Wearables are ready for work

Wearable technology is in danger of being dismissed as another short-lived fad. Paul Milligan looks at the reasons for this and explores why the enterprise sector might be its natural home.

Wearable technology, quite often in a variety of novelty guises, has been around since the early 00s. The term really started to gain traction at the start of this current decade with the launch of the head-mounted Google Glass product.

There have always been two offerings of wearables, consumer and business. 

Unsurprisingly given the hype, the people involved and the marketing spend surrounding it, the vast majority of product focus was on the consumer market in those early years.   Products launched primarily included a variety of sophisticated (and sometimes simplistic) wristbands and watches, with a few smart glasses offerings reaching the market.  The range of uses for wearables was one of its most intriguing elements, it could be used as a fitness tracker, as treatment for hearing impairments, to synch data from other devices, as an navigation or communication tool, as something to consume media. 

In 2013 and 2014 usage of wearables was enjoying a steady rise, and one in five American adults had one by the end of 2014 according to a PWC report.

Wearables were often classed as a part of the BYOD trend we saw during the same time period, however the key difference was that BYOD was made up of devices we naturally used in our home and working lives, wearables were specific to a task or function, so we were less likely to just have them lying around.

2015 was the year wearables, and in particular its most high profile product, Google Glass, started to suffer a backlash.  Released in April 2013 to a huge fanfare, the product was much lighter than other devices around at the time (Oculus VR headset for example), and sales predictions were high. 

When it was first released the product actually only went out to a restricted beta run of 8,000 developers.  Costing $1,500 it sold slowly in the developer community before being released in a ‘more open beta’ to the general public in May 2014.  Significantly it also came with a significant price cut (down to $500).   Alongside price and availability criticisms, Google Glass also came under fire for privacy issues.  On the front of the glasses was a tiny 5megapixel camera which could record 720p video, however there was no outwardly visible way of knowing when the camera was recording or not, leading it to being banned in some bars, restaurants and hotels.  The Consumer Watchdog group in the U.S. called it ‘one of the most privacy invasive devices ever’. 

DHL Google Glass

As a result wearing the glasses in public came with attached with a social stigma, with wearers being deemed ‘glass-holes’.  It was then no surprise when Google shut down the Explorers program in Jan 2015, effectively ending the sale of Google Glass (read on for more on this topic).   

More recently in early July this year Intel closed its division working on wearables, to focus on augmented reality instead, and one of the sector’s biggest names, Fitbit has announced job losses and seen its shares fall 63% in the last 12 months.  So are wearables dead? Not quite, and its not the consumer market that’s going to save it this time.   

A report by market research company IDC last summer said worldwide shipments of wearable devices will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.3%, culminating in 213 million units shipped in 2020.  "Unlike the smartphone, which consolidated multiple technologies into one device, the wearables market is a collection of disparate devices," said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. "Watches and bands are and always will be popular, but the market will clearly benefit from the emergence of additional form factors, like clothing and eyewear, that will deliver new capabilities and experiences. Eyewear has a clear focus on the enterprise as it stands to complement or replace existing computing devices, particularly for workers in the field or on the factory floor.”

IDC predicts that eyewear will account for just 10% of wearables sales by 2020 but more than 40% of total revenue because of its potential for specialist business devices.  The numbers are small, but the potential is big, as demonstrated by this quote from Neil Mawston, executive director, Strategy Analytics to website IT Business Edge.  “We forecast less than one per cent of the world’s companies will use wearables for enterprise usage in 2017.  It is a niche but emerging market.  There is huge potential for long-term growth from the current low base.”

One key issue for future adoption is that using wearables in a business environment means it wont need to meet the same stringent privacy issues it faced when used in public.

The uses for wearables across non-consumer sectors are massive. In healthcare wearables can record data to determine the best course of treatment going forward, alert a medical professional of a significant change in vital signs, help diabetes patients track blood sugar levels, and prevent or reduce the need for hospitalisation, all saving national health programmes huge amounts of money along the way.

A wearable was recently used during a live rugby match in Australia, where broadcaster Channel Nine and wearable tech company Catapult Sports were able to track the (slowing) heartbeat of a player about to take a crucial game-winning kick, bringing a whole new element to live broadcasting.

Thurston HR 2

Wearables will also play a big role in customers’ overall IoT strategy in vertical markets, including manufacturing and healthcare.  One specialist business device to do this is the new Google Glass, which has recently been reborn after two years in stasis by the tech giant’s parent company Alphabet. 

Now called Google Glass Enterprise, it boasts an improved battery, improved camera (8 mexapixels up from 5), more reliable WiFi, and a red light to indicate video recording (to deal with those previously mentioned privacy issues).  The device clips onto compatible glasses or industry frames, and is designed to be lightweight and comfortable for use during the duration of the work day.  

Alphabet has been working with 30 partners during the last two years to improve the design.  They include GE, Boeing, DHL and Volkswagen.   GE’s mechanics now use Glass software from Upskill, which shows them instructions with videos, animations and images in their line of sight so they don’t have to stop work to check their binders or computer to know what to do next. Since using Glass with Upskill, it estimates it has reduced errors at key points in the assembly and overhaul of engines, and improved their mechanics’ efficiency by between 8–12%.

Workers at agricultural machinery manufacturer AGCO found that by using the glasses it was able to reduced machinery production time by 25% and inspection times by 30%.  The glasses reduced the normal movement of staff during checklists they would make to view instruction manuals or send photos from tablets or laptops as they assembled machines.  

DHL reported similar results in efficiency, its employees have a supply chain process called order picking’ where they fulfil orders by scanning items from racks before moving them into totes or bins on carts to be shipped. Using Ubimax with Glass, it now receives real-time instructions about where items have to be placed on the carts with the help of visual aids. With their hands now free of paper instructions, pickers can work more efficiently, DHL estimates it has increased supply chain efficiency by 15%.

Glass Enterprise is also helping in healthcare, doctors at Dignity Health have been using Glass with Augmedix software as a ‘remote scribe’.  Instead of typing on a computer during consultations, doctors can look patients in the eye, listening as they talk, as the note taking work is being done in the background. Dignity’s Chief Medical Information Officer, Dr Davin Lundquist says that in addition to improving their quality of care, Glass has also reduced the time they spend typing up patient notes and other administrative work from 33% of their day to less than 10%, while doubling the amount of time they interact with patients.

Not to be outdone by Google, Microsoft has been working with partners in a similar way for its HoloLens wearable device for the last two years.  It is working with Scope AR to develop its WorkLink platform on HoloLens so remote workers can learn to repair or assemble complex machinery, it is also working with Japan Airlines on a similar project, where engineers can view holograms of jet engines without visiting an aircraft hangar, or removing an expensive (and very heavy) working component out of service. 

Microsoft is also working with NASA to help it map the surface of Mars.  Using the Curiosity robotic vehicle on Mars, the system is able to connect scientists and engineers around the world who can view and examine a terrain they will never ever visit.

The potential for wearables in business, or outside of the consumer sphere, is absolutely huge. Improvements in technology, the removal of the same privacy issues that dogged the consumer version have lifted two barriers to its adoption.  There is clearly a lot of work still to be done (see the 1% usage comment above) before adoption reaches satisfactory levels, and the technology won’t always fit every circumstance, but now it has a clearer vision of where the technology is going, and (crucially) willing buyers and software developers, it can only flourish.

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