When personal computers became commodity products and began to be widely used in the workplace, they ushered in major gains in efficiency.
Today, service workers and others who have jobs that take them outside the office have achieved many of these same benefits through the use of mobile devices such as tablets, smartphones, and portable terminals. But mobile devices are still a hindrance for workers who need both hands free to do their job or can’t take their attention away from their task to consult a screen.
Wearable computing technology, often worn as a watch or eye wear, provides a possible solution. Today’s wearables not only give employees instantaneous access to the information they need to do their job, but also allows them to provide management with continuous updates without getting in the way of their current task or interactions with customers.
“With wearables like Google Glass and even new push-to-talk devices, technicians can seamlessly collaborate with experts while they are in the field and remain hands-free in the process,” says Jesse Robbins, co-founder and CEO of OnBeep, a builder of wearable connected devices to solve planetary-scale problems.
“When technicians can be more present while on site and quickly retrieve information when they need it, they can better serve customers in real-time.”
In 2014, wearables began to capture the public imagination, but 2015 is poised to be the year when the technology really takes off for business applications. A recent Forrester Research survey of 3,000 global technology and business decision makers showed that 68 percent believe wearables are a priority for their company, with 51 percent calling it a moderate, high, or critical priority.
“On the consumer side, it’s a couple of years out,” says Brent Blum, a senior principal who runs the new wearable-tech practice at Accenture. “There are a lot more reasons to think the enterprise will take off first.”
Blum believes wearables will be “the missing piece” for “deskless” workers, and tech giants like General Electric are already building software platforms to connect wearable devices with corporate data systems and stream video with sophisticated security and storage capabilities.
What are the benefits of wearables for businesses?
“Wearables in the enterprise have the most immediate applicability to field-based workers, especially those that work for utilities, communications service providers, capital equipment, or even traveling healthcare workers,” says Mike Karlskind, vice president of product marketing for ClickSoftware field employees.
“Think of a utility repair person fixing a transformer or an insurance adjuster reviewing the damage of a vehicle—they often need to react quickly to emergencies. They perform more frequent, routine actions like notifying a customer about their ETA, or reporting back to the home office. Those are typically short interactions, and small wrist-worn wearables may become the best solution to carry them out.”
Karlskind adds that even more significant benefits can be gained with smart glasses embedded with cameras as they become more widespread.
“A worker could, in near instant fashion, identify the parts and devices being looked at, read serial numbers and bar codes, or automatically detect completion of necessary steps to a repair. Once cameras are able to deliver a fully augmented-reality experience, the glasses could project information as an overlay to the worker’s field of view; parts and access points could be physically labeled and highlighted directly while the worker looks at them.”
Smart glasses with a virtual assistant component could also serve as an interactive, hands-free how-to manual for field workers. “Video collaboration with experts in remote locations could provide faster repairs and save the expense of flying an expert to the site to help,” says Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner. “Employees at remote sites will communicate and share video of what they see with experienced workers to get advice on how to diagnose and fix problems.”
If smart glasses were used in this respect, McIntyre says enterprises could improve the cost-effectiveness of their field service and remote operations by employing a larger ratio of less-experienced workers to experienced ones and save on labor costs.
Gartner also predicts that smartglasses will provide savings of more than $1 billion per year to the field service sector by 2017 by diagnosing and fixing problems more quickly and reducing the need to bring experts to remote sites. Potential benefits of this magnitude can be expected to capture the attention of management and drive rapid proliferation of wearable computing apps.
But despite all the promises of wearables for the workplace, there are some obstacles that need to be overcome if businesses want a widespread implementation in the enterprise.
One of the biggest issues revolves around privacy.
Wearables have the potential to make privacy and security issues even more complicated than they already are. What if you lose your wearable device, will you be able to easily wipe information the way you do with a smartphone or tablet? And what if you use an unsecure WiFi connection, would that leave your device susceptible to hacking?
According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study of 1,000 U.S. adults, 82 percent of respondents are worried that wearables will invade their privacy, while 86 percent think the technology would make them more vulnerable to data security breaches.
There will also be obstacles on the product development side.
“From what we’ve seen so far, most new smartwatch interfaces are really just downsized versions of smartphone interfaces,” says Himanshu Sareen, CEO of Icreon Tech, a software developer that produces apps for wearable devices. “This is a problem; if the hardware shrinks, the software will need to break the mold and differentiate itself in order to offer functionalities that are truly unique. The next priority will be to adjust the current software design paradigm in a way that suits the needs of wearable technology.
“To truly adapt to new wearable technologies, we’ll have to develop new experiences that give users a brand new way of absorbing information,” Sareen adds. “When it comes to designing apps for wearables, developers and designers will have to provide value to a user without being intrusive.”
Employee resistance to new technology and difficulty introducing innovations within organizations will also be major barriers. But for now, most companies attempting to use wearables in the workforce will need to figure out whether or not they offer true value.
“The biggest question right now is what are the use cases for wearables?” says Hubert Selvanathan, principal at Waterstone Management Group, an advisory firm focused on serving the technology sector. “Then, what are the ROI and economic benefits that can be derived from them?”
Photo courtesy of NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images