Microsoft has added a series of new AI and mixed reality services to its enterprise software product line Dynamics 365, VentureBeat reported last week, including tools based on its HoloLens augmented reality headset:
Mixed reality services from Microsoft for the workplace were first made available in preview in May and will become generally available in the coming weeks, a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat. Remote Assist allows technicians and experts within companies to see what frontline workers can see, then help them solve problems using HoloLens while they work with their hands. It’s a scenario as old as the corporate VR/AR craze itself.
Layout, another mixed reality tool, helps people visualize the placing of items in commercial or industrial settings, working with 3D models to resize, move, and quickly edit layouts with real-world scale. Companies like Chevron currently use Remote Assist today for facility inspections.
The new AI services include a program to help sales managers analyze and improve their associates’ performance, as well as new customer service and market research tools. Microsoft first began presenting the HoloLens as an enterprise tool last year, when it unveiled a second-generation design incorporating a powerful AI coprocessor. That announcement came within a week of Google unveiling the enterprise version of its own AR headset, Google Glass.
The applications for these mixed-reality devices are wide-ranging, with some companies already using them in manufacturing, shipping, and health care. One of the clearest use cases for VR and AR in the workplace is in learning, where it offers a way to immerse new employees in real-life work scenarios with drastically lower risk and expense than real-life immersion training. Walmart has been among the vanguard of large employers experimenting in this area; last year, the retailer announced plans to expand VR training to all 200 of its training centers after a successful pilot project. Now, it’s taking its commitment to VR training one step further and planning to deploy Oculus Go headsets at each of its 5,000 stores to allow for more frequent training, TechCrunch reported last week:
Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, announced at its annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday that it was introducing a new benefit for its 1.4 million employees in the US that will subsidize the cost of their college educations at any of three partner universities, the New York Times reports:
The giant retailer said it would pay tuition for its workers to enroll in college courses, online or on campus, to earn degrees in either supply chain management or business. Full- and part-time Walmart workers can use the subsidy to take courses at the University of Florida; Brandman University in Irvine, Calif.; and Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb.
The three universities were chosen because of their high graduation rates, particularly among part-time students, and their experience with those already in the work force, Walmart executives said. The Walmart employees will not be obligated to continue working for the company after they get their degrees, and must put up only $1 a day toward the cost of classes.
Walmart says its goal with this benefit is to enable employees to obtain college degrees without taking out loans, in contrast to some other organizations’ tuition benefit programs, which require employees to pay their tuition up front and then seek reimbursement from the company. All Walmart employees become eligible for the benefit after 90 days at the company and are under no obligation to continue working there after they have earned their degrees.
Walmart and the mobile health management platform Sharecare announced a partnership earlier this month that will add a new element to the big-box chain’s wellness offering for its 1.5 million US employees. The partnership will give these employees, as well as their families, access to the Sharecare platform, which includes a variety of biometric data tools, an automated symptom checker to prepare for doctor visits, and tools for finding doctors and managing insurance claims. The program will first be introduced to participants in Walmart’s ZP Challenge wellbeing initiative:
Over the past four years, thousands of Walmart associates have transformed their lives by participating in the ZP Challenge, a series of 21-day programs that encourages and rewards associates and their families to improve their overall wellbeing by making better choices every day in the categories of fitness, family, food, and money. Building on the success of this initiative, Walmart will offer its associates using ZP with access to Sharecare, providing them with even more robust health and wellness resources to help them live their healthiest, happiest, most productive lives.
Walmart also will provide its associates and their families, alumni, and the community at large with full access to Sharecare to help each of them better understand, track, and improve their health, no matter where they are in their health journey.
The rollout to the full workforce will take place gradually over the coming few years, Sharecare president Dawn Whaley told Kathryn Mayer at Employee Benefit News. “We’ll start there [with the ZP Challenge], and then steadily scale over the next three years to engage more than 1 million users across the Walmart community,” Whaley said.
The ASU+GSV Summit, the world’s largest industry-facing conference in the field of education technology, took place earlier this month in San Diego, California. Edtech strategist Frank Catalano, who attended the conference, offered his take on the industry’s current direction at GeekWire last week. The main lesson Catalano took away from the event was that edtech companies and investors are seeing the workplace, not the classroom, as the most influential and lucrative venue for deploying these technologies in the future:
An emphasis on training the workforce, both current employees and future, was evident throughout ASU+GSV. It seemed to outshine earlier years’ emphases on disrupting the K-12 classroom (perhaps students do that well enough now) or completely upending college as we know it (MOOCs, or massively open online courses, are now corporate training tools, too). An entire programming track was focused on “talent,” including human resources, recruiting, and staff education.
