Visor-Ex 01 from ECOM Instruments

Visor-Ex 01 from ECOM Instruments

| Ecom Instruments
2023-06-30 publication

Wearables: Vision 2.0

Smart glasses and lenses bring information into view that can enrich and simplify our jobs and everyday lives. However, these new technologies also have quite a few drawbacks that researchers and industry are trying to solve.

By Julian Hörndlein


VDE dialog - the technology magazine

It’s windy and stormy far out at sea. Out on a huge oil rig, there’s a handful of people in safety vests and protective helmets who look rather out of place. The number of employees is kept low on offshore platforms like this, and the reason why is obvious enough: oil rigs are potentially explosive, hazardous facilities. Fewer people means fewer lives at risk, not to mention lower costs. But the brave souls out on this rig have been issued more than just vests and helmets. Their headgear is equipped with futuristic-looking glasses that deliver information on the work steps they need to carry out. The glasses also transmit data to colleagues on the mainland, who can view the events in real time. The Visor-Ex 01 was developed by the Pepperl+Fuchs brand ECOM Instruments for use in potentially explosive areas like this. A display can be folded down over the user’s dominant eye to show them information they would otherwise see on a smartphone. “Freedom of movement and flexibility are still unimpeded, and the screen can be folded up when walking,” explains Christian Uhl, Head of Communications at Pepperl+Fuchs.

Unrealized potential

The Visor-Ex 01 is just one of many smart glasses whose applications are currently being researched and tested in various industries. Eye wearables promise efficiency gains by extending the user's field of view to include information designed to make their work easier. For a long time, there was even more hype surrounding smart contact lenses, which would not require a cumbersome frame. It sounds like a great idea, but the technology has suffered setbacks in recent years. Expectations were high in 2014 when Google announced that it was selling the rights for its smart lens to the pharmaceutical manufacturer Novartis. People spoke of the lens’s potential to “cure” age-related long-sightedness and help diabetic patients measure their blood sugar levels via chemical sensors. This research was halted in 2018, though, and has yet to resume. “The research with smart contact lenses revealed that chemical sensors produce unreliable results,” explains Thomas Stieglitz, professor of biomedical microtechnology at the University of Freiburg and head of the VDE DGBMT expert committee on neuroprosthetics and intelligent implants. While it’s certainly possible to use such sensors to detect changes in measured values (such as glucose levels), establishing a baseline for determining the degree of change is difficult. This is due to the fact that a baseline value can shift, which is referred to as “drift”. According to Stieglitz, optical sensors could be more stable. “In the future, I can imagine us using solutions based on a mix of physical and optical sensors, maybe with just a few chemical sensors,” he continues.

The technical implementation is only one of the problems facing medical technology when it comes to wearables for the eyes. The solutions also have to comply with an array of regulations, which makes ongoing development tedious and expensive. Stieglitz sees one solution in a worthwhile detour: instead of starting with medical products, companies could gain experience and practice by initially producing wearables for the more profitable consumer market. Smartwatches, for instance, are primarily worn during recreation. They now not only monitor the wearer’s pulse during sports, but also carry out ECG measurements and provide information about blood oxygen content. This development path means that today’s leisure wearables may become tomorrow’s medical products.

The Microsoft HoloLens, a pair of data glasses with a wide frame and a dark screen against a white background.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is an augmented reality headset that allows users to move and store – or save – virtual objects in real-world spaces.

| Microsoft

Smart glasses conquering industry

That said, the medical lens from Google and Novartis isn’t the only project that has failed. Last year, the US company Mojo Vision carried out its first wearing tests with a contact lens designed to bring augmented reality directly to the eye without special glasses. With a pixel density of 14,000 ppi and no wires, the lens initially stoked huge expectations. The hopes of its reaching market maturity in 2025 have been dashed, however, and Mojo Vision has put work on the lens on hold. The company justified this decision by pointing to unexamined market potential and a lack of investors. When it comes to smart glasses, the future looks brighter. In recent years, various models have been presented with the aim of improving work in many industries. There is a distinction here between glasses with a display that slightly restricts the field of view, and augmented reality glasses such as the HoloLens from Microsoft. The latter are much larger and are already offering users something like an augmented environment. Marvin Schobert, a research associate at the Institute for Factory Automation and Production Systems (FAPS) at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), sees smart glasses gaining ground in more areas, especially in the industrial sector. Most importantly: “In both production and medicine, the majority of use cases are aimed at developing employee information systems,” he explains. People who no longer have to hold smartphones, tablets or laptops when working in a factory will typically have both hands free. Smart glasses can be useful for things like navigating indoors, displaying assembly and test instructions, or showing the status of equipment and products. In addition, employees in the workplace can be trained remotely by a supervisor who sees what they see through the cameras installed in their glasses.

Schobert sees great potential for the future, but also plenty of room for improvement. He is calling for a higher degree of individualization, and also wants existing systems to generate more value. Philipp Beckerle, a professor of autonomous systems and mechatronics at FAU, agrees: “Many of us have probably read about big announcements that ultimately failed to bring about the promised change,” he says. Beckerle also considers the level of academic work on the subject to be insufficient so far. “There’s interest in research in many areas, such as displays and projection, but also in sensor technology and motion detection.” He sees smart glasses as part of an interface system in which the combination of different input and output devices is particularly important.

Alexander Mertens

“We can’t let people be overwhelmed by smart glasses.”, Alexander Mertens, Professor of Ergonomics and Human-Machine Systems, RWTH Aachen

| RWTH Aachen

Focus on occupational health and ergonomics

Wearables for the eyes are designed to make work easier. If they start playing too big a role in the wearer’s daily work, however, this can become a problem. “Employees should still be the ones in charge of doing their jobs,” explains Patrick Bauer from the Austrian production union PRO-GE. In 2021, he and several partners conducted a study on the use of augmented reality systems in the workplace. They found that using glasses to automate work instructions and act as a digital supervisor puts employees at risk. However, Bauer does not want to demonize such devices in principle. In his view, they can make training sessions more immersive than ever by making the virtual world seem especially vivid. During fire safety training, for example, you would never set a company building on fire. “With smart glasses, you can,” Bauer says.

Applications like these can improve the quality of work. Appropriate regulations are also necessary, though, explains Alexander Mertens, professor of ergonomics and human-machine systems at RWTH Aachen. “We can’t let people be overwhelmed by smart glasses,” he asserts. In terms of physical ergonomics, he says the devices have made a big leap forward in the past ten years. Small glasses in particular are easy to wear and leave plenty of room for maneuvering. “The bigger problem is the mental ergonomics,” Mertens says. The amount of data to be processed is already growing exponentially. He’s therefore calling for solutions that further increase the benefits of smart glasses and lenses without making them a burden on users.

Julian Hörndlein is a freelance technology journalist in nuremberg.