USPS eyes augmented reality glasses to save money, improve efficiency

Set aside those ideas about an antiquated U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) is eyeing augmented reality (AR) to drive down costs and improve efficiencies.

The USPS for years has been experimenting with AR, which enables mobile devices to superimpose related, digital content on top of a real-world view, but it's been primarily for marketing purposes. An April 6 USPS OIG report identifies 10 specific ways in which the Postal Service could apply AR in its operations, including for more accurate spatial information when placing equipment in a plant, guiding letter carriers to pack trucks in a more efficient manner and providing driving instructions to improve safety and avoid traffic congestion.

The report focuses on opportunities to use AR through mobile devices, like smartphones, tablets and wearable devices. More stationary devices, like gaming consoles and desktops, can leverage AR as well, but the OIG says employees in the shipping supply chain are more likely to use smaller devices because of the mobility they provide.

When users access AR through their smartphone or tablet, they see a layer of AR information superimposed on top of the live camera image on the screen. The technology requires the successful coordination of four components: software, a mobile device with a camera, an AR application loaded onto the mobile device and an Internet connection.

AR could help the USPS visualize the best way to reconfigure equipment in postal facilities using 3D imaging. (Image source: USPS OIG

The report notes that part of what makes AR such a unique tool is that users are able to interact with the digital information presented on top of the real-world view using voice commands, a keyboard or a touch screen. AR-enabled devices use GPS, compasses, accelerometers and other sensors to understand their location in relation to other objects. New, wearable devices--like AR glasses--more naturally integrate computer-generated images with real life, and while many companies currently offer AR glasses, the technology is continuing to develop with a shift in focus from consumer products to AR wearables focused on business operations, the report says.

On its own, a wearable device can recognize some images and automatically display information, but the addition of a Bluetooth connection enables access to the full range of information available from a mobile device, the report adds.

The three major costs to using AR in the postal supply chain are development and maintenance of the back-end software, the purchase of AR-enabled devices and the price of batteries to power those devices. AR glasses typically range from $400 to $1,500 a piece, although the Postal Service could buy them in bulk, thereby lowering the cost of each pair.

To decrease the number of glasses needed, letter carriers also could access AR functions through existing Mobile Delivery Devices (MDDs). In 2014, the Postal Service began deploying 75,000 MDDs to letter carriers throughout the country to provide more detailed parcel delivery and route information to supervisors and recipients. MDDs include functions such as package scanning and GPS capabilities.

In addition to their package scanner capabilities, the MDDs have a camera, can operate over the wireless networks of multiple carriers, and could possibly run an AR app, the report says. With some adjustments, existing scanners and MDDs could communicate with AR glasses.

A digital display instructing postal employees on how to fix their vehicles could save around $39 million annually, according to the report. In terms of customer service, an AR application could provide customers with a way to track their mail delivery more closely and providing more efficient, timely service, the report says.

For more:
- download the report (PDF)
- see FierceMobileGovernment's take
- see this Government Executive article

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