RealWear aims to dominate assisted reality with head-mounted tablet

Article By : Brian Santo

The startup has a helmet-mounted rig with a head-up display that was designed to be the most practical option for the most practical uses.

In “The Graduate” a family friend sums up the future for Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock with one word: plastics. Things have changed since 1967. RealWear CEO Andy Lowery will tell you from here on out the future is all about centaurs.

Mythological centaurs, you might recall, are half-human, half-horse. Computer assistance is what defines modern centaurs. Legendary chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov adopted the metaphor to describe human chess players who supplement their own strategic chess acumen with the tactical calculating power of chess computers. It is said to be virtually impossible for either a human alone or for a computer alone to beat a competent chess centaur.

Humans are now in the process of becoming general-purpose centaurs, Lowery said. “Boomers are retiring and millennials do not remember a time when they didn’t have a device in their hands,” he observed.

A common example of centaur behavior is navigating even familiar places with the aid of a GPS. Some older people might do it a little more fitfully, while millennials (and younger) tend to do it flawlessly. It’s just the way they’ve learned to do things, Lowery observed.

RealWear was determined to design a device that could be used to enable centaurs. The company sells a helmet-mounted device with a small video screen attached to a reticulated boom. Ruggedized for industrial environments, the HMT-1 delivers whatever visual support materials the user might require–manuals, instructional overlays, video, etc.

It's one of the classic use cases for the IoT and the type of thing that 5G proponents dream about.

In essence, the HMT-1 has almost all the same elements as an Android tablet, including a Qualcomm 8-core Snapdragon 625 processor, 16 GB of memory, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, along with USB and MicroSD slots. Those elements are reformatted into a ruggedized, horseshoe-shaped rig that can be mounted to a hardhat or other headgear. That’s the derivation of HMT, by the way – it stands for head mounted tablet. Aside from the configuration, the most obvious difference is that the screen is smaller, roughly the height and width of a matchbox – though clearly visible from a centimeter or three away.

The rig runs on a rechargeable battery roughly the size of a standard AA, and just as easily replaced. It lasts roughly 12 hours with ordinary usage.

Being Android-based, the HMT-1 can host any number of apps. Users can call up materials stored locally, but it can also be networked in order to provide access to materials stored elsewhere.

The author wearing a helmet equipped with an HMT-1 display.

Another difference from the average tablet is that it is entirely voice-activated. It’s possible to use the USB slot to add a mouse or a joystick, but the main input method is voice. The technology is “totally different” from Alexa and Google, Lowery noted. “It’s a clearly bifurcated technology track.”

RealWear runs HPE VRG (visual remote guidance), which provides the mechanism for the HMT-1’s voice input capabilities. It currently recognizes a fairly extensive menu of specific commands. Lowery said one of the next steps will be to support natural language.

HPE VRG also makes it possible for an HMT-1 user to connect with anyone anywhere else in the world for collaboration or consultation. Using capabilities inherent in HPE VRG, the user and remote guest can share video being captured by the HMT-1's camera and the remote guest can annotate that video in real time. Think of the telestrators used by the announcers of televised pro football games [see “The hoops connection” on page 2].

Most customers of the HMT-1 use it to access sources of information useful for whatever they’re doing. That’s why Lowery tends to refer to the HMT-1 as a knowledge transfer platform. It’s for centaurs looking to their computers for assistance to accomplish tasks.

The distinction plays into the way RealWear sees the market segmenting, and to understand the segments it’s necessary to define terms:

  • Virtual reality is when everything in view is computer-generated imagery.
  • Augmented reality is when computer-generated images are projected into the real world. A form of mixed reality.
  • Augmented virtuality is when a real object is placed in a virtual reality. A form of mixed reality. An example would be the holodeck in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
  • Assisted reality is when computer-generated imagery is available in a head-up display (HUD).

RealWear is aiming at the assisted reality market. The HMT-1 is not the most technologically sophisticated device in the assisted/augmented/virtual reality device market, and that’s by design. The company is less interested in being sexy than in establishing itself as the largest wearable company in the world by the end of this year.

To that end, having a fully functional device based on stable and mature technology means the product is reliable for use in industrial applications. Furthermore, it makes it easier to qualify under military TRL/MRL (technology readiness level, manufacturing readiness level) guidelines for the military and military contracting markets.

Lowery said RealWear has a target of $20 million in annual revenue in 2018. Each HMT-1 goes for about $2,000, and the company has shipped 3,000 so far. A little over a quarter of the way into the year, the company is a little over a quarter of the way toward its goal.

Customers of the HMT-1 include oil companies, which use it on oil rigs; Frito-Lay, which has factories so loud that floor workers have never been able to communicate at all prior to adopting the HMT-1; and a hospital in Finland, which uses it to capture video of surgeries for use in training other surgeons.

RealWear’s HMT-1 would clearly benefit immeasurably from a 5G wireless broadband connection, and when prompted about wireless connectivity, Lowery declared the device the quintessential streaming video app.

The company deliberately did not build 4G or 5G connectivity into the product because then it would have had to go through an FCC approval process guaranteed to delay the market introduction until sometime well into 2018. The company’s choice was between integrated wireless broadband connectivity and the chance at early market dominance, and it chose the latter.

As it is, HMT-1 users can and do set up Wi-Fi hotspots as a bridge for broadband connectivity, and that can be a wired or wireless source. Future versions of the product might have 5G built in, however. Lowery said both Nokia and Huawei have shown interest in the HMT-1 for exactly that reason.

[Continue reading on EDN US: The hoops connection]

Brian Santo has been writing about science and technology for over 30 years, covering cable networks, broadband, wireless, the Internet of things, T&M, semiconductors, consumer electronics, and more.

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