Wearable technology in oil & gas: don’t be so hung up on the hardware!

A few weeks back I wrote a piece addressing some of the early skepticism some people have had with regards to using Google Glass for applications in oil & gas fields.  I’ve gotten a few more similar comments (again focused on the possibility of a transmitting device such as Glass setting off other pieces of equipment, such as explosive wireline charges), so I thought I would elaborate more on why I’m nevertheless optimistic about wearable technology transferring over to the oil & gas industry.

Google and Schlumberger believe that use in oil & gas is possible

Google is a juggernaut, and even though there are other wearable hardware solutions out there – adapted specifically for industrial use, even – the company, with its visibility and marketing muscle, is going to play a huge role in getting people behind the concept of wearable technology.  Furthermore, realizing that it may have better luck getting traction initially with industrial users (where issues of privacy and aesthetics aren’t really issues at all), it has just started the Glass at Work program.

If Google is pegging its initial growth targets on industry use, surely it realizes that it will have to tweak Glass somehow – which is currently still just technically a prototype of a consumer device – so that the hardware is as adapted to professional use as the software (more on that software later).

It also turns out that one of Glass’s first big adopters is none other than Schlumberger, an oil & gas industry juggernaut.  Schlumberger has grown along with the industry, takes safety very seriously  and has developed many cutting edge tools.  While I fully understand that a tech demo is very different from a final product, the fact that such a large, technologically savvy company has adopted software on Glass shows that it is confident not only that this technology is here to stay, but also that the safety issues around such devices can and will be solved.

To say that Glass or wearable technology has no place in the oilfield is to deny history

To me, the focus on the hardware is also misguided because it ignores what has happened in the technology sector with other well known devices.  Take the iPad, and its “What will your verse be?” ad campaign.  There is no way that Apple could possibly have imagined all of the different applications the iPad would enable; the company just put out a great product, and adopters ran with it.  So now you have people using them to DJ with, make movies, it even looks like there is an app for sumo wrestlers!  No DJ said, when the iPad came out “I can’t use this”, and no filmmaker said “well, there’s no enclosure for the iPad so I can’t take it on set”.  The hardware was what it was, compelling software was created for different uses, and people adapted external hardware solutions to match their needs and complement the software.

And what about the history of the oil & gas industry?

Even if the reaction I’ve heard so far has been overwhelmingly positive, it’s frankly a little disappointing that there has been such skepticism.  Isn’t this the industry that sends floating cities out to the ocean, to tap oil & gas reserves trapped under thousands of feet of water and thousands more of rock?  Isn’t this the industry that employs thousands of engineers and researchers?  Isn’t this the industry that is responsible for literally powering the world’s economy?

And now there is skepticism that we won’t figure out how to adapt a pair of glasses to work on a rig?

Come on…

I am confident that the issue of safety will be solved.  Maybe that doesn’t happen with this iteration of Google Glass, but as long as the applications are solid and there is a “pull” from end users, then there will be motivation to solve the hardware problem, which brings me to my next point…

Ultimately, great software will drive adoption

Focusing on creating just great hardware is a non-starter.  Again, let’s take a few historical examples, starting with video game consoles.  The video game industry is littered with hardware that was superior spec-wise to the competition at the time, but that ultimately died because those “superior” consoles just didn’t offer games people wanted to play.

What about BlackBerry?  It was always thought that for business uses, the hardware was better (because really who would want to type on a small, virtual keyboard…) and the security features were also more suited to corporate adoptions.  Then, iOS and Android came around, they had great apps and features that drove consumers to adopt those, and those same consumers then wanted to be able to use these for work too…and industry adapted.

Why should wearable technology be any different?  What is the point of creating the “perfectly” adapted pair of wearable tech glasses for use on a rig if there is no reason to wear them?

Those “reasons” are software, which is why my team and I (and Schlumberger) are currently exploring the “why” of implementing wearable technology in the oilfield, rather than the “how”:  the former will lead to the latter.

The hardware is interchangeable, the software is integral

In the videos I put up showing the team’s progress so far (here is the latest one), yes, I do showcase Google Glass, but hopefully you also notice that I emphasize that it is not THE solution, but rather just part of the solution.  Just like in a home theater system, each piece makes sense when taken as part of the whole setup, and when one part needs changing you don’t scrap the whole thing, you take advantage of the system’s modular nature and swap out the part.

That’s the idea here.

If we can create a piece of software on an established platform (like a tablet) that extends out to the wearable device, that gets people to say “yes, I get why you need all the component pieces now”, the actual wearable device itself becomes much less important.  If in fact the answer does NOT lie with Glass but some other piece of hardware, no big deal, we can just rewrite some code and swap out Glass for something else.  In fact, given the open nature of Android (the operating system that runs Google’s devices, Glass included), it’s highly likely that if Glass isn’t the answer, the device that does suit the oil & gas industry could very well be running Android, making the port job relatively easy.

Again though:  software has to drive that, and if the software is good, you WILL see the safety issues solved, and you WILL see wearable technology adopted by the oil & gas industry.