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Supply Chain News: Amazon Files Patent for Augmented Reality Putaway, Critics Again Erroneously Worry about Big Brother


Not Clear What Amazon Can Patent at This Point, but Horse of DC Employee Tracking has been Out of the Barn for Decades

Aug. 6, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

So-called augmented reality (AR) in distribution generally involves associates wearing smart glasses that provide visual guidance for accomplishing certain tasks. An example might be an order pick that involves visually highlighting the specific pick location and/or simply looking at a bar code to confirm it was the right location or product.


An AR in distribution appears to be gaining steam. (See New World of Augmented Reality Likely Coming to Logistics Applications).

Supply Chain Digest Says...

The idea of monitoring the actual pace of a worker as described in the patent is somewhat new, but likely inevitable using GPS technology using any device.

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Now, news that Amazon has filed a US patent for an augmented reality system in distribution, originally submitted back in March, 2017 but for some reason just unearthed in the media last week.

SCDigest is not sure how Amazon could claim an invention here – other companies such as 3PL DHL and a number of technology vendors have been developing real AR applications for a number of years before the Amazon patent filing – but it might possibly be because the Amazon patent involves a putaway application, whereas most of the AR action in DCs has focused on order picking.

The patent describes a "wearable computing device" that would overlay turn-by-turn directions on the goggles' screen, showing employees where to put away certain objects in one of Amazon's fulfillment centers. "

The goggles would connect to a computing device that's worn on the employee's body, which powers the turn-by-turn data.

The patent filing notes that "For example, if a location of a worker within a fulfillment center can be determined, location-specific information, such as, for example, turn-by-turn directions to a destination within the fulfillment center, can be rendered in the user interface," which is titled "Augmented reality user interface facilitating fulfillment. "

It adds that in addition to turn-by-turn directions, the glasses may also display specific instructions for workers, such as "remove orange box from shelving unit on the left."


Amazon Patent for Augmented Reality Device Using "Smart Glass" View Graphic


Given all the activity in this area, again whether there is something patentable here the Patent Office will decide, but as with a story earlier this year on another Amazon patent for RFID-enabled wrist bands that would confirm SKU locations (Amazon Receives Patents for Picking and Putaway – by Wristband?), the Amazon AR patent has some concerned the technology will allow Big Brother style surveillance of DC employees.

The UK's Daily Mail, for example, reported that the patent filing "also describes collecting extremely detailed information that could be used to track an employee's whereabouts throughout the entire workday."

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"The goggles would also track "orientation data, pitch, yaw and accelerometer data, " which could translate to things like walking speed and their exact location, the web site Gizmodo also noted.

Several sources cited one line in the patent that describes how the goggles could even prompt employees who aren't moving to get to work.

"In some embodiments, the wearable computing device can be configured to provide worker instructions and/or visual indicators to a worker wearing the wearable computing device who is not moving," the patent states.

Of course, as almost anyone who knows anything about how a distribution center works understands, such activity and productivity tracking at a detailed employee level has been around for more than two decades.

Most modern DCs use wireless terminals, often called radio frequency (RF) devices, for associates to confirm via a bar code scan that they are in the right location for say an a order pick or a product putaway.

All those transactions are generally time stamped, allowing detailed tracking of how much work an DC employee completed in a day or other period. Use of so-called Labor Management Systems take that tracking a step further by comparing those time stamps of activity against engineered standards for productivity that factor in attributes such as travel time to calculate how long it should take to complete some group of tasks.

So the idea that the smart glasses and augmented reality somehow take employee tracking to a new level is simply nonsense. The idea of monitoring the actual pace of a worker as described in the patent is somewhat new, but likely inevitable using GPS technology using any device, whether smart glasses or something else.

The bottom line: The handwringing over DC employee tracking has nothing to do with Amazon's AR patent filing. That horse has been out of the barn for more than 20 years.

Any reaction on Amazon's patent or DC employee tracking? Let us your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.


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