If the current trend in mobile technology continues, 2014 will surely go down as the year of the wearable.
From smart watches, like the Pebble and the recently announced Android Wear operating system, to near-absurd examples like Sony’s patented “smart wig” and a onesie that doubles as a mobile, Wi-Fi-enabled music server, the wearable technology fad has reached a fever pitch.
Much of the chatter concerns the potential boon for consumers and office workers, but blue-collar workers stand to gain just as much from wearable technologies.
Motorola’s HC1 headset is but one example. A hands-free display that resembles the headgear worn by the galactic Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, it allows defense, utilities, construction, and aviation workers to access repair manuals and schematics in their line of vision.
The Nashville, Tennessee-based start-up XOEye Technologies has developed a similar, if pared-down, version of the same idea. Its XOne safety glasses contain blinking LEDs — as opposed to Google Glass’s potentially distracting heads-up display — and embedded cameras that can scan barcodes and stream real-time video to offsite technicians. It also tracks bio-metric markers like head tilt, which can help employers identify ergonomic issues.
C. Aaron Salow, XOEye’s CEO, noted that one of the most important factors in wearables is not to bog down workers with extra equipment. “We’re replacing what people already have to wear,” he said. “We’re not having you add something to your uniform.”
Wearables initially designed for consumers also offer a host of industrial applications. That’s not to say that consumer technology doesn’t have a range of potential applications in the manual labor sector, too. The Myo armband, for example, is a gesture-based, wireless controller marketed to video gamers; in a factory, it could allow workers to keep their hands free as they operate machinery. Kapture, an audio-recording wristband, could help workers remember complex instructions or take notes while on a job site.
There is a point, however, where wearables could go from productivity-enhancing helpers to Orwellian surveillance systems. British retailer Tesco was criticized last year for making some of its employees wear electronic armbands that tracked their efficiency on the job.
Few people are as keenly aware of this concern as Chris Dancy, an IT specialist and wearables evangelist who carries up to 10 mobile devices on a given day, including a Narrative Clip camera, a BodyMedia FIT armband, a heart-rate monitor, and Google Glass.
“I walk around looking at everything like it’s data,” Dancy said, only half-jokingly. “My biggest fear, and we’re seeing a lot of this in enterprise now, is that you can quantify a lot of work.” That data — “hard data,” as he described it — could be used against workers on performance reviews. “You cannot judge someone day by day on hard data,” he said. “You’re a human, and you don’t have repeatable processes like machines.”
The solution, he says, is to allow people to take control of their own gadgets. Instead of issuing workers’ company-owned equipment, employers could develop applications for workers’ personal devices that help them do their jobs better and more safely. “Let’s give blue-collar workers the opportunity to opt in,” said Dancy. “It’s all about empowerment.”
Opting in, however, requires that workers benefit as much as their employers. “You have to make their jobs easier and more efficient,” said XOEye’s Salow. “You have to tie these wearable devices to something that’s personally beneficial to them.” That could be as simple as allowing workers to safely play their own music through their device.
“When you add that personal touch and valuable applications, in addition to making their jobs more efficient, more effective and less burdensome, that’s when you get people excited,” Salow said.
With that subtle switch, a wearable device goes from just another piece of flair to a productivity tool.
This article was originally written by Matthew Zuras for Forbes PTCVoice.
Image courtesy of XOEye Technologies