how important are wearables going to be for business?

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Wearable devices like smartphones, head-up displays and activity trackers are set to become a $12 billion industry by 2018 (IDC), so enterprises must also get prepared for employees to bring their own wearable devices to work. Rather than be King Canute and attempt to block an unstoppable force, some enterprises are embracing wearables to create their own solutions to business challenges. So, what are wearable devices and what opportunities can enterprises gain from using them?

wearables – what are they?

Wearable devices are small computers - bands, glasses, watches even clothes - that connect wirelessly with other computers, both locally and remotely. They usually carry sensors that monitor various forms of physical activity or the environment around the wearer.  Most of the current wearables depend on a smartphone companion to connect to the web. In future (as battery life, processor and component size and other technical problems are worked out) wearable devices will become truly independent with their own processors and mobile connectivity. ARM recently released its Mali chip reference design to enable such implementations.

Public perception of wearables casts these things as little more than activity monitors, such as Fitbit, or smartphone accessories, such as Pebble. Despite this many enterprises are already exploring ways to put wearables to good use, particularly using Google Glass.

A Vanson Bourne survey of 300 IT decision makers in the UK revealed that 29% of UK businesses have some form of wearable technologies projects in practice. The main reasons for such projects are employee well-being (16%), instant access to important information (15%), and improved customer service (14%).

Dr. Chris Brauer at the Institute of Management Studies, author of a widely cited report exploring use of wearables in the workplace, says: "Organizations and employees now need to be developing and implementing strategies for introducing and harnessing the power of wearables in the workplace."

augmentation and monitoring

To understand how wearable technologies can be applied it’s helpful to glance at how wearables are already used to augment and monitor existing activity, for example:

·      The NFL is testing an RFID chip embedded in players' shoulder pads to track the players' movements and monitor how play develops. This is an example of monitoring existing activity.

·      A Stanford University physician used Google Glass during an operation. The device superimposed step-by-step images on the patient to help him during the procedure. In this case the device augments existing activity.

Augmentation and monitoring of activity using wearable devices have potential implications across multiple enterprises:

insurance

Today’s wearables can monitor heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and so on. Health insurance providers are investigating ways to offer advantageous premiums to customers prepared to use wearable systems to monitor their health and activity levels, and many large enterprises already connect use of wearable fitness trackers with employee health insurance costs.

A Novarica paper notes that Everymove plans to partner with health insurance providers, presumably to tie premiums up to activity and wearable sensors. How does this work? Companies like Jiff & Redbric are working with health insurance companies and employers: employees agree to share their biometric data with employers, who then use that information to motivate staff into healthy habits and provide evidence with which to reduce group health insurance premiums.

warehousing/distribution

Workers at a Tesco distribution center in the UK wear sophisticated Motorola armbands to track the goods they gather from across the huge warehouse. Equipped with small displays, these bands can identify and locate stock, monitor collected stock and guide employees to what they need. The devices also allocate tasks, forecast completion times and quantify the movement of workers through the facility. The result? Tesco has cut the number of full-time employees required to run the center by 18%, a real efficiency gain.

Tesco’s example suggests how enterprises across the board can build applications to connect business processes to wearables, for example a smartwatch app that reminds the wearer when an urgent document approval is required.

construction

Wearable devices are also useful in the construction industry. Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing construction management apps for Google Glass. These apps provide fast and immediate access to blueprints and plans, safety documents and even machine or tool instructions. Such uses aren’t confined to construction, of course – wearable glasses promise fast and immediate on-the-spot access to training and other materials to new employees in any industry. In construction such use enables construction workers to access essential information while continuing with the task in hand, boosting productivity. In another implementation, fatigue-monitoring sensors can identify when heavy equipment operators are tired, improving site health and safety.

obstacles

Just like the smartphone, the arrival of wearable devices in the enterprise will introduce fresh challenges as well as efficiencies. CIOs will need to develop security and usage policies, achieve consensus regarding employee privacy, and ensure sufficient bandwidth is in place to support these new devices. Not only this, but companies will need to think about the data being created by enterprise use of wearable systems - will this be stored, where and how will this information be handled and analyzed? Initial research suggests that PC, smartphone and wearable device using employees generate 30GB of data each week.

There are also data protection issues. The UK Information Commissioner's Office warns that enterprises must process, "information collected by these devices in compliance with the UK Data Protection Act."

For enterprises the potential for creative implementation of wearable technology is huge, but questions remain: "Wearable technology start-ups are feeding the market with innovative ideas and creative uses of technologies but they are not addressing other important issues, from security to business models," said Saverio Romeo, principal analyst at Beecham Research.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.