Ambient Intelligence and Occupational Safety

Opportunities and Risks of Intelligent Assistance Systems in the Working Environment

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The rapid development in information and communication technology also shows its impact in the working environment. Faster and more powerful computers, combined with new materials – e. g. textiles – open promising ways of designing workplaces and equipment. Our computers assist, secure, supervise and guide our behaviour. Technology has gradually trickled into our everyday working environment establishing itself as a type of "ambient Intelligence (AmI)" around us.

Current developments in the field of ambient intelligence range from adaptive working assistance systems like head mounted displays or data glasses, intelligent protective clothing, lighting systems, safety systems and persuasive technologies, to privacy protection and other legal issues.

At the center of the vision of ambient intelligence – or intelligent environment – are autonomous assistance systems which inconspicuously and, without the usual man-machine-interface, adjust to the needs of users and support them automatically. A precondition for this scenario is the wireless connectivity of everyday objects and environments with built-in computer-aided sensors and actuators.

An example for wearable AmI is the intelligent protective clothing for fire brigades. They are regarded as ‘Intelligent’, because they have built-in sensors which allow wireless computer-aided evaluation of the physical stress of the fire fighters. Colleagues outside can then take appropriate action before the situation becomes critical.

Other examples for AmI are assistance systems at work aimed at
protecting workers against accidents caused by the growing number of robots at the workplace. AmI-assisted camera surveillance and warning control systems in floors increase employee safety. In this case, the crucial question for the German Federal Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (BAuA) is mainly whether AmI-based systems can effectively replace the classical and well-proven concept of intrinsically safe machines. In the case of AmI-based climate control and light regulation, ethics and questions of occupational medicine concern the BAuA. They test how buildings can actually respond and adjust the workplace climate to the individual needs of humans. Also, the increasing ratio of blue light in office lamps – which is supposed to help against tiredness – is viewed critically. The BAuA investigates how much this interferes with people’s normal daily rhythm.

Head Mounted Displays in the field

More and more workers use head-mounted displays at the workplace. These goggle-like miniature monitors support them by reducing the demands on the memory, and they also help to make faster decisions in critical situations.

Particularly the Google glasses have brought this new technology to the attention of the public. They are worn like normal glasses but contain displays which can provide information, e. g. for activities which require continuous reception of information as well as two free hands and mobility. In these work fields (for example maintenance and repair jobs), data glasses can be very beneficial compared to other ways of information representation.

The BAuA investigates the implications of the long-term use of wearable AmI. "We want to use the potential of AmI, but at the same time we want to detect possible negative effects already during prototyping and help to avoid them, for example by developing guidelines", explains Dr. Armin Windel, Director Research and Development at BAuA.

The organization has already gained some results from a project examining the conditions for a safe and stress-optimized use of data glasses: The findings so far show that the use of data glasses or head mounted displays for several hours does not impair vision. In their experiments, the team examined the effect of wearing data glasses for several hours on physical and mental strain. Compared to using a tablet pc or wall monitors, the test subjects with the data glasses felt more stressed and worked slower.