Riding the Wearable Wave: Great Scott! Is Back to the Future Here?

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Flying cars may not be the norm these days, as predicted in "Back to the Future II," when Doc Brown and Marty McFly traveled 30 years into the future and landed on Oct. 21, 2015, but there are many technological inventions in play now than there were in 1985.

Wherever one goes these days, someone likely sports a FitBit or Apple Watch. Is the wearable wave a reality for contractors or just motion picture madness?

"I expect to see more wearables in construction," says Rob McKinney, The Construction App Guru in Atlanta. "As they get more reliable and have more functionality, I think you will see integration in the construction market." Some trendsetters have pioneered the use of wearables. McKinney expects more companies will soon try them, and late adapters will eventually join the wearable trend.

James Benham, chief executive officer, JBKnowledge in Bryan/College Station, Texas, adds that more than 9 percent of 2,000 construction companies are using wearables, according to a recent survey by his company.

"Cost will be an issue for some contractors, but the availability of software platforms is the biggest issue," Benham says. "There is not a lot of software available for wearable devices in construction." Benham thinks another year will pass before enough wearable software is available to entice contractors. The needed apps must bring the data from wearables together into an easy-to-view Web-based and mobile dashboard. At the same time, hardware is improving, with more sensors, and costs are coming down.

"Then you will see rapid adoption with the potential savings on safety, health and wellness and elimination of manual tasks that can be automated with wearable apps," Benham adds. 

Now is a time to experiment by having one or two workers wear the device in the field, collect data with standard apps that come with the devices and determine the effectiveness, Benham recommends. Companies also must work with their attorneys to draft a document to obtain employee consent for wearing the device and collecting data.

The Apple Watch functions as an extension of the iPhone. The Watch starts at $349 and runs several construction apps.It continually monitors the wearer’s pulse  and location. FitBit Surge, with pulse and GPS tracking, costs $250. "It will be interesting to see where the Apple Watch or FitBit go to monitor employee safety," McKinney says. "It will be huge."

A safety official on the jobsite will be able to observe changes and respond to someone who starts running a high pulse, to check if he or she is having a heart attack or ran up several flights of stairs, or assess whether someone with a zero pulse took the device off or had a cardiac arrest. 

"In the future, monitoring health is going to be very interesting," McKinney says.

TDIndustries in Dallas, a member of multiple Texas AGC chapters, already has employed FitBits for health and safety. This fall, the company held the Fitbit Step Challenge. TDIndustries sold FitBit Zip devices for a reduced $25. Employees walked more than 37.5 million steps. 

"Partners are teamed up across the company, and weekly winners were announced through our social media and Intranet," says Maureen Underwood, executive vice president, People Department, TDIndustries. 

DAQRI smart helmet. photo courtesy of DAQRI In addition to a pulse, Microsoft Band, approximately $100, can measure air temperature, humidity and quality to determine if it is safe to work at the site that day, Benham says.

Wearables, whether a watch or safety vest, also could be used to set up GPS geofencing that would alert a supervisor or safety director if a worker crossed into an area in which he or she was not allowed. Devices also could track if the worker
strays too close to moving equipment. Researchers and students at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, are developing the InZoneAlert vest that will alert a road-building worker if a vehicle approaches and send the motorist a warning. It would give the construction worker a few seconds to get out of the way. The device remains in prototype testing.

Contractors also could monitor employee activity through wearables, McKinney says. He admits the safety aspect will gain easier acceptance than checking to see if workers are in the assigned area or if they have not moved from a break area within the designated time.

Field personnel can photograph milestones, deliveries, punchlist items or problems with an Apple Watch or Google Glass, 
which is not currently being marketed.
Todd Wynne, construction technology manager, Rogers-O’Brien Construction in Dallas, was a beta tester for Google Glass. Rogers-O’Brien, a member of multiple AGC chapters, was able to load drawings but not the BIM model, yet with the necessary head movements, Glass was not practical. For other applications, Google Glass required speech recognition, but on noisy jobsites that became problematic, as was the battery life. It did allow connections with off-site experts who could see what the wearer was looking at.
"This is the future," Wynne says. "It’s an exciting time in the industry." Epson’s Moverio Smart Glasses are available at $700. ODG’s R-7 Smart Glasses are available for pre-order at $2,750. Both can take photos for punchlist items.
The DAQRI Smart Helmet, a hardhat integrated with a 4D display positioned under a protective visor, will allow the wearer to stream messages, videos and photos. It also will place 3D model data in front of the wearer’s eyes. DAQRI is now in prototype.
"It’s awesome, but they still have some work ahead," Wynne says. "It’s a cool design and with software, it will be powerful."
Wearing an Apple Watch, someone can check a text or an email during a meeting, without answering a phone or pulling out a tablet.
"Looking at a watch is still socially acceptable," McKinney says. "It’s great to stay connected in a stealth manner."
In the field, someone can answer the phone on the Apple Watch or Band or call for help if needed. Construction workers in cold-weather locales never will have their phones run out of juice when wearing a Bosch Power Tools $200 heated jacket, with a 12V battery that allows the wearer to charge a phone or most personnel electronic devices with a USB plug while the device is in the jacket pocket.
The Myo armband, worn on the arm, allows a user to wirelessly control other devices with gestures and motions. It reads muscle activity in the arm.
McKinney can give a PowerPoint presentation and move the slides back and forth or zoom in without holding a pointer.
Clark Construction of Bethesda, Maryland, a member of multiple AGC chapters, has used Oculus Rift technology on several projects to let clients better visualize their future facilities. This summer, the chief district architect for the U.S. District Court’s Central District of California conducted a virtual walk through of the new federal courthouse in Los Angeles, 18 months before the project will finish.
Brasfield & Gorrie in Atlanta, a member of multiple AGC chapters, paired Oculus Rift DK2 goggles, commercially available in early 2016, with Xbox controllers to let doctors, nurses and key leaders at Piedmont Fayette Hospital in Fayetteville, Georgia, take a virtual tour of the facility months ahead of construction, avoiding the cost associated with physical mock ups. They could experience how different rooms looked and would function.
"The Oculus Rift allowed for an additional degree of project understanding and perspective during the design phase that could not be normally gained, and virtual reality, in general, accomplishes this through ‘immersion,’" says Scott Cloud, regional director of virtual design and construction at Brasfield & Gorrie.
"The goggles ‘immerse’ the users in the virtual environment by giving them a visceral feeling of being physically present in a nonphysical world and creating a sense of spatial awareness in relation to the objects within that environment."
Participants shared a number of comments, which were then weighed as options to be included in the final design, including changes to the service connections at the patient headwall for medical gases, power and other medical equipment locations.
"Being able to give different groups of the project team the ability to better understand how the design, constructability and functionality would come together was truly invaluable," Cloud recalls. "Virtual reality technology is still in its infancy and s evolving at an exponential pace. It will be exciting to see how the industry adaps and begins to further utilize and leverage this technology to better serve their clients."
Trendsetters have started investigating different wearable technologies and are putting them to work to improve all aspects of construction. More contractors will likely follow.
"Wearables are a band new industry," Benham concludes. "Construction is very interested in it." 

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