One of the most exciting developments in technology currently emerging the field service sector is the potential of Augmented Reality and at the vanguard driving the technology forward is US based company Help Lightning, with their own take on the tech ‘Mobile Merged Reality’. Kris Oldland spoke to founder Bart Guthrie to find out more about the origins of the technology and just how big it could potentially become...
Help Lightning has been a technology that has been causing conversations for some time now amongst field service organisations in the USA, fuelled primarily by a number of appearances by their charismatic founder Dr. Bart Guthrie on the US conference circuit alongside some slick booth demonstrations.
"Help Lightning has been a technology that has been causing conversations for some time now amongst field service organisations in the USA, fuelled primarily by a number of appearances by their charismatic founder Dr. Bart Guthrie on the US conference circuit alongside some slick booth demonstrations"
“Early on when I started practicing, even during my training I it became apparent to me that there were opportunities for both technology and certain relationships to improve processes that could sustain or improve health.” Guthrie begins
“The earliest thing I became involved in was image-guided surgery. That is where you take a CT or CAT scan and you use the device to register to the patient’s head in surgery and then as you do the surgery you can see what you are doing on the MRI cast.”
“So I think what that did for me was to open my eyes to the capability of technology to bring information to bear and then after that I became pretty heavily involved in medical image distribution. In my field medical imaging is our currency. It is information dense and we will use it to make most of our decisions to get outcomes in terms of certain things that we do so we developed a system to acquire and manage medical imaging and formed a company around that which did very well.”
“Then right about that time when visualisation in the operating room was becoming usable – endoscopes, microscopes, video cameras and then this notion of connectivity... It’s one thing to have an operating microscope that is high res. but if you can’t connect it to anything you’re only as good as you.”
"Surgical robots are remarkable. They are in the field, they work and they do what they are supposed to do which is take your movements, then gear it down and they’ll effectively make the same movement. They are going to be tremendously valuable.”
“We approached the Department of Energy about a call for technology development they issued around surgical robots and we got funding for around $1M for a pilot scheme. Needless to say the funds were completely insufficient but surgical robots are remarkable.”
“They are in the field, they work and they do what they are supposed to do which is take your movements, then gear it down and they’ll effectively make the same movement. They are going to be tremendously valuable.”
“For us though there were some limitations to the robot. One you can’t teach it very well, there is a time delay, there were all these technical issues that separate you from what is going on. And the other thing in my job is that I am constantly getting requests about remote calls with patients that have a problem. And those patients end up in healthcare systems that have the skills but not the experience.”
We have been speaking for barely a few minutes yet it is clear that Guthrie has a clear passion for technology and its ability to enhance the world we live in. As you would expect, he has the gentle tones of a experienced medical consultant, enhanced further by his soft Alabama accent.
However, he also clearly has a mind built for problem solving and out of the box thinking and it is this skill that led him to the concept of what was to become Help Lightning, the development of which was a direct response to a major problem Guthrie saw in his day to day working life.
Namely getting expertise where it is needed in an emergency situation.
As Guthrie explains “Any of the surgeons in a small hospital where someone has been in an automobile accident for example will know how to make an incision, how to sow, how to support a patient. But any surgeon may not know how to do that in the brain, or in the heart etc."
“Yet the movements and the principals are very similar, you just need the experience. So we started thinking about the idea of somehow capturing the experience of someone who has that skill set and transmitting it real time to a local task-force.”
"We came up with this idea of bi-directional video and if we could capture the remote task field view, look at it, insert instruments, hands, whatever, interact with it and then combine the two and distribute it back that may solve the problem”
“It would allow us to impart a little bit more expertise remotely. It wouldn’t solve everything but it would be advancement over what we could do for example over a telephone, which is the standard conveyor of medical information remotely right now.”
And so Help Lightning was born (albeit originally under a different moniker of VIPAR) and with the support of his mechanical engineering and computer science departments at UAB the concept soon became a reality with pilots in operating rooms in both UAB and the Veterans Hospital.
In its initial configuration VIPAR (an acronym of Virtual Interactive Presence and Augmented Reality) was a high-end manifestation that worked superbly but simply wasn’t scalable.
So after the patents were written Guthrie took the concept and founded Help Lightning and sought to develop a lighter-weight version of the concept.
Modestly he states: “I procured enough funding to get it going and I sort of stepped back out of the way and hired a bunch of just excellent people to get it going and they’ve reduced the concept to a similar functionality on just a mobile device.”
What is certain however, is that the team Guthrie has put in place, headed up by CEO Drew Deaton, have done a quite remarkable job of scaling the technology down to an app - which of course makes the business incredibly scalable itself.
"What is certain however, is that the team Guthrie has put in place, headed up by CEO Drew Deaton, have done a quite remarkable job of scaling the technology down to an app - which of course makes the business incredibly scalable itself"
“It gets this team out of the hardware business and it makes it available ubiquitously.”
So with the team and technology in place the challenge now is identifying the markets that Help lightning is best suited for. Given the origins of the product clinical care is of course one of those, and Guthrie is directly involved with the pilot program.
“That presentation I gave here where I presented those pilots was the very first step in trying to understand will the patients accept it? Will the providers accept is it? Will we find things at the physical visit that we didn’t find at the virtual visit. Or vice versa – is it safe or is it unsafe?”
Of course these same questions will apply to the initial projects within the field service space as well.
However, the potential for cost savings of using a tool such a Help Lightning could be truly remarkable. Particularly for those companies whose engineers have to travel long distances.
Indeed Help Lightning or other similar tools could have a huge impact on the way companies structure their field services workforce.
"With the ability to dial experience in from a remote location to provide the key knowledge and expertise required for a complicated maintenance or repair job, it could make sense for companies to have their most experienced engineers in one office centrally and utilise cheaper, local technicians when it comes to remote locations?"
Or simply it could be a tool to improve engineers work life-balance, whilst reducing the costs of travel and accommodation.
Another alternative could be to implement a new tier of service offering based around remote assistance whereby the engineer guides the customer themselves through maintenance?
Certainly the applications in field service are wide reaching.
“The way I see it is its all about the relationship you have,” Guthrie explains.
“If you just take two people as a construct and their relationship is remote and some kind of expertise or procedural expertise has to be conveyed from one to the other it’s a natural fit.”
“So any market where there is an existing relationship that is benefited by the transmission of expertise to a remote site in a manner that facilitates the relationship, that engages both people, I think is a natural market.”
“I feel patient care is a natural fit, field service is a natural fit. I think maybe the space shuttle even, wherever there is that kind of dynamic in the relationship, I think this concept could fit.”