Call it in-your-face EPS. The computer screen is strapped to a visor that hangs a postage stamp-sized monitor in front of one of your eyes. This visor, which resembles the goggles currently in vogue with virtual-reality pioneers, is connected to a computer attached to your belt. The computer is about half again as large as a Walkman-type portable radio and weighs about 3 pounds. The final element of the system is a microphone, also attached to the visor, that transmits verbal commands to the computer.
This bodyware is connected to a larger network of computers using a built- in wireless LAN (local area network) card. With this connection, the employee can access any information on the network while still moving freely about the factory floor. The wireless device that gives the cyberworker full access to the company’s network has an effective range of 800 feet, says Thompson.
While this kind of mobile EPS is very new and still undergoing development, it’s not just an academic experiment. Thompson is working with Cagle’s Inc., an Atlanta-based poultry processor that hopes to outfit some employees with FAST systems as a way to get crucial information to and from workers in the chicken-processing plant.
The quality-assurance people on the floor would use the FAST system primarily to input data about the quality of the chickens and other environmental factors via the microphone. While they may access classic EPS information about how to do a certain task from time to time, says Thompson, they mostly would use the bodyware to send information to the network so the number crunchers have the most current data.
The more data-intensive users are the people who maintain the chicken-processing machines, and for them the mobile EPS is designed to be an information lifeline. According to Thompson, the machines that measure and cut up the chickens are becoming more and more sophisticated. (One such half-million-dollar machine records a computer image of the chicken breast and then figures out the optimum slicing configuration to chop it into nuggets using high-pressure water jets.) No need to take the time to train technicians in all the arcana of fixing these machines; the FAST system lets them get instant documentation and repair procedures for the chicken choppers.
Because the Cagle’s plant processes between 100,000 and 300,000 chickens a day, the company can ill afford to have these machines break down very often. The FAST bodyware helps employees diagnose and fix these machines as fast as possible – an important consideration when dealing with perishable food products. If you have to shut down the line, Thompson explains, you have to get the chickens into refrigerated environments quickly. The EPS not only helps technicians fix the machines, it also tells them the availability of parts and even where in the inventory to find replacement parts.
Voice activation, which allows hands-free communication with the computer, is a key functional requirement of the system. It’s also one of the trickier challenges. Voice recognition is still very young technology, and all the bugs haven’t been ironed out Moreover, Cagle’s employees work in a very noisy environment. Thompson gets around this obstacle by locating a directional microphone very close to the mouth of the user. He also discovered that phrases like “show me how to measure” are better than one- word commands like “show” because there is more variation in the sounds when you use a phrase. That helps the software differentiate among commands.
Limiting the vocabulary of commands that the employees use also helps. A quality-control worker dealing with dead chickens will not be using a huge variety of words to describe what he sees during inspection, so the voice recognition only has to learn the job-specific terms.
For maintenance workers, Thompson also must consider issues like battery life and safe hard disk storage. As the EPS provides more sophisticated support for those who repair and maintain machines, the portable computer will need ample hard disk space to store the multimedia instructions. It will also need RAID support, which is currently provided by these technicians. The wireless LAN built into the computer is sufficient for uploading and downloading data, but it’s too slow to access multimedia off a server. Consequently, maintenance people will need bigger (though not physically larger) hard drives than those used by the quality-control workers.
The future of bodyware and EPS systems that can follow workers around is encouraging, says Thompson. He can already see military applications. For example, when the army has to fix one of its high-tech tanks, it needs a truckload of manuals and two people: one to stand on the turret and shout instructions from the documentation, and a mechanic in the tank to actually fix it. A variation on Thompson’s FAST system could be a natural solution for applications like that. No pun intended at his poultry client, Thompson says about his work, “We’re definitely on the bleeding edge.”