Thinking offices, intelligent protective clothing or helpful smart glasses. Such things are no longer the stuff of science fiction. The smallest of networked technology already encompasses our everyday life. It aids us independently, lying hidden and unnoticed in objects or rooms.
What opportunities these invisible helpers provide, what research into the latest technology looks like and whether technology can at all be "intelligent" are subjects which the "Beautiful and Intelligent Working World. An Exhibition on Ambient Intelligence" show will be tackling at the DASA Working World Exhibition in Dortmund.
From 11 September until 23 November 2014, the exhibition will be presenting everything that intelligent technology has to offer over five different areas ranging from clothing to smart glasses.
Ambient intelligence technologies are systems which aid people. They are decentralised and designed to be modular, are embedded into other objects, adjust to suit the situation and work without being commanded to.
However, a completely intelligent environment is still a vision. Yet research institutes are already working on making this vision a reality. Whether blinds that move as if by magic, cars without drivers or refrigerators that do their own shopping: Our environment is learning to network more and to "think" independently.
The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) is conducting research into the actual effects of this kind of technology on people and their work. Dr. Lars Adolph, Scientific Director of "Division Products and Work Systems", describes it as follows: "Ambient intelligence is changing our working world. In the future, we will be using technology that won't perhaps be as transparent and easy for us to understand, but which will be able to help us in a range of different ways or even help production processes to run more efficiently. The working world will be taking an enormous leap in development."
The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been researching the opportunities and risks associated with ambient intelligence-based technology in the working world since 2009. At the heart of its research is the effects this technology has on people, because, as amazing as it may be to literally have your eye on the whole world by wearing smart glasses, very little is actually known about their health aspects.
Scientists are looking into which occupational sectors would benefit from intelligent technology, and what the physical and mental effects of this might be. Challenges regarding data protection are also being put to the test.
Using their results, researchers provide information for assessing the risks that are involved in company practice. Innovative technologies are tested before they are introduced for widespread use to ensure that they are used in a safe way.
Research into occupational health and safety predates ambient intelligence. At the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Occupational Physiology, for example, research has been conducted into providing better working conditions since 1913. The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) has been in Dortmund since 1971. Back then, the Institute was still called the "Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Accident Research".
How can modern technology always be there to provide a helping hand? By embedding technology into textiles, technology is able to come into direct contact with the body.
The challenge here is connecting microelectronics with flexible textiles. The power supply must be integrated and a reliable line of communication to the headquarters also needs to be ensured. The options vary: Intelligent materials register the wearer's position or their physical condition. When worked into carpets, the technology registers falls or if anyone has stepped onto the carpet unauthorised.
In the working world, protective clothing must be adapted to suit the wearer and the situation. Risks can be estimated using intelligent technical support and the wearer is better protected. Sensors measure the environment or physical data and trigger an alarm in an emergency. In this way, a fireman is able to concentrate on his work, for example, whereas his suit analyses the situation while he is in action.
The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looks into when intelligent protective clothing could be useful and whether wearing such clothing results in any negative effects. A blind faith in technology, the wearer's recklessness or a lack of user-acceptance may lead to undesired side effects.
Monitoring the body using textiles is only possible if the data is compiled and assessed. Data protection and observing personality rights when collecting and processing personal data present a new challenge for the working world. Research is also being conducted into this.
Always keeping information in sight – now possible with Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) or smart glasses. Small displays worn on the head show emails, route directions or 3D films. The entertainment market is the trendsetter here since smart glasses could revolutionise the video game industry.
Computers are tending increasingly towards humans, so much so that the body is turning into a kind of data interface. The next step is to integrate technology into the body itself – and even this is no longer a utopian ideal. Smart glasses can be used in a range of different ways in the workplace: Installation work, warehousing, maintenance or system monitoring.
The advantage is that you can use both hands. Smart glasses may thus replace paper instruction manuals. When servicing a wind turbine, for example, a specialist simply transfers the instructions from a remote system to the display leaving the technician with both hands free.
This increases safety and efficiency. Smart glasses also differ in that different devices display the information either in front of both eyes or just one. The information can also be displayed either with or without being able to see one's surroundings.
Little research has been conducted into the health effects of smart glasses. The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is therefore conducting a research project lasting several years into the effects of smart glasses during long-term use. The first set of results show that the user-friendliness of smart glasses depends on how developed the technology is, and on the weight and size of the device.
Dr. Adolph again adds that "a smart robot – something that is still under development – will be able to adjust itself to suit different body sizes, will deliver precise information regarding tasks and will therefore enable work to be completed in a healthier, more ergonomic and more efficient way."
Sober, comfortable or businesslike – light shapes the atmosphere of a room. But light can also do so much more: It alters our hormone balance. Light that contains a higher percentage of blue light keeps us awake meaning that those on a night shift are able to work without getting tired.
But is it healthy for us to trick our bodies? The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is asking this very question. Together with their cooperation partners, they are conducting research into the biological effects of light on sleep quality.
Moreover, the practical nature of "intelligent" lighting systems is also being investigated. These kinds of systems adjust themselves to suit the workplace and situation; a functional, cost-saving solution. The results provided by the Institute serve as a basis for risk assessment for both the industry and employers.
Virtual realities make fantasies come true. We come face to face with them in video games and films. Virtual worlds are being used in the workplace to plan workflows digitally in advance. In this way, channels are shortened and workplaces are made more worker-friendly. But to create virtual worlds, the physical dimensions and movements of the human body are required. And this is where digital ergonomics comes into play. Modern sensor technology, such as Microsoft Kinect, allows human dimensions and movements to be transferred into a virtual world.
"That is the potential with this technology. The commercial advantage of this technology is of utmost importance for businesses. We are anxious to balance productivity with humane, healthy, safe working practice," Dr. Lars Adolph summarises, "because there are many opportunities for creating a worker-friendly workplace. It also presents good opportunities for the economy to benefit greatly. However, it is always a question of controlling risks. The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health accepts these challenges."
Interested groups and school classes from Year 8 and up can spend 60 minutes getting up close to intelligent technology at the DASA Working World Exhibition. During a tour through the "Beautiful and Intelligent Working World" as well as through DASA, they will experience what work is like using a high-tech forklift truck, a virtual factory and a talking robot. Two presentations on this subject given by experts also feature in the programme.