At first glance, a wearable headset that provides industrial workers with a communications link with remote co-workers or augmented reality-type view of data seems out of the realm of someone interested in robotics or deploying a robotics system. RealWear, which is seeing much success in deploying these headsets, sees its system as part of a growing ecosystem of complementary technologies that will move the world towards a synergy of humans and machines working together.
Things get more interesting when you see that Teradyne, the parent company of robotics firms Universal Robots, Energid, and Mobile Industrial Robotics (and the just-announced acquisition of AutoGuide Mobile Robots), has taken an interest in RealWear as well. In July, RealWear announced an $80 million Series B funding round that included participation from Teradyne, Bose Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, Kopin Corporation, and investors from JPMorgan Chase’s Private Bank. While Teradyne’s interest was not an acquisition like with those aforementioned robotics companies, it was still significant enough to make us wonder about their intentions.
Andrew Blanchard, vice president of corporate relations at Teradyne, said the combination of technologies into a single solution that made the workplace safer and more productive was what captured the company’s attention to invest in RealWear. “The ability that suddenly a guy working on a jet engine could have a remote mentor looking at the same thing and telling him what he needs to solve a problem, or if there’s someone in the middle of an activity and they need a manual, but the manual is back in the office and he could read the manual in real-time while he’s got his head stuck in an engine – those kind of applied technologies to the manufacturing space were what we found very intriguing,” said Blanchard.
RealWear’s offerings include the HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1 headsets, along with its Foresight cloud-based services software. The headsets are ruggedized, head-mounted, wearable Android-class tablet computers that free up a worker’s hands for dangerous jobs. Applications include remote mentoring, document navigation, industrial IoT visualization and digital workflow scenarios. The company has deployed more than 15,000 HMT systems to more than 1,300 enterprise customers around the world, with more than 120 different workforce software applications.
Robotics Business Review spoke with RealWear CEO Andy Lowery about the company’s growth, how industrial and manufacturing companies use the headset for different tasks, including the maintenance of machinery and robots, and the vision of having a conduit between human workers and machines.
A ‘partner on your shoulder’
Q: The revenue growth at your company has been quite impressive over the last few years. What are the types of companies that are deploying the systems, and what are they mainly using them for?
Lowery: The primary deployment paradigm usually comes out with a version of video or photographs. We’re sharing video collaboration, like FaceTime or telepresence-type apps, which we call the Remote Mentor. It’s basically where you have a digital partner on your shoulder. Someone on a laptop miles away can be sitting there in-situ sharing video feeds and voice communications. So that’s the first “getting started” use – one, it’s not a huge investment. A lot of times you’re talking one per factory or five per factory or distribution center or wind farms. So it’s not a huge investment on the side of the corporations. But then on the flip side, the return on investment is often a single use. In a lot of the situations, they use it once to fix a problem, and they’ve basically paid for it by not having to fly an expert out there.
We have a wide variety of industries that have been very bullish and eager to go into that vector, including folks like Shell and Colgate-Palmolive. And once they get used to the device, they begin to inquire about other apps. For example, Colgate said they were using us to control and manage our systems, and could they get a voice version of the application?
Q: Do you have any examples of a company using the headsets to monitor or work with robots?
Lowery: An interesting story, we never deployed with it, but did pilot it was an automotive manufacturer where they had an array of robots that suspended their car as it traveled down a rail, with the robots surrounding the car and placing the different pieces. In that scenario, in order to maintain those robots, you’d have to have a technician rappel from the roof and hang suspended in air to work on the electronics, or the robot calibration. So that made it real difficult to bring a book with you or even a handheld tablet. So the HMT became sort of an obvious choice to be able to pull in digital information or help a remote person or someone suspended like that. A lot of these companies are working at heights or other scenarios where the use of hands is paramount.
Q: It feels like companies that are deploying these are using the headsets as complementary to robots, drones, and other IoT-related equipment to get more digital information to workers. Would you agree, or do you see companies using these instead of those other systems?
Lowery: It’s massively complementary. I’m a fan of science fiction, and I look at this as kind of the first step of plugging into the matrix. It’s your interpreter for the machine world – this is how we are going to be engaging with machines.
You might have a computer monitoring 16 ways to Sunday a steam generator in a power plant and it’s all doing that automatically. But ultimately, a human in the loop still exists, and that human needs to understand what the cloud is thinking, and what all this AI is thinking. At some point, the AI needs to communicate with a person to say, ‘Hey, run my turbine at 80% power because my rotor shaft needs maintenance.’
So that sort of delivery of the final stage of information to convert it to knowledge to the person and the people that operate and maintain a lot of these facilities is where we’re at – that’s our mission. We still have people all over the place in the loop – how do we bring them to the party and into the IoT universe? The keyhole or gateway or whatever you want to call it is the HMT.
Q: Do you still consider the company as a startup? Usually after a company raises their Series B, they go beyond that startup stage. Culturally, how do you feel?
Lowery: I’d say we’re right at that graduation point. We were an early-stage startup for the first 18 months, then the technical startup for the next 18 months, and now we’re right in the first few months of our next 18 months. Over the next 18 months I’d expect to shed the title or label and move right into a build market growth company.
We still have culturally some of the good of startups, and we’ll try to keep that, like the agility and decision-making and all of that. But at the same time, we’re also in sore need of things like mature process decision matrices, things like that, because at more than 150 [employees], it’s tough to manage that without a process.
Q: How do you think Teradyne views their investment in RealWear and this space?
Lowery: I think Teradyne sees us as certainly adjacent to the robotics and automation field, if not fully in it. It’s more of a hybrid look at computers and artificial intelligence than going full robotic. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of different frontline worker applications that I think robots just aren’t quite equipped yet to do. This begets a harmonistic partnering of computing equipment, IT systems, and people. It’s not quite all the way to fully automated, but it’s certainly equipping us to deal with the robots one day when the big Skynet war happens (laughs).