Monday, January 20, 2014

Google Glass Does Solar Panel Installs in the California Sun

Michael Chagala. Photo: Sullivan Solar
You might think of Google Glass as one of those tech creations that’s more intriguing than practical. You might see computerized eyewear as a Silicon Valley nerd fantasy that’s unlikely to change the way the rest of the world works. You would not be alone.

But that’s not how Michael Chagala sees it. Chagala is the director of IT at Sullivan Solar Power, which is slipping Google Glass onto the heads of the field technicians who install its solar panels atop homes and businesses across Southern California.

Because every building is unique, these field techs need ready access to all sorts of specs and plans describing the job at hand. In the past, they’ve carried three-ring binders onto the roof, but those are so hard to handle — particularly when the wind is blowing pages. They’ve lugged laptops up there too, but that comes with its own problems, including, well, the sun. So Chagala and company are switching to Glass, allowing their techs to browse documents simply by looking through the eyewear. For the most part, they can do this without using their hands — though you do have to tap the side of the glasses to move from doc to doc.

“When you have someone on a roof, safety is your primary concern,” Chagala says. “Having both hands free is significant.”

Though Google Glass has limitations — including an undeniable geekiness — it can be quite useful. Some are exploring how it can serve people with autism and other disabilities. Tech outfits such as Workday and Fiberlink are building Glass apps for corporate workers. Now Sullivan Solar is taking the digital eyewear into the world of blue collar work.

Lead by Chagala, the company has built a custom Glass app that taps into a database housing its customer records, information about particular job sites, and its inventory of parts and equipment. But its technicians also will use other tools available with the eyewear. A field worker can, say, call headquarters with questions or transmit live video of a roof installation to get some feedback.

Chagala came up with the idea about a year ago. “I actually got my first Glass on eBay,” he says. “We started development on the app before we even got the device.” The company still has only the single pair, which must be shared among the field crews and the development team, but Chagala hopes to get more in the coming year as Google expands distribution.

At this stage, Chagala says, building an app for Google Glass isn’t like building for a mobile phone. “It’s really hard to fit all this info onto such a small screen,” he says. “There are established design patterns for a mobile phone app, such as where to put different buttons, but none of those patterns pre-exist for Google Glass. You sort of have to use your own judgement in how it will be used.”

But after several months of development, the app is in working order, and it’s already used in the field. “I’m confident that there will be measurable benefits, but it’s a little early to quantify,” Chagala says. “Feedback from field technicians has been very positive.”

He says other departments at the company are exploring the use of Glass as well. One big possibility is a training tool for new employees. An employee’s first jobs could be recorded and reviewed later, he says. Glass is still a long way from significantly remaking the way the company works, but the point is that Chagala believes it can.


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