Here's how smart glasses and connected tech shape the workplace of the future

Fujitsu's smart glasses, connected van and tracking tags help you work smarter, not harder.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Alarms are screaming, steam is billowing everywhere, and it looks like things are about to blow. You're standing in the outer reaches of the plant staring down some majorly malfunctioning machinery and the only person who can help is a mile away in the control room. What the heck are you going to do?

That's when a big colourful arrow appears in front of your eyes, pointing at the valve you need to close. You close it and the plant is saved.

That's just one of the possible scenarios in which technology can help you work smarter in future. The opportunities for mobile technology to help your work extend way beyond checking your email on your phone when you're on the train. At the Mobile World Congress technology trade show in Barcelona, I caught up with Fujitsu to see how workers can beam what they see to colleagues who can give advice, avoid workplace hazards and call for assistance with location-tracking kit, and jump into connected vans that know whether you've got the right tools for the job.

First up, I tried out Fujitsu's augmented reality headset, a sleeker and now commercially-available version of an idea we saw a couple of years in a more experimental form. The streamlined headset and a camera attach to your hard hat, showing you a tiny screen that overlays information on top of what you're looking at. That could include, for example, instructions on how to work or repair the machinery in front of you. The video feed from your helmet is relayed to a central supervisor, who can guide you by drawing or writing on their screen and having that note appear in your eyepiece -- so your colleague could draw the arrow pointing to the lever you have to pull, for instance.

The technology also allows you to "annotate" the scene in front of you by attaching notes and photos about the work you've done, so when the next person comes to work on that piece of machinery they'll see, in their visor, notes about previous repairs or photos of what it should look like.

Voice commands are used for the headset to keep hands free for actual work. For more complex input, Fujitsu has a Bluetooth keyboard that straps to your wrist. Back in the lab, the company is experimenting with a wearable ring that reads your gestures so you can wave a hand around to control your kit.

Fujitsu's industrial tech isn't just for use in the factory. Whether you're inside a work facility or out in the field, you can wear a tracker tag to monitor your whereabouts. Obviously you don't want your boss to be able to tell when you've wandered off for a spot of lollygagging, but you would be grateful if you had an accident and hitting the tracker's built-in emergency button brought help straight to you. The tracker can also monitor height, so you can climb ladders, gantries or machinery with the knowledge your co-workers know where you are.

Have you suffered a trip or a fall in the workplace? Remember, where there's a blame there's a claim.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Back at base, supervisors can mark on a digital map the areas that are dangerous, whether it's because of some kind of toxic spill, malfunctioning machinery or any other workplace hazard. If you inadvertently wander into the danger zone, your colleagues can alert you to hightail it out of there.

Vehicles and equipment can also be tracked. A connected van is a vehicle kitted out with routers that keep track of its whereabouts, helping supervisors schedule appointments or direct you to your destination. Once you arrive, the parts or tools for the job are fitted with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that allow you to check kit in and out. If you don't have the right part or tool in your van, the system will tell you if any other workers in the vicinity do, aiding you in rendezvousing with them to grab what you need and quickly return to the job.

One possible cause of accidents is drivers staying on the road too long and nodding off. Fujitsu's remedy to this comes in the form of a drowsiness detector neckband, which includes a pulse monitor that clips to your earlobe. While that would take a bit of getting used to, it could save your life on long trips. The drowsiness detector has two levels: if it detects you're starting to flag, it gives you a soft alert as a reminder to open a window, stop for a coffee or crank up the Metallica on the car stereo. If it spots that you're really nodding off, it gives you a harder alert to wake you up before disaster strikes.

The system also has a sound sensor that listens to the noise of the engine and identifies faults. The idea is that by listening to the sounds coming from the engine, the system can spot various types of fault, instead of having to install sensors in every bit of the engine. Where there is a problem, the system can then automatically schedule a time for the vehicle to be repaired.

One interesting aspect of these devices is that they don't just work in the moment. They collect data on the work you do to identify if process or schedules could be improved. For example, patterns in the data collected by devices installed in vehicles can be used to find more efficient routes.

A particularly creative use of that data would be made in the agricultural realm with a Fujitsu tracker tag affixed to livestock. Yes, we're talking about a connected cow. The idea is that tracking a cow's movements tells a farmer when the animal is most fertile, and the data can even reveal if offspring is going to be male or female.

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