“We’ve been predominantly focused on remote capabilities. The HoloLens extends the department network to a user who is wearing a headset,” says Erica Jaume, Manager, Technology Accelerator Program, Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, State Department

May 05 2021

Advanced Displays Help Agencies Tell Their Stories

From HoloLens devices at State to a ‘Hyperwall’ at NASA, visual aids enable workers to deliver a message.

The State Department has, you might say, some experience with a remote workforce. Its employees have been spread around the globe since 1789, when the only technology they needed were sailing ships and a good quill pen.

But because the agency must cross borders to do its work, officials have had to look for new technologies to overcome historic challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Take the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. OBO is tasked with providing safe, secure, functional and resilient facilities for State’s employees. 

Subject matter experts fly to locations where they evaluate the progress of building projects. “We’ve always travelled,” says Erica Jaume, manager of the OBO’s Technology Accelerator Program (TAP). 

With some countries inaccessible due to lockdowns and border closures, and others requiring weeks of isolation for new arrivals, the cost in labor hours and time lost rapidly became prohibitive. However, a shift in priorities for the fledgling TAP program — and a few Microsoft HoloLens mixed ­reality headsets — provided a solution.

Technology Helps Close the Distance for State Department 

Established in June 2020, TAP was designed “to ­create a space to experiment with new tools that could help invigorate OBO’s technology culture and drive adoption across the bureau,” explains Melissa Johnson, OBO’s executive director. Pre-pandemic, she had envisioned TAP as a laboratory that would let employees ­experiment with technology and host demos and meetings.

But the need for practical, immediate and ­cost-effective solutions to the problem of ­maintaining buildings in more than 290 locations in the midst of a pandemic caused a change of focus. TAP put some large projects on the back burner, including a 360-degree immersive room intended for facilitating training operations, ­rendering avatars and supporting collaboration and conferences.

Deputy Facility Manager Jarod Hackett uses the HoloLens headset to look inside the control box during a pre-bid virtual walk-through for the Tokyo Chiller Replacement Project. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations

Deputy Facility Manager Jarod Hackett uses the HoloLens headset to look inside the control box during a pre-bid virtual walk-through for the Tokyo Chiller Replacement Project. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations

OBO’s Information Resource Management, Technology Accelerator Program team (Jaume, Amanda Solomon, Alice Chang and Xavier Salazar) then turned to the problem at hand: closing the distance between State Department facilities and building experts, while keeping those experts safe at home. TAP chose Microsoft’s HoloLens to provide an almost-like-being-there experience.

“We’ve been predominantly focused on remote capabilities,” she says. “The HoloLens extends the department network to a user who is wearing a headset. The user looks through the display and sees the real world in front of them, just like wearing sunglasses — but also sees an overlay of a computer screen and whatever they pull up.”

By combining the HoloLens with Microsoft Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, the State Department employee who is onsite can share exactly what he is seeing with team members, no matter where they are. With successful HoloLens pilot programs in seven embassies, Jaume has begun to look at ways to apply the same technology to projects larger than elevator maintenance and small repairs. “We have four multibillion-dollar construction projects that are overseas in different countries that require physical inspection of sites and monitoring,” she says.

OBO is also testing the use of 360-degree cameras to augment flyover inspection trips, giving inspectors a snapshot of the facility’s status at a given time. It is also implementing robotic process automation, which aligns bots for manual processes.

Erica Jaume
The HoloLens extends the department network to a user who is wearing a headset.”

Erica Jaume Manager, Technology Accelerator Program, Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, State Department

“Generally speaking, we send people overseas to perform these inspections,” Jaume explains. “But by providing the technology locally, they can wear the headset and communicate with the inspectors via Microsoft Teams.”

Given the cost savings of thousands of dollars per trip, it’s likely that these head-mounted displays will remain a part of OBO’s toolkit, even when the world opens back up.

VIDEO: See how HoloLens helps the Army train a new generation of soldiers.

NASA Turns On Its Hyperwall to Explain Phenomena 

In many ways, the technologies themselves are not new, says Shawn McCarthy, research director for government infrastructure and systems optimization strategies at IDC.

“360-degree rooms and mixed reality headsets have been around since the 1990s,” he says. “The difference today is the high-definition nature of the images, and the speed at which images are processed. Early versions had a lot of lag.”

NASA’s Hyperwall is a good example of a technology that, while not new, is vastly improved over earlier versions. The Hyperwall is a custom-built tiled display consisting of 15 screen panels at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The space agency uses the wall as a storytelling tool.

“It can be a challenge if you’re used to presenting a PowerPoint,” says Mark SubbaRao, the lead at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS). Standard presentations aren’t effective on the massive bank of screens, which stands almost 7 feet high and 20 feet across.

The SVS works with NASA scientists to find effective ways to use the Hyperwall and has built a library of content that works on both the main Hyperwall and on a slightly smaller version that the agency often takes to conferences.

While visually impressive, the Hyperwall doesn’t require specialized hardware on the back end. “We use all sorts of computers to run the Hyperwall, such as Mac Minis and other mini workstations,” says Eric Sokolowski, the Hyperwall manager. “There’s nothing special about the hardware aside from it being small and having decent accelerated graphics capabilities.”

31 million

The number of pixels in NASA’s Hyperwall, which measures 20 feet wide by 7 feet high

Source: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“I’m looking into using even smaller computers like the NVIDIA Jetson Nano to power the Hyperwall, but so far this is experimental,” he adds.

Ultimately, says SubbaRao, the technology must be in service to the story. SVS’ goal is to present all of NASA’s science in a memorable way.

“We get excited about the tech,” he says. “But using it effectively requires crafting the story.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: How data visualziaiton helps agencies analyze complex information.

A Digital Table Brings History to Life  

For the National Archives, making its vast holdings accessible to the public is a core part of its mission — but it’s also charged with protecting those holdings.

The Archives meets both of these requirements by using digital touch-table technology in its Washington, D.C., location as well as in three presidential libraries. Visitors can explore archival items via the touch table while the original artifact remains safely stored. “We were attracted to the multitouch capability for the crowded gallery,” says James B. Pritchett, a National Archives spokesperson.

The technology primarily serves casual visitors to the libraries and the archives. Pritchett has seen people spend 20 minutes exploring the resources available via the table. “A few researchers have spent hours at the table, exploring every branch of the George W. Bush decision tree,” he says.

Working Together to Drive Government Innovation 

Ultimately, OBO’s Jaume sees the adoption of technologies like these as a team effort that spans the federal government.

“Don’t be afraid of reaching out to other agencies to introduce yourself, explain who you represent, and suggest, ‘We should look at these technologies together,’” she says. “That’s one of the most important and valuable things I’ve learned: to bring awareness to what you’re working on and share information openly.”

photography By Jonathan Timmes