By Alice Chang and Amanda Solomon
During a recent virtual meeting, members of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) were sitting at their dining room tables, bedrooms, and home offices across the Washington region and found themselves looking through the eyes of John George, an elevator inspector at the Matsui Compound at Embassy Tokyo, courtesy of a mixed reality headset known as Microsoft HoloLens 2.
“It’s like we’re seeing through your eyes,” said an OBO team member.
To meet OBO’s mission of providing safe, secure, functional, and resilient facilities that represent the U.S. government to the host nation and support the Department of State’s achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives abroad, the bureau relies on collaboration between business stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs). Construction and facilities maintenance experts frequently travel overseas to support efforts on the ground. The bureau has historically struggled to connect SMEs with posts worldwide in a timely and cost-efficient manner. This challenge has become even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following OBO’s announcement to shift to a near-universal employee telework schedule to comply with the Department’s COVID-19 guidelines, OBO employees feared that they would be unable to meet core business requirements without the ability to travel to overseas posts. In alignment with the Department’s Smart Mission and encouraged by the Reimagine Task Force, OBO began to rethink the way they work and create new processes to support critical business functions.
OBO Technology Accelerator Program (TAP), led by Program Manager Erica Jaume, leapt into action and began researching options to address the gap in OBO’s capabilities during the pandemic. TAP sought to address the inability to travel by connecting people in different ways using new and innovative technology tools. Partnering with the Bureau of Information Resource Management’s (IRM) Systems and Integration Office (SIO) and with Foreign Operations, TAP was able to help experts reconnect with stakeholders at post from afar using Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and the Dynamics 365 Remote Assist application.
HoloLens 2 is a mixed reality headset that projects 3D images into the physical space around the user and blurs the line between reality of the physical world and virtual reality of a digital world. The HoloLens headset is a holographic device that uses a natural interface, commands, gaze, gesture, and voice inputs to operate and places the digital content of various windows in a real-world environment.
When paired with the HoloLens 2, the Dynamics 365 Remote Assist application allows users to share their hands-free point-of-view with experts in remote locations via Microsoft Teams. This allows users to collaborate, solve problems, and communicate visually in real-time without needing to be in the same place. Posts and offices can now conduct remote maintenance and inspections. Meanwhile, specialists and trainers can provide remote assistance via live point-of-view video calls to an on-site HoloLens user.
In October 2020, OBO launched a limited HoloLens 2 pilot with Dan Brockway, a supervisory mechanical engineer within OBO’s Office of Facility Management, to conduct remote mandatory elevator acceptance testing in Tokyo’s Matsui residential compound. The pilot was designed to test OBO’s ability to conduct elevator inspections remotely without the need for an elevator SME to travel to a site to conduct the review. If the pilot were successful, it could mean significant travel cost savings for OBO throughout the pandemic and beyond.
Due to the initial success of this first effort and positive feedback from users at post, OBO continues to support HoloLens 2 and Remote Assist with additional stakeholders worldwide to improve operations and keep employees safe in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
While the challenges posed by the pandemic expedited the use of HoloLens 2, this initiative will revolutionize the way OBO maintains overseas facilities for years to come.
Connecting OBO employees worldwide through HoloLens and Remote Assist, the headsets are a cost-effective way to save on travel and training costs. On-site employees can seek the expertise of individuals who are not on-site and share knowledge and troubleshoot problems without delays. More efficient work and fewer errors made in the field can further save OBO employees time and money, proving a positive return on investment.
The HoloLens 2 is an example of how emerging technologies can profoundly impact the way the Department does business worldwide. OBO strives to incorporate innovative ways to harness technology to improve existing business models, increase operational efficiency and efficacy, and increase employee workplace satisfaction. Technology has helped organizations, like OBO, come a long way from the days in which there were countless limitations and barriers to how work was conducted.
Mixed reality technology can impact the way the Department works, from where they work, and the efficiency of their work. It has evolved the workplace to be increasingly mobile and flexible, allowing people to work more closely in some respects, even as they work remotely. The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent government-mandated lockdowns have disrupted workplace norms. It’s as yet undetermined what the long-term ramifications of these disruptions will be. At least for now, business travel, in-office meetings, and face-to-face collaboration have all been impacted, and COVID-19 has significantly accelerated workplace digitalization and the usage of remote workplace collaboration solutions.
TAP is focused on driving digital transformation across OBO and the Department. OBO has merely begun scratching the surface of exploring the possibilities of using mixed reality, HoloLens, and other emerging technology tools. The program believes that HoloLens has far-reaching implications across OBO and is eager to continue its partnership with IRM to transform the Department’s operations.
Alice Chang and Amanda Solomon are consultants for the Technology Accelerator Program in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ Information Resource Management Division.