control technology. At that point, however, the right kind of hardware did not exist. Flash forward to the rise of wearable tech, and NASA has found the right gadget in the form of smart glasses by ODG. (This was only after Google turned NASA reps away in 2014, when the company’s Glass efforts were still focused on consumers.)

ODG’s products are currently used by the U.S. military, as well as by other defense and industrial clients. The R6, the company’s heavy-duty smart glasses model, is designed to stand up to the rigors of military life; and to provide mobile guidance and information even in the most demanding environments, of which space missions certainly count as one.

As electronic directions and instructions replace paper checklists and as NASA considers missions of longer and longer duration, wearable technologies can meet the agency’s evolving demands, improving the accuracy and efficiency of astronauts’ in-flight activities. Along with ODG’s smart glasses, NASA has been “toying” with Microsoft’s HoloLens headset. Though the rocket carrying two of Microsoft’s “mixed reality” headsets to the International Space Station blew up in June, NASA will try again in December to bring the HoloLens to space.

What good could HoloLens do in NASA's exploratory activities? The space agency sees a number of potential practical uses for the technology, including allowing astronauts aboard the space station to receive help with unfamiliar tasks in the form of tele-expertise. HoloLens could also act as an augmented-reality instruction manual and be utilized in safety procedures as well as inventory management, since keeping track of things on the ISS is apparently a big challenge. In an underwater research station off the coast of Florida, NASA tested HoloLens for various tasks in which an astronaut might receive help from an expert sitting in a remote control center. Whether at a construction site on earth or millions of miles away in space, the see-what-I-see capabilities of smart glass technology are definitely going to be a gamechanger.

A word of note: The use cases described on this blog were all originally reported elsewhere or otherwise uncovered directly from an involved party. We at BrainXchange spent months combing the news to assemble a list of use cases of wearables in the enterprise, and we continue to keep up-to-date on the latest media-confirmed cases. However, this does not mean that the companies mentioned here are all still using wearable technology. Many of the use cases out there were mere trials of wearable devices. Undoubtedly some proved successful, others just promising, and still others ceased at the pilot stage. What you don’t read about in the news, of course, are those companies that tested out wearables but for whatever reason – cost of investment, hardware issues, failure to prove ROI, IT challenges – did not go through with deploying the technology. Well, actually, you do read about those companies when they are preparing to trial wearables but the end results are often not reported. Still, it is worthwhile to read about the use cases, for they reveal the great potential for wearables in a variety of workplaces. Wearable technology for enterprise purposes is really about arming the right person, with the right information, at the right time… and in the most convenient, least obtrusive way possible. That’s what wearable tech comes down to, no matter the industry, no matter the use case, no matter the first outcome.

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