When our company StoneAge, a 150-person manufacturer of industrial cleaning equipment based in Durango, Colorado, invested in wearable devices to train our team and customers last fall, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

We ordered a few hands-free “connected worker” devices from a company called RealWear, each costing less than USD3,000, to help us train our staff during the travel restrictions of COVID-19 as we got ready to launch our first Internet of Things (IoT) product.

Each unit is a headset that you can put over a hat or hardhat. A hanging, attached lens lets you look through one eye at what is happening on a distant factory floor. You can also record a video on the device.

The device’s maker partners with Microsoft and has integrated it with Teams and Zoom. When working with colleagues thousands of miles away, we can pull up Microsoft Teams files for sharing on Teams or Zoom using voice commands. The voice commands work seamlessly compared to other voice-operated devices I’ve experienced, like Siri.

We are currently testing RealWear at our Netherlands location. One of our trainers there is using the device to train our United Kingdom team on how to sell one of our more complicated products. The team members in the Netherlands watch, via their headsets, the U.K. team make their sales pitches. We will continue to experiment with the devices to see what else we can do with them. If we get comfortable enough to use the wearables to train customers on how to use our equipment, we may end up packaging the headsets with some of our products, as part of the training we offer. In essence, we will become a reseller. 

Improving efficiency

The biggest advantage of using these wearables is being able to communicate with a distant colleague immediately — no more traveling required. That factor alone will bring a significant improvement in efficiency for us. The devices are also remarkably comfortable, weighing only a few pounds.

In an environment where remote work is necessary, wearable devices are significantly better than phones or Facetime. It has also given us a new way to bring our team together, important for an employee-owned company that prizes its culture. ”
— Kerry Siggins, CEO of StoneAge, Inc. share twitter

Still, we are nowhere near using our headsets to train customers. One practical challenge is that some big plants in our industry are in remote areas and don’t have reliable Wi-Fi. Others restrict the use of cameras in their facilities. The units can use cellular data, but it drains the batteries quickly. We’ll have to figure out how to overcome these challenges if we are going to provide them to our customers.  

User experience

Some of us found the device to be hard on the eyes at first. When I put it on, my eyes crossed. I was surprised by how long it took my brain to adjust to switching between the screen and the immediate environment. After we practiced, I felt more comfortable. It’s harder for some to adjust to than for others. I’ll only want to start using these gadgets with customers when I feel confident we can get most people up and running quickly and comfortably.

Nothing is perfect

The quality of headset-based training is not as high as in-person training. There’s nothing like standing side-by-side and being able to ask questions. However, in an environment where remote work is necessary, these devices are significantly better than phones or Facetime. It has also given us a new way to bring our team together, important for an employee-owned company that prizes its culture.

The bottom line: We’re going to continue experimenting with our wearable devices. Although we’re still exploring their capabilities, they have been a valuable tool for our training arsenal. Whether we will ever feel confident using them in training customers remains to be seen.

In the meantime, we’re doing all we can to figure out how to make that possibility work. If we can, it’ll give us a real competitive edge.