Why GE's use of Google Glass marks a turning point for AR

By exploiting the new enterprise edition of Google Glass and AR software from Upskill, GE Aviation shows how AR is changing the factory floor.

When Google announced the revival of Google Glass, it came armed with evidence that the augmented reality glasses have a real market -- in the enterprise space. The company showcased major customers like GE, Agco, DHL, and Sutter Health already piloting Google Glass Enterprise Edition.

AR is certainly something many business leaders have already considered: A Tech Pro Research survey conducted last year showed that 39 percent of respondents were already using AR at their organization. Of those who weren't, 67 percent said they were thinking about it. Meanwhile, analysts are optimistic about the market: IDC tallied around 111,000 AR headsets already in the commercial segment in 2016 and projected that there will be more than 20 million by 2021 -- that's a 184 percent CAGR, giving the commercial segment 83 percent of AR headset market share in 2021.

So what's going to drive that growth between now and 2021? GE's use of Google Glass demonstrates how AR has finally hit a maturity level where major enterprises can feel confident it's worth the investment. For a major entity like GE, changing workflows to adopt new technologies like AR is no small effort.

"GE's a huge ship, so to turn it in a slightly different direction takes a lot of momentum," Ted Robertson of GE Aviation said to ZDNet. "It's not like we're a small startup who can just change things with the flip of a switch."

Robertson and his GE Aviation team in Cincinnati devised a plan deploying Google Glass on the factory floor as part of a competition: GE Ventures was looking for the best idea within the company for employing wearable technology and Skylight from Upskill, a company that's been developing enterprise software for augmented reality devices in 2010. GE Ventures is an investor in Upskill. Skylight is Upskill's industrial AR software platform for smart glasses.

"Our idea was to give this technology to our GE mechanics who are assembling engines," Robertson explained. "We have several facilities all over the world where this is being done, and the novel point we wanted to make is that we see lots of maintenance error."

At GE's request, Upskill integrated a wireless torque wrench into the process. That helped GE mechanics working on plane engines ensure they were torquing every fitting correctly to the specifications. Meanwhile, the mechanics were able to reference the specifications they needed to adhere to via Google Glass, without having to get up and check a reference manual.

GE initially had 15 of its Cincinnati mechanics test out the new system. They worked on specific tasks without Glass so GE could collect data on how long the process took and their error rates. Then, after lunch they'd do the same tasks with Glass.

Using Glass, GE was able to reduce errors at key points in the assembly process, meaning the technology could save millions for GE and its customers. Additionally, the team saw an average improvement in mechanic efficiency of 8 percent to 12 percent. On top of that, the team liked working with the glasses.

"At the end, we had very positive results from all of our mechanics," Robertson said. "The majority right away after just a few hours of using this said they'd prefer using this versus what they currently have."

Robertson and his team are now finalizing reports on the trial so the technology can be formally deployed.

Upskill software has already been deployed within multiple GE business units. Within a variety of divisions, "there is a use case for glasses that is very transformative," said Brian Ballard, co-founder and CEO of Upskill. But "the pace at which it's adopted is going to be dictated by their own work process -- whether or not there's regulation, for example. It's a journey, but it's one where you're really seeing the momentum pick up."

Adoption will grow in the coming years, Ballard said, because major enterprises finally have confidence in the technology. They've seen Microsoft introduce the HoloLens, and now Google is bringing its work on Glass out into the open.

"Confidence in the market is something that is really important, especially when dealing with established Fortune 500 brands," he said. "They don't buy something based on a Kickstarter concept -- they buy it based off of an enterprise-ready roadmap."

Additionally, there's a growing body of software making it easier for companies to adopt the technology. "You have to the software solution ecosystem built to tackle all the use cases out there," Ballard said. "You have the first generation and second generation of customer adoption now underway, and it went after lowest-hanging fruit. Now I think you'll see a lot more of the follow-up work happening."

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