Tech & Science

Tapping Your Inner Robot

In the Magazine
Employees push empty carts as they prepare to process customer orders ahead of shipping at one of Inc.'s fulfillment centers in Rugeley, U.K., Dec. 2, 2013. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty

Amazon recently announced it was staffing three of its distribution centers with robots. As the online orders come in, dozens of knee-high droids scurry across the floor like bees in a hive, carrying out "pick-and-pack" duties once performed by employees-fetching inventory from shelves and packing them into boxes for delivery.

As for the employees? "We will be adding associates certainly over time," Amazon Chief Financial Officer Tom Szkutak said last year. But with robots, "there certainly will be productivity." Analysts estimated the system, called Kiva, could spare Amazon as much as $900 million, mostly in labor costs, savings that would roll down to consumers.

But what if you could make people more efficient—more like robots? Developers are racing to perfect new technology called augmented reality (AR), which blends digital information with the real world. In small ways, it's already here. The Yelp app, for example, displays restaurant reviews when you point your iPhone camera down the block. It's easy to imagine how useful this kind of technology could be in a warehouse. Almost every product-based company has a place to stash its goods, and some depots sprawl across a million square feet or more. For people who work in these places, it's like hunting through the inventory aisles at IKEA eight hours a day, their marching orders coming in on handheld devices or pieces of paper.

In an AR world, all the information they need would be beamed directly into their field of vision. One company, called Augmate, is designing software for specialized glasses to do just that. "These are people who need their hands to do their jobs," Augmate co-founder Drew Austin tells Newsweek. Digital glasses can project Google Maps-like instructions directly onto the warehouse floor, like bread crumbs to the right inventory. A camera mounted on the frame can scan the item's bar code to ensure accuracy.

Already, there's evidence from a Columbia University study that augmented reality glasses can save time and energy for maintenance workers. And in February, the U.S. Navy invested in AR glasses technology to speed up training. Augmate, meanwhile, says it is working on prototypes with a retailer, an automaker and a pharmaceutical company, "the largest companies in those industries," and plans to launch pilot programs later this year. "There's going to be rapid evolution of this technology," Austin says. "In my mind, this is giving workers a fighting chance."

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