Thanks to video technologies such as Skype and Facetime, our world is increasingly smaller. With nothing more than an internet connection and a camera you can talk to anyone, anywhere, across the globe. It’s revolutionized how we work, yes, but we haven’t quite cracked the feeling of being in the same room as someone else. It’s a challenge that the international teams of Siemens face on a regular basis, especially engineers and others who spend a lot of their time “in the field”, often working with multiple partners in multiple markets, in multiple languages.
Communication isn’t just what we say; it’s how we gesticulate and subconsciously express ourselves. We’re human beings: we’ll never lose the need for tangible human interaction, so we need to find ways of working remotely without losing the nuances and benefits of face-to-face conversation.
It’s a challenge that Peter Schopf, Senior Manager Business Development & Strategy, Rail Electrification at Siemens in Germany, is aiming to solve, inspired by the engineers he’s been working with. With his colleagues, Peter devised the Digital Commissioning Engineer, enabling people to interact beyond the typical VOiP video call. It’s a creative blend of hardware and software packaged in a pair of smart glasses, that uses augmented reality to show drawings, notes, annotations and other types of multimedia on top of video. None of the actual technology is new — it uses new combinations of existing products. And its implications goes far beyond the world of engineers. It could revolutionize how we communicate and understand people in other parts of the world.
Re-imagining the future of working in the field
Peter isn’t your average tech entrepreneur — he’s more of a salesman — but the 10 years he’s been working at Siemens has led Peter to think in an entirely new way. “I really like thinking about the future,” he says, “imagining about how things will be in 10 years time.” His experience with engineers gave him a unique insight into how they need to collaborate, especially when working remotely.
Commissioning Engineers have an exciting job. One week they might be installing a new machine component in one part of the world, the next an entire building in another. It’s incredibly collaborative and dynamic, but they often come back from trips without achieving the outcome they wanted, or just need much more time than planned. “I couldn’t help but think that there must a better way of doing things.” says Peter.
Part of the problem is that they have to be able to share incredibly detailed information. Not only do they have to direct someone but often they might not even speak the same language. “Imagine standing in front of a machine trying to describe exactly which button to press,” he says. “There are so many potential problems.”
When words fail you — why not pick up a pencil and draw it?
Drawing allows you to express your ideas in a universal way, with no language barrier. And while text is sequential, drawings can communicate everything at once. “With the Digital Commissioning Engineer,” says Peter, “someone at headquarters can draw on a tablet, and the engineer on site can see exactly where they’re drawing. They don’t have to run back to the substation information panel, but instead, they just walk around and simultaneously interact with the equipment as someone annotates in front of them, while making notes by speech to text, logging any issues for referring back to, and tracking the time spent. In the future an engineer won’t even need to make notes — smart algorithms will do it all for them.”
Whether you’re explaining an idea or communicating a potential problem, visual cues make all the difference. It’s why all mechanical engineers are taught draftsmanship, to translate their ideas into something that someone else can understand.
Engineers have had access to video conferencing for decades: but they need more than simply seeing what’s going on. The reality is they need to be able to move freely around a space, zoom in to a specific problem or take a step back to see the bigger picture. All of that is impossible to convey in a typical video call. With smart glasses, you have a direct live feed into someone else’s perspective.
Find the solution — and then take it to the next level
Peter may have come up with the idea for the Digital Commissioning Engineer, but through working with colleagues he was able to bring it to life. During a conference, he discussed his idea with other engineers and they began developing it together. As it wasn’t part of the roadmap for the R&D department, they applied for the Siemens Innovation Fund (aimed at supporting great ideas from Siemens staff) and 10 minutes into the pitch they were guaranteed funding.
“We’re exploring lots of features,” says Peter. “Different types of digital measuring and x-ray capabilities.” The more features that the concept implements, the more useful it is for those in the field, but technology has limitations and Peter is keen to try and push the boundaries of what the glasses can do. “I believe holograms are going to be the future,” he says. “Imagine taking a 3D model of something to a site and being able to compare it, to see if something has been installed correctly.” But at the moment, the augmented reality equipment isn’t at the stage where it can handle large volumes of data, like 3D holograms based on the detailed models of engineering tools. “As soon as the hardware becomes more potent,” he says, “everything will be going in this direction.”
Peter Schopf is a Senior Manager in Business Development and Strategy in Rail Electrification. He speaks five languages and lives in Germany. Find out more about working at Siemens.
Peter is a Future Maker — one of the 372,000 talented people working with us to shape the future.