Wearables invade the workplace

Wearable devices are finding a fit in enterprise applications


Between Google Glass and the Apple iWatch, interest in wearables has never been higher. Analysts are predicting that wearable computers will generate more than $10 billion in revenue in 2020, and IMS Research sees wearable sales reaching 170 million devices in 2016.

Deloitte Consulting predicts that 10 million devices will be sold this year alone, representing a $3 billion market largely driven by consumers. However, Bill Briggs, CTO at Deloitte Consulting, says that over the long term, the market for wearables in the enterprise could surpass the consumer market.

"In the workplace, utility trumps fashion, and a single use-case that demonstrates measurable impact and true business value can justify investment. Wearables allow technology to augment workers in places where it wasn’t previously feasible—where hands-free, heads-up awareness is absolutely essential—whether it's for safety, logistics or etiquette."

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Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder adds that by 2020, wearables will be commonplace with many employees at various enterprises. By then, devices will be tailored to verticals, roles within companies, and even unique to specific organizations. "For some businesses, wearable tools will become central to how employees do their jobs," he says.

And, in Gartner's Innovation Insight report on smart glasses and workplace efficiency, research director Angela McIntyre concluded that by 2017, smart glasses could save the field service industry $1 billion per year through improved efficiency.

She defines enterprise devices as head-mounted displays (HMD), which have projection technology integrated into the eyeglasses; and heads-up displays (HUD) that superimpose an augmented reality (AR) image on the user's view of the real world, as opposed to blocking the user's vision. Currently, enterprise-grade heads-up displays are more expensive, have cumbersome form factors, and fewer apps than consumer smart glasses. However, many developers are already changing these awkward, unattractive designs in response to user demands for more style and comfort.

Medical apps lead the way

Jeremy Schroetter, assistant vice president of medical technology at GlobalLogic Consulting, contends that wearable medical technology is expanding daily. The consumer market is saturated with devices that measure general activity and fitness but recently he has seen more interest in creating health services, which will soon be the standard and support the greatest number of devices. Much of the differentiation; however, is seen in form factor and integration with other platforms.

"The opportunities now are with devices that collect different types of information or use algorithms to utilize data in new and beneficial ways. Devices that are easier to use or transparent to the wearer, such as contact lenses with glucose monitors or wearable patches that collect a variety of parameters will be the differentiators that drive more compliance and use. The technology is finally beginning to catch up with the promise," says Schroetter.

For example, Google is testing a smart contact lens for diabetics that measures glucose levels in the user's tears. The contacts use a tiny, wireless chip with a miniaturized glucose sensor sandwiched between two layers of the soft contact lens material.

ZOLL Medical Corp. has a wearable defibrillator called a LifeVest for patients at risk of sudden cardiac arrest. This vest detects arrhythmias and delivers treatment shocks to patients, which provides protection during the patient's changing condition.

Oxford University researchers have developed a pair of smart glasses, fitted with a specially adapted 3D camera, for individuals who suffer extreme limited vision such as retinitis pigmentosa and other near-blind conditions.

Epson's smart glasses let nurses see through human skin. A Seattle-based company called Artefact has created a tiny, computerized patch called Dialog that helps people with epilepsy manage their condition.

Workplace wearables

Of course, wearables aren’t limited to the medical field.

Motorola Solutions has a hands-free wearable device for use in harsh environments and remote locations, where access to complex data is necessary, but sometimes impossible for other computers such as laptops or handheld devices.

XOEye Technologies has an impressive suite of products for industrial enterprises. And for the military, Raytheon Company has a multifunction helmet for both soldiers and pilots.

Google Glass, Lumus, Vuzix, and Epson plus several others are developing voice-command, wearable computers with various sensors, built-in cameras, monitors, Internet/telemedicine access, and other custom features for surgeons, military, law enforcement, and dozens of other professional occupations.

Mobility and immediacy matter

"Mobility is now a fundamental enterprise priority," says Forrester's Gownder. "Over three-quarters of business leaders identify mobile strategy as a moderate, high, or critical priority for their organizations. Wearable devices represent the next phase of this mobile revolution. This technology isn't just a consumer phenomenon; these devices have the potential to change the way organizations and workers conduct business."

Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder

For example, Forrester analyst Julie Ask believes that wearables will become an extension of users' mobile phones because it's often inconvenient to carry cell phones in one's hand or on a hip belt. "I pick it up so often, just to glance at it to see who called, read a message, or even answer a call, which I can do with my Bluetooth headset. Think Pebble, Samsung Gear—it's an extension of my phone for glanceable information and quick, easy, simple tasks."

Ask explains that this convenience applies to business, as well; for example, short messages and reminders such as 'the network is down,' 'your meeting starts in 10 minutes in conference room 22,' or 'your laptop is fixed and ready for pickup.' For the long term, virtual reality heads-up displays will be the norm."Think of notifications in 'mobile moments' where immediacy matters," she adds.

Anna Jen, director of new products at Epson America, agrees that the game-changing applications for smart glasses are in the workplace because these devices provide a safer and more efficient work environment through the use of augmented reality applications, which have real ROI benefits. For the longer-term, she believes that most consumers will be introduced to smart glasses at sporting events, museums, and other public venues giving them a socially acceptable introduction to this new way of interacting with and processing the world around them.

Product Technologies

"For example, products such as Epson's Moverio BT-200 feature a true binocular display that projects transparent overlays of digital content onto the real-world in the center of the device's field of view," says Jen. "In addition, these glasses contain sensors such as a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetic compass for head-motion tracking and hands-free navigation, as well as a front-facing camera for video/image capture and for identifying real-world markers for augmented reality applications."

XOEye Technologies has developed a wearable technology suite tailored for the industrial enterprise comprised of three distinct layers," says CEO Aaron Salow. "First, a smart, safety-certified, eyewear device; ruggedized and equipped with a custom operating system, it captures workplace data through live HD video-streaming and high-fidelity audio collaboration. Second, the XMod is the proprietary modular chip set that supercharges this or any other wearable computing device. And the third (most powerful element), is Vision; a cloud-based software that takes all of the raw data captured by this device and turns it into actionable intelligence for employers."

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"We have seen devices migrate from textual to graphical and, now, to natural user interfaces," says Tom Bianculli, senior director at Motorola Solutions. "Motorola's HC1 headset computer uses gestures, speech recognition, and a blend of the digital and physical worlds to quickly and simply provide end-users with instant access to the specific, relevant information that mobile workers need in any environment.”

Girish Rishi, senior vice president at Motorola Solutions adds, "The HC1 represents a paradigm shift in mobile computing. We built the rugged HC1 for use in harsh surroundings and remote locations. It offers a productive hands-free work environment for technical field workers and helps improve inspection time, accuracy, efficiency, and safety.”

Security and privacy implications

"The security and privacy implications may be obvious, but they are still profound," says Briggs. "Especially in the early days of wearables and connected devices, individuals need to understand and appreciate the potential benefits behind any solution, and the safeguards that are established and implemented to protect and secure not only personal information, but also whatever users have decided they're not willing to express or share. Transparency needs to be the rule, along with a proactive stance around understanding the legal, regulatory, and labor issues surrounding some scenarios."

Susan Etlinger, industry analyst at Altimeter Group, cautions that if Google Glass is an example of a new technology device that both identifies and records the activities in its proximity, users should be aware that wearing this device has made others a target and branded the user as a pariah. That is, people avoid Google Glass users for fear of being recorded.

The privacy implications, both for the wearer and the people in his/her vicinity, need to be considered and addressed appropriately. For example, if an individual is walking down the street and encounters someone wearing a Glass-like device, is it presumed that the person has agreed to be recorded?

"There is a different tolerance between government surveillance and recording the environment for business purposes," says Etlinger. "Businesses need to carefully examine the context and implications of the data they choose to collect, the impact on the employee, and the impact on the community surrounding that person. This is especially salient for situations involving minors."

In summary

"Organizations across every industry and geography are in the early stages of tapping the potential of wearables," says Briggs. "Even more so than in the world of smart phones and tablets, use cases for wearables have to be anchored around specific end-user journeys. It’s about re-imagining howwork gets done and how customers are engaged. As everything around us gets smarter and connected, wearables become a beacon for context and, by extension, a filter simplifying the cacophony of data and services surrounding us into intelligent signals and appropriate, potential actions."

Sartain is a freelance writer. She can be reached at julesds@comcast.net

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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