The Games People Will Work at Playing

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Computer games have a pivotal role to play in changing the way we work – bringing remote working to a whole new audience. In the first of a series of articles on gamification in the future of work, Bloor analyst Martin Banks explains.

The computer gaming industry is expected to top $180bn in revenues this year. That means a very large number of people playing games – and as a by-product also developing skills using joysticks and steering wheels, and interpreting 2D representations of an, albeit fake, 3D reality.

They are also, in the main, young – or at least in the younger half of the world’s population. While this may horrify their parents and elders, there is now an argument that suggests this could be a very good thing for the future of a range of traditional ‘physical industries’. This is particularly relevant now as the world is still struggling to reach a post-pandemic state and it remains necessary to open up remote working to as many people as possible.

For businesses built around knowledge workers, extensive homeworking is already a reality, and evidence suggests that a large percentage of those workers would be quite happy to continue working in that mode. But with most virologists, epidemiologists and the like pointing to there being more pandemics to come in the future, there is now a real need for those working in the more ‘traditional’ industries of manufacturing and logistics, especially those on the ‘shop floor’ or ‘coalface’ utilising manual skills, to find ways of being able to work remotely – even at home should the need arise. Indeed, it could be a better and safer environment for them to work remotely from the machinery they control, a factor that could prove cost effective to employers over the long haul – where, that is, automation doesn’t provide the solution.

The Coming of Gamification

Gamification refers to the use of computer games user-interface technologies, as well as the use of game-playing strategies for motivation and encouragement of ‘players’. It plays to the growing relevance of the gamification of so many work-related tasks, where skills learned from playing computer games can be grafted onto operating heavy machinery remotely, and therefore more safely. What is more, the skills required are likely to be second nature to the majority of the cohorts of new young workers coming onto the employment market, already trained and attuned to the task of working in a 3-dimensional world on a 2-dimensional platform. This could open up a whole range of factory-based tasks to be operated and managed remotely, completed with a pre-trained cohort ready to take them on.

Skills learned playing games of strategy are likely to graft well on to the use of Digital Twins, where a full simulation of a process – up to and including making major changes to the operations of a complete factory – can be used to highlight both up-coming problems and new possibilities in safe environments where no permanent damage can be done.

There is one ‘given’ factor underpinning such developments and that is the availability of data communications services offering the bandwidth and data rates needed to provide the real time duplex communication required. In practice that means the widespread adoption of 5G wireless services. The roll out of such services is now getting underway around the world, though some areas are more advanced than others. It is clear that the extent of a 5G service availability will have a significant impact on the ability of manufacturing industries to exploit this potential.

‘Gaming’ heavyweight tasks

China, and much of the Pacific Rim, already has a head start in 5G roll out, and is already exploiting it in manufacturing. Huawei is not only one of the leaders in 5G communications systems sector, but it also making advances in its application to manufacturing and logistics operations. It is also one of the early exploiters of gamification technologies in those areas.

Take, for example, the Port of Ningbo in China, where the drivers of the large gantry cranes used to load and unload huge container ships typically sit high above the loads they are moving. Their ability to move around is limited by the size of the cab, and access is limited by the time taken to climb up and down to their cabs. They spend many hours looking downwards, a posture that leads to many suffering serious back and neck problems requiring extensive time away from work.

Huawei’s solution has been to use 5G communications links between the crane control systems and a suite of video cameras, all then linked to a workstation in a remote location. Here the operator has joystick control over the crane’s movements and multiple views of the load and its positioning relative to the ship and/or the dockside facilities. In practice, this gives the operator a better view of movement than possible just from the cab.

In addition, with all aspects of the crane and container movement digitised it becomes possible to add in AI and ML resources. This could tie in the crane sensors for the classic application of failure mode prediction, where constant monitoring of sensors can track the degradation in performance or accuracy of a component and give prior warning of an impending unit or system failure, as well as more complex container logistics management planning. Here, other operatives could work remotely to manage optimum work schedules that match container movements to the inbound and outbound land movement logistics.

