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Wrist-Wearing Haptic Tech May be Coming to Warehouses

Written by Robert Brice
February 28, 2018

Wearable technology represents the next evolution in worker augmentation.

At the end of January, retail giant and health care hopeful Amazon filed two new patents. The first of these was for an ultrasonic bracelet and receiver for detecting position in 2-D plane and the second protected an idea of a wrist band haptic tech feedback system.

Taken together, these two innovations signal that Amazon is seriously considering creating a haptic feedback wristband for its employees.

This hardware could have multiple uses but its clearest application is in the warehouse. Companies in the supply chain are constantly looking for innovative ways to increase efficiency, accuracy, and productivity. This theoretical wristband could help all three.

How It Would Work

These two technologies together would empower Amazon to effectively know where its employees’ hands are during work. If a worker were by an inventory bin, for instance, the wristband could vibrate at a frequency that got more intense the closer the worker’s hand got to the correct object.

Think of it as the warmer-colder game on a corporate scale, only instead of being played for fun, it is applied to improving employee accuracy. It is a simple but adept way of ensuring the correct items are processed.

This technology follows along the same vein as Amazon Go, the brick-and-mortar store that the company opened last year. It does not use cash registers or cashiers, instead relying on a mix of technologies that involve computer vision and sensor readouts to track customer purchases.

In Haptic tech wristwear could be in use in Amazon warehousesIn a sense, it would be a specialized smartwatch optimized for warehouse use.

The Larger Trend of Worker Augmentation

A haptic tech wearable would not be the first device of its kind to hit the market. Warehouses have been augmenting their workers for years with technology that helps improve job performance. As the internet of things (IoT) technology has become more refined, workers have been given increasingly sophisticated mobile hardware like barcode scanners and tablets.

Augmented reality glasses have been developed specifically for supply chain use. Vuzix’s Warehouse Logistics solution aimed to improve workers’ pick accuracy, inventory management skills, and productivity.

Warehouse software providers like RFgen have also developed voice-picking software that integrates with Vocollect hardware to improve workflow and reduce the rate of mistakes and safety accidents.

All of these improvements share the same central goal: augment workers with the tools they need to perform at constant, optimum levels. This is a prime case of technology not replacing human staff, but rather improving it.

Worker Privacy Concerns

However, each new device — especially wearables — poses privacy concerns. With Amazon’s announcement, the Evening Standard wrote a cautionary piece on the potential technology. Since haptic feedback works by administering vibrations to the employee, the fear is that bosses could misuse the tech to constantly order employees around or track them during work hours.

This caution comes with every push forward, even though this is not the device’s intended theoretical use. Amazon responded by issuing the following statement to GeekWire:

“The speculation about this patent is misguided. Every day at companies around the world, employees use handheld scanners to check inventory and fulfill orders. This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.”

It is worth noting that every piece of hardware and software can be theoretically misused so fears on this particular piece are at this point decidedly premature.

It also seems fitting that Amazon once again might push supply chain efficiency forward into new territory. After all, the company has consistently been at the forefront of supply chain innovation. Warehouses have already been scrambling to keep up ever since Amazon Prime made a standard two-day delivery service.

Should Amazon decide to move ahead with this new technology, it would send a strong signal that they believe haptic wearables are a way of the future. However, not every patent comes to fruition. For now, it is a wait-and-see approach. Upgrading your current handhelds may be a safer bet for now.