This blog post originally appeared as an article in the April/May 2015 issue of the AircraftIT MRO eJournal.
As mobility is reaching a state of ubiquity in aircraft maintenance, attention is now turning to the next big thing with mobile aviation IT. For me, one candidate deserving of attention is wearable technology.
In 2014, we saw the launch of a number of wearable devices, which seemed merely proofs of concepts. The availability of Android watches and Google Glass smart spectacles, although commercial flops and possible halfbaked, allowed technologist to experiment with use cases and form factors. It’s the launch of next-generation devices in 2015 that – although not guaranteed to be any more commercially successful – points to a more interesting wearable market future.
The Apple Watch is probably the most hotly anticipated wearable device of 2015. It’s clearly a consumer product… effectively an accessory for the iPhone. Most features require tethering to the iPhone and its lack of GPS or networking chips limit its usefulness to MRO. Its primary utility comes from notifications and alerts. Apple seems to have gone to great lengths to research and develop advancements in haptic alerts (vibrating alerts you can feel) and a user interface that conveys the necessary information, literally at a glance. It’s therefore a very expensive pager from an MRO business perspective but, as always, it’s interesting to see the results of some experiments with the form factor pushing forward our understanding of user experience and the mobility landscape.
More interesting for me is the next generation of head or face worn devices. I know of at least one airline experimenting with smart glasses to equip mechanics with an augmented view of their surroundings, exposing meta-content to their wearers and delivering the promise of hands-free maintenance.
Augmented reality shows a lot of promise for MRO, and virtual reality provides immersive experiences that may benefit training or simulation use cases. There are now (or soon will be) solutions for Android, iOS and Windows platforms that deliver a mixture of both immersive user experiences and real-time views of the user’s surroundings. One such example, with genuine potential for MRO, is the Microsfot Hololens; a head-worn unit that allows access to both virtual and augmented reality experience. The killer feature is that software that works on any Windows device will ‘just work’ on Hololens.
However, as experience with early mobile solutions taught us, just because you put the same old legacy software on a new device, it doesn’t necessarily make it any good. In order to fully embrace new wearable hardware solutions, we must reimagine the user experience and interface… develop a new language and grammar for user interactions with our software. How do you search for data without a keyboard or mouse for example; or sign a release without a stylus or a pen?
These challenges all need to be explored and resolved in order to deliver value to users.
So, what else is on the wearables horizon? I was talking with a representative from one technology OEM recently who told me that, according to some of their own studies, the most effective way to transmit notifications to workers in a maintenance environment is via haptic alerts into their shoes. The rationale is that an alert experienced in your foot is more likely to be noticed and is less disruptive to somebody in the middle of a critical process.
That said, it might be a while before you’re asking your MRO software vendors for shoe-compatible features, but might not be too far in the future when the term ‘booting the server’ has a completely different connotation…. or at least that’s how I see IT.