In the Ningbo installation the workstations are installed in a nearby office. With widespread availability of 5G resource, however, it is possible to see that this could readily be extended to home working if that were required. It is also easy to see the same approach being applied to a wide range of similar tasks.

Enter Virtual Reality

Mention of failure mode prediction raises the obvious potential of Virtual Reality systems such as Microsoft’s Hololens. These are already becoming used to enrich the information available to onsite maintenance staff, by identifying specific device and component locations in real-time on images of a work area that are generated by cameras on the VR headset. This can also be extended, where appropriate, to applications where robotic maintenance units can be guided by a maintenance engineer working remotely.

That technology can also play a part in realising a growing consumer demand for increased customisation of the products they buy. We are all well versed in the benefits and drawbacks of mass production, where we can obtain at least reasonably well-made products at very competitive prices. The downside, however, is dissatisfied customers because the results are not always quite what might have been purchased had the alternative been readily available, or sufficient money was available to buy a bespoke version.

The trend now is for customers to be looking for much greater levels of customisation in the products they purchase, yet they do not want to see a significant increase in unit price – a factor which has been traditional in the production of any product that steps outside the parameters of a standard design and production process.

Meeting this demand is going to set manufacturing industry some real problems if traditional production process models are maintained. The central change will be that products will need to be designed to be assembled rapidly from a range of options which can be selected by the customer, with some of them even designed and sourced by the customer, for example the provision of personalised images and/labelling. It will also lead to more complex product management regimes – for example a single SKU sold in millions may turn into a million SKUs.

Managing the production, and subsequent delivery and distribution, could create the need for huge, centralised management and control services. The better model here is likely to be the distribution of such services, at least regionally. This is also a step that plays to the capabilities of the small to medium sized business sector, globally.

They are the businesses that will have the skills and knowledge to handle the ‘localisation’ of the customising process, be that by geographical likes, dislikes, customs or practices, or by the requirements of niche market sectors that stretch across geographies. They are the ones that understand local business practices and regulations, so can handle both sales and order management. They are also the ones to help guide and implement the customisations required. The manufacturing processes could then be conducted remotely by operatives local to that regional business, working with a range of options.

They could be sitting at a ‘desk’ – quite at their home ­– using a standard laptop computer to instruct semi-automated production equipment. They could also be using Virtual Reality (VR) headsets that are presenting them with a real-time view of the machinery and tools they are working with. Here, hand gestures could be used to control the actions of those tools. That smaller, local business could then take on complete management of the design, manufacturing and delivery process of cost-efficient customised product.

The actual manufacturing facility could be anywhere that makes economic and logistical sense and could provide a balanced mix of optimum manufacturing operations with ‘boutique-level’ customisation and flexibility. This could then be coupled with more diverse and flexible employment opportunities that offer far better work environments.

This is certainly a direction that Microsoft is moving in. The recent announcement of Microsoft Mesh, what the company calls a ‘mixed reality platform’ is a significant step along that road. The goal is to make remote interactions feel more lifelike than ever before, extending the VR experience to include integration with the company’s Teams video conferencing and collaboration environment. According to a promotional video for the technology, it should even be possible for staff to beam real-time holograms of themselves into collaborative work environments, so ‘people’ can work together regardless of their location.

To be fair it has to be said that, right now, such technology is not cheap – a Hololens headset is costs some $3,500. But, with the possibility of future pandemics, and the overall and on-going cost advantages that remote/home working will offer all businesses, the demand for such capabilities will grow very rapidly. History shows that this will rapidly drive two functions – a rapid increase in functionality, and a rapid reduction in costs.

This, of course, is also just another extension of the gamification of working practices.  One just has to watch players on the popular war-games like Fortnite, where individuals team up online with others to engage, online, with other teams, and where the level of ‘suspension of disbelief’ is only dependent of the quality of the graphics and the size of the display. There is no reason why working a machine tool or driving a crane should be any different.

This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.