RealWear has eye on tools for rugged industry

Wearable tablet by Vancouver company puts knowledge in workers hands, heads

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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RealWear

Headquarters: 600 Hatheway Road, Vancouver.

Founded: Milpitas, Calif.

Employees: 70 (20 in Vancouver, 50 globally).

Product: Specializes in wearable computers and “augmented reality,” aimed at the industrial worker.

Now that it’s relocated to Vancouver and announced its flagship product, RealWear just has to convince customers to see things its way.

RealWear’s flagship HMT-1 device is essentially a head-mounted tablet computer that it hopes will become standard issue for boots-on-the-ground workers who literally have their hands full. The company has reached out to more than 50 brand names across major industries to start pilot programs, and now it hopes it to land contracts for full-scale adoption.

“Why are you going to go out and buy a bunch of handheld tablets when you know that everyone has tools, or are turning valves or switches, or are climbing up to get the top of a cell tower?” said CEO Andy Lowery.

As technology has grown, so, too has the market for “rugged” counterparts in heavy industry — tablet computers and smartphones that can help skilled technicians do their job more productively while withstanding the elements.

That’s the market RealWear hopes to tap. The company, founded in Milpitas, Calif., officially moved to Vancouver last month and economic development officials expect it to bolster the local tech scene. A closer look shows how RealWear hopes to succeed.

The device

The HMT-1 fixes a fingernail-sized screen under the eye, like a scanning device from the future. Competitors offer glasses or full visors that conjure comparisons of holographic displays, seen in films such as “Minority Report” or “Iron Man.”

Those comparisons almost always oversell, Lowery admits, but they aren’t too far from the future.

“There will be a time where that type of human-machine interface becomes relevant, but it’s not there yet,” he said. “We’re years out. We’ve got five, 10 years before people are going to work, putting on a set of glasses and seeing all this digital information.”

In contrast, RealWear’s device is built to be used today. Chris Parkinson, chief technology officer, said it doesn’t rely on technology at the absolute cutting edge, so it remains practical and affordable.

“What we have today is imminently usable by millions of people,” he said. “They don’t have to wait for everything else to catch up.”

The HMT-1’s inner workings aren’t much more advanced than smartphones. It uses an Android operating system, is equipped with a 16-megapixel camera and has four microphones built in to amplify the wearer’s voice even over a blaring jet engine, Parkinson said.

When wrapped around a helmet, the device can be controlled with head swivels and voice commands. The screen floats in the periphery and, if one were doing hands-on repairs, it might feel like glancing at a car dashboard while driving down the freeway.

Lowery said what will separate it from the pack is its access to the Android app market. Proprietary software will help translate the finger swiping and pinches of smartphone apps into head gestures and voice commands.

Rugged market

As with most ambitious technologies, RealWear is aiming to suit a cross-section of workers. The prototypical user of the HMT-1 maintains and repairs things such as wind turbines or electric cars, because those are growing, in-demand jobs requiring a lot of training. Lowery said the device streamlines training, because someone at the maintenance base can walk workers through technical processes.

“The guy on the other end (of the communication) is looking through the camera and sees everything I’m doing, sees my hands, and he’s telling me ‘Hey, go here and do this,’ ” he said. “He can even take pictures, control my camera, annotate things, circle things.”

The 50-plus companies that RealWear has reached out to include Tesla, Exxon, UPS, Boeing and Pepsi.

There appears to be demand for these wearable tablets. According to a 2016 study from Forrester Research, there will be 14.4 million workers in the U.S. using smart glasses at work by 2025.

RealWear is targeting customers in the European Union and China as well. The company’s internal research pegs the market at about 100 million hard hat-wearing workers who could benefit from their device.

Consider a utility company. Chief Product Officer Sanjay Jhawar notes more and more utilities use sensors to transmit data. For example, a gas company may rely on sensors to graph a pipeline’s internal pressure.

“All that information comes back to a control room. They have to communicate with someone who hasn’t looked at it and, more often than not, they communicate with a two-way radio,” he said. “That’s the way it’s been done for years. What you really want to do is put a piece of that control room on the head of the workers.”

Growth in 2018

The HMT-1 retails for $1,500. Sales have already started for the device. About 500 were delivered to pilot programs so far this year, and another 3,000 are expected to be sold by the end of the year.

Lowery said RealWear expects to sell 6,000 units in the first quarter of 2018 alone, and hopes to sell tens of thousands next year. Those sales figures would align with the previously stated goal of growing the company from 20 workers today to 300 in the next few years.

“I think the potential in the market is enormous. We could easily selling a half a million to a million of these in two to three years,” Lowery said.

Many of those jobs will come in software development and sales. Right now the company is selling in 36 countries. Manufacturing is contracted to a Chinese company.

Lowery, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, said RealWear does plan on selling to the military but not for anything combat related. He said they are more interested in equipping people to maintain and repair large equipment.

The HMT-1 is the first product at RealWear. Lowery said that as the company grows they will continue to adapt and come out with new products.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ll have an HMT-2, an HMT-3 and so on.”