Warehouse worker using a head-up display for vision picking

Get Creative for Easy AR Implementation: Interview with SIX15’s CEO Rich Ryan

The HD4000 is not your average pair of smart glasses. Brainxchange’s Emily Friedman interviews Six15 CEO Rich Ryan on the new HD4000 device, the brainchild of Six15 and Zebra Technologies.

Emily: How did the collaboration with Zebra Technologies come about?

Rich: Four years ago, we started working with Zebra Technologies as they were investigating how to enter the Enterprise Augmented Reality market given the growing demand from customers. When they were looking for potential partners, they were attracted to our strengths in terms of building rugged, reliable head-worn displays in addition to our innovative optics. Those leading optics were developed over many years for our defense customers. Zebra saw the development of our product, the ST1™ head-mounted display, and chose to partner with us to advance the product to meet the demanding requirements of their customer base.

Emily: Zebra’s head-mounted display, built off Six15’s ST1™ platform, is called the HD4000. What are the unique or key features of the HD4000 that make it enterprise-ready, and is it mainly for warehousing applications?

Rich: The Zebra HD4000 is a rugged, monocular head-mounted display that seamlessly integrates with Zebra’s mobile computers. By tethering to a host device via USB, it leverages both the computing power and the battery power already in place, thus providing all-day power and increased productivity to those who benefit from hands-free, directed-action workflows.

For use cases beyond warehousing, Zebra offers the HD4000-C, which adds a camera to the on-head features. The HD4000-C is positioned to addresses manufacturing and task management, quality inspection, remote expert guidance, and more.

Emily: It’s interesting that one version has a camera and the other doesn’t. Is that due to customer feedback?

Rich: Yes, it was due to early customer feedback. Our fundamental philosophy is if it doesn’t need to be on the head or it doesn’t need to be there, you should eliminate it. There are a ton of use cases that don’t require a camera, and companies and institutions that do not always need it. Think about companies in the aerospace and defense industries, where cameras aren’t allowed in the facilities. If you just need information and do not need to interact with a camera or video, then why have a camera included in the feature set? This also allows us to reduce the weight, size, and create a solution that’s really optimized for those applications that don’t require a camera.

Emily: What are the new demands of e-commerce that the Zebra HD4000 is helping companies to meet?

Rich: There has been a lot of discussion around the new pressures placed on fulfillment due to e-commerce. Add that to the aspirations that e-commerce fulfillment companies are trying to meet like same-day delivery, next-day delivery–it’s a tall task. What we’ve found is that not only are the companies experiencing the stresses of trying to perform at the level they want to perform and attracting the number of employees they need to do so; the workers in the warehouse themselves are also experiencing high stress and difficulties in meeting those demands.

By simplifying their jobs and reducing what we call the “cognitive load” on the employee, the Zebra HD4000 allows workers to perform at the same level or higher with much less impact to their day-to-day function, while also considerably reducing stress. That’s where it becomes a game-changer. Training to perform at those levels typically takes a lot of time, but the HD4000 can really expedite the process and enable a new worker to get up to speed much more rapidly than the usual 4- to 8-week period of time during which they feel lost. This also helps with safety, as well as the mental health of the new worker, who now has the tools to meet the demands of the job.

Emily: At this past EWTS, enterprises spoke a lot about the challenges to scaling including integration with various legacy systems, on prem vs cloud, and more. How does Six15’s tech integrate securely with existing enterprise architecture?

Rich: This is a huge differentiator for this device. While we see amazing results from pilot programs in terms of performance and efficiencies, we stepped back a long time ago to ask ourselves why this isn’t scaling. Hardware issues aside (ruggedization, battery, etc.), one of the biggest issues we identified is the complex and costly integration efforts required for head-up displays.

To solve this problem, our approach was to plug into the company’s existing hardware and HUD-enable that device, so the host device continues to do all the processing and continues to integrate with the backend warehouse management or other system. We can take the same data already residing on that worker and just present it in a head-up fashion, not replicating the data but rather presenting it in a different way that’s more conducive to the job.