In a session titled, “Mixed Reality: Can AR/VR Transform Enterprise Learning,” Dan Ayoub, Microsoft’s general manager of mixed reality and education, said that Microsoft HoloLens is skewing toward universities and the enterprise so far. Part of its appeal, he said, is that HoloLens has a front-facing camera that allows a remote expert to evaluate how the wearer is doing. …
Derek Belch, CEO of STRIVR Labs, talked about the work his company does with virtual reality for WalMart, noting that 70 percent of trainees who used VR did better than those who did not. He also described how STRIVR was able to put what had been a three-hour lecture into a 12-minute VR experience for an insurance company, and found retention of the training material was about the same.
Amazon’s ongoing foray into learning technology was also on display at ASU+GSV, Catalano added:
Walmart is piloting a new dress code in some of its US stores that will give employees more options for what they can wear to work, Bloomberg’s Matthew Boyle reported on Thursday:
Employees … will now be allowed to wear shirts of any solid color, rather than just blue or white, according to an employee manual obtained by Bloomberg News. Blue jeans are also permitted — as long as they’re solid blue — whereas previously only khaki-colored or black denim pants were allowed. Visible facial tattoos are forbidden for those hired after April 14, the manual said. …
Some Walmart workers embraced the dress code changes, with one saying on an employee message board: “I would love this! I hope it comes to my store.” Others were skeptical that it would get past the testing phase, which began in fewer than two dozen stores this month.
Walmart last adjusted its dress code in 2015, when it gave its US employees permission to wear black or khaki-colored denim pants and let workers with more physically-intensive jobs wear t-shirts to work instead of collared shirts. That change came after a new dress code the company adopted the previous year—requiring white or navy collared shirts, khaki or black pants, close-toed shoes, and a new design of the big-box store’s branded blue uniform vest—was poorly received by employees, Hayley Peterson adds at Business Insider.
Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Walmart was in talks to acquire the health insurance company Humana, currently valued at around $37 billion, raising the prospect of another merger with transformative implications for the benefits industry. Both companies are keeping mum about the possible deal, though Bloomberg heard from a person familiar with the talks that the most likely outcome was a closer partnership between the retailer and the insurer, which already collaborate on providing prescription drugs for US senior citizens insured through Medicare (Humana is the second-largest provider of government-supported private Medicare Advantage plans in the US).
Either way, a closer partnership between these giants could have some major implications for the US health insurance market, especially in combination with the other changes that are going on. The pharmacy chain CVS announced in December that it had agreed to purchase the insurer Aetna for $69 billion as part of an effort to transform its 9,700 retail drug stores into “health care supermarkets” complete with wellness clinics for preventive care (That merger was approved by shareholders last month but has yet to pass muster with antitrust regulators in the Justice Department).
A similar move by Walmart would be groundbreaking, given the big-box retailer’s massive presence throughout the US. Even a deal to provide health care for Walmart’s 1.5 million US employees would be significant. Walmart becoming a health care provider would make a big difference, Tracy Watts, senior partner at Mercer, tells Employee Benefit News reporter Kathryn Mayer:
“I would think whatever happens with the deal, Walmart would leverage its relationship with Humana to provide primary care or extend convenience care to its employees in addition to the general public,” Watts says. She also predicts the retailer will leverage its onsite care locations to provide a convenient, cost-effective way for employees and others to receive basic treatments. “For employees to get healthcare from Walmart in those rural locations can be a really good thing,” she says.
Last October, Walmart announced that it was rolling out shelf-scanning robots at 50 stores throughout the US after piloting them at a smaller number of locations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and California. The robots are taking over some of the menial busywork that used to occupy employees on the store floor: checking shelves for out-of-stock items, incorrect prices, and wrong or missing labels.
At the MIT Technology Review, Erin Winick recently talked to Martin Hitch, chief business officer at Bossa Nova, the San Francisco-based robotics firm that created the machines, about how employees and customers were reacting to them. While you might expect employees to resent having their work automated or fear that the robots would put them out of a job, Hitch said employees “instantly become the advocates for the robot”:
One way they do that is by giving it a name—the robots all have Walmart name badges on. The employees have competitions to see what the right name is for each robot. They also advocate for the robot to the general public. It’s the store staff saying, “It’s helping me.” We see them now defending the robot.