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Vancouver-based RealWear partners with Chinese utility State Grid

Company's headsets give workers hands-free computer access in field

By , Columbian business reporter
Published: February 8, 2019, 6:04am
3 Photos
A State Grid worker looks at the screen on a RealWear HMT-1 headset.
A State Grid worker looks at the screen on a RealWear HMT-1 headset. Photo Gallery

Vancouver-based RealWear announced this week it has been selected to partner with the State Grid Corporation of China for a pilot program to implement RealWear’s hands-free computer hardware.

State Grid is the largest utility company in the world and the second-largest overall company by revenue, according to Fortune’s Global 500 list. The Chinese state-owned firm supplies power to an estimated 1.1 billion consumers and employs more than 900,000 people.

RealWear produces headsets that respond to voice controls and feature an adjustable arm with a display in front of the user’s eye, allowing for hands-free computer interaction while on the job. The company’s products look a bit like more rugged versions of the Google Glass headset debuted in 2014.

Unlike Google’s general-purpose headset, RealWear’s two headset models — the HMT-1 and the HMT-1Z1 — are designed specifically for industry workers who need both hands free while on the job, such as while climbing ladders or operating machinery.

In the case of the power industry, electrical workers need to wear insulated gloves while working on live power lines, but those same gloves prevent them from using touch-screen devices, which require contact with a conductive material.

The RealWear headsets can be clipped to the brim of hard hats, and the arm with the display sits a couple inches away from the user’s face, leaving room for safety glasses to be worn underneath. The HMT-1 headsets sell for $2,000 apiece, while the more rugged 1Z1 sells for $5,000, according to the company’s online store.

The headsets are intended to give workers access to the same kind of data and computer functions they could get from an Android tablet, but using voice controls. RealWear also touts the headsets’ noise-cancelling technology, which the company says allows the headsets to be used even in loud industrial environments.

“For decades, knowledge transfer via heads-up display systems has increased situational awareness and saved lives in the military,” RealWear CEO Andy Lowery said in a news release. “RealWear brings those increases in safety and situational awareness to industry.”

The State Grid pilot program is already underway in Shanghai using RealWear HMT-1 headsets. The goal, according to RealWear head of communications Aaron Cohen, is to give the workers a way to safely receive remote assistance while they’re working on the job.

“This is a fairly large pilot,” Cohen said in an interview with The Columbian. “There are 200 HMT-1 headsets being deployed in Shanghai. It’s for live line or hot wire maintenance — those are very high-voltage lines, so it’s a dangerous procedure.”

The headsets are equipped with high-definition video cameras that can allow other workers to watch remotely through the “eyes” of the worker on the line, and help guide them through the process. Workers can also call up technical documents and instructions to be viewed on the device’s display.

“Having the support of your team right there with you when handling dangerous procedures can help mitigate accidents while speeding [up] maintenance procedures,” Lowery said in the release. “We’re proud to see the HMT-1 help keep the lights on safely for 1.1 billion energy consumers.”

RealWear was founded in 2017 and is headquartered in Vancouver, at 600 Hatheway Road. The company’s sales, marketing and operations personnel are located at the main office, while the primary design team works out of a second office in San Jose, Calif. The company also maintains sales offices in multiple countries, and has been quickly expanding its global reach.

“We have hundreds of pilot (programs) occurring in countries like Germany, France, Norway, Finland, the U.S. of course, and Canada,” Cohen said. “China is one of our significant markets.”

Some of those pilot programs have evolved into full-scale partnerships, including a deal with the Colgate-Palmolive Co. that was announced in October. The global household and consumer product manufacturer announced that it would deploy hundreds of HMT-1 headsets to be used by mechanics and engineers at 20 of its largest manufacturing plants.

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“Colgate-Palmolive tested RealWear HMT-1 through successful pilots in 8 locations and is now standardizing globally on this wearable device for our manufacturing operations,” Warren Pruitt, Colgate-Palmolive’s vice president of global engineering said in a news release last October. “Looking ahead, we see opportunity to use this tool beyond the plant floor for improved performance and new efficiencies.”

It’s unknown how long the State Grid pilot program will last, Cohen said, or whether it will lead to a broader partnership. Part of the goal of the pilot program is to give State Grid leaders a chance to experiment with the technology and find the best ways to use it.

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