For example, if a company has already purchased several WT6000s (another Zebra product), the HD4000 can HUD-enable those devices instead of replacing them.

Emily: Beyond guidance and training, what are the insights and analytics enterprises are gaining from the product and how can it become a full end-to-end solution or is it not meant to be that?

Rich: When we combine the HD4000 with Zebra’s recently announced FulfilmentEdge™ software, we provide real-time data analytics as users are scanning through their locations, so now the system can understand when a worker is in a zone in which another worker might have four or five items to pick from the same order. On the fly, the solution can alter the instructions to eliminate the need for the other worker to come to the same picking zone.

To put it another way, if you’re standing in the same aisle that John Smith must go to but he’s currently 10 aisles over, it’s more efficient for you to pick the items he would have picked. So, the software uses real-time data to create additional efficiencies within the warehouse.

Emily: So, on the backend, it’s tracking where everyone is and optimizing the routes people are taking?

Rich: When I say tracking, I mean the system knows where the worker is physically due to the scan process. The software is not tracking the individual worker.

Emily: What typically drives up costs for enterprises trying to adopt AR?

Rich: There are a handful of things, including one we just touched on—the risk of eliminating the equipment you already have, acquiring new hardware and in many cases having to acquire multiple pieces of hardware because they’re not designed for all-day use. The cost of either maintaining multiple units for an individual worker or the worker continuing to go back, charge, pick up another unit…there’s an opportunity cost there.

The real big expense is writing custom software for some of the current products on the market, which have their own custom Android build on the head-worn device. To go through that implementation phase, make sure it’s secure, and provision it is costly. When you think about scaling that up, those costs vary depending on scale. And then there’s the cost of the licensing fees and all the other stuff that goes along with that.

It’s one of our advantages that we’re not creating this really complex integration to a custom Android operating system; that connection is already there. Fulfillment Edge is essentially a software application that lays over the top of what the organization already is using, almost like an app on your phone, and enables that to be displayed on a head-mounted display.

Emily: What about device management, maintaining the HD4000 and sharing the devices?

Rich: The HD4000 is completely waterproof, IP67, and resistant to all the standard cleaning chemicals. From a hygiene and human factors standpoint, you can issue a warehouse worker their own set of glasses and just swap out the module itself, so anything touching the head is that person’s own device. In terms of maintenance for firmware updates, everything can be done quickly, making device management simple and adding very little burden on top of the host device management.

Emily: What do you think is the ideal duration time for a pilot or is a pilot unnecessary in this case with the HD4000?

Rich: I think the pilot is important. That’s one of the stumbling blocks some companies have found, where they pilot on a very narrow scope, maybe 5 or 6 people over the course of a few days, and I think you need to put these devices into a real environment. Some of the pilots we’re doing right now are two shifts a day with half the shift using the device, and currently running up to 60 days. If you run a pilot that’s anything less than 30-45 days, I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get statistically significant data or user feedback.

Emily: Do you see any similar collaborations in Six15’s future?

Rich: We do. We are currently in early discussions for several collaborations. There’s no one size fits all approach when it comes to enterprise use cases and as a technology company, with expertise in developing optics and head-mounted displays, we look forward to the opportunity to collaborate with industry leaders to tailor solutions that meet their customer demands.

Emily: A number of speakers at EWTS 2019 also spoke about working with solution providers to make their products better. What is some of the best customer feedback you’ve gotten, something that may have impacted the design of the HD4000?

Rich: Over the last four years, we’ve had the opportunity to work with solution providers that directly interact with their customer to hear their feedback. We listened: “This is great, but it’s running really hot on the side of my head; the battery doesn’t last long enough; we don’t want our workers to look up and be distracted; we don’t want it occluded, etc.” and that feedback enabled us to design the HD4000 in the way that we did.