Where Are the Simple but Effective Wearables?

Written BY

Emily Friedman

February 6, 2018

Remote collaboration via smart glasses, Virtual Reality training, design visualization with HoloLens…These are incredible applications of wearable technologies in enterprise today. While a VR headset is definitely more exciting than a connected wristband, an unassuming wrist-worn device equipped with the right sensors could have tremendous value in the workplace. But where are such simple wearables?

No stranger to employee backlash, Amazon is currently taking heat for a pair of patents awarded to the company. The patents – for wristbands that use ultrasonic pulses and haptic feedback to track and guide a worker’s hands in relation to inventory bins in a warehouse – have raised concerns over employee privacy and workplace surveillance. This is not surprising to anyone who follows the enterprise wearable tech space—privacy has been one of the major challenges holding back widespread adoption of wearables in the workplace. Nevertheless, enterprises are managing to work around the issue today by being transparent, allowing opt-in, and taking the security of workers’ personal data seriously.

To those criticizing the employee-tracking wearables as invasive, Amazon insists the technology would be used to track inventory and not individuals. But can you really track one and not the other using a wearable? Yes, the devices would help workers by freeing up their hands and making them more accurate, but they would also provide insights on personal performance as a byproduct. We know that when it comes to smartphone apps, consumers are willing to give up some measure of privacy for discounts and other benefits. The same holds in the workplace—if workers see the benefit, they’re more likely to support adoption.

Should Amazon one day employ the devices described in the patents, employees’ wearable data could be viewed anonymously—a solution some companies have explored in order to collect workforce productivity and efficiency information without invading privacy or sparking fear among workers of the wearable data being used to penalize them. Of course, this requires a degree of trust between employer and employees (which might be difficult for Amazon given the company’s history of strained relations with its workers.)

What I take away from the Amazon story is the concept of simple but effective wearables. Monocular (Assisted Reality) smart glasses are proving effective in many real-life use cases and could be viewed as relatively simple compared to AR/VR headsets, but I’m talking even simpler and more invisible. Simple smart bands, not fitness trackers but rather inconspicuous wristbands that pack a big punch (advanced sensors) and deliver significant results. These kinds of wearables – no-frills devices without screens or buttons or any method of user interaction at all – seem to be missing from the market today.

The simple but effective category of enterprise wearables includes bracelets, patches, and possibly items of ordinary clothing equipped with sensors and haptic technology and aimed at very specific outcomes for improving workers’ lives on the job. Imagine a customizable or modular smart band: You decide what needs to be tracked to achieve your objective – maybe it’s the missing human piece in a greater IoT scheme – and the appropriate sensors are embedded in the device.

There are use cases of enterprises using a variety of minimalistic wearables, mostly the products of smaller companies and startups, to target risk factors for employees in the workplace. In those cases, some biometric (ex. fatigue, body temp) or chemical in the work environment was measured via wearable. Sometimes the same wearable beeped, lit up or vibrated to warn the wearer when a threshold was crossed.

You don’t need a fancy wearable to track employees’ health on the job, just a form factor that can house the right sensor(s.) A simple body-worn device could track a worker’s location in real time or measure the user’s form and movement while performing a task. The objective might be to ensure employees stay confined to safe zones or have clearance to be in a certain area, to optimize the flow of workers throughout a job site or busy airport, to decrease repetitive motion injuries, or to locate workers in case of an emergency.

What about a smart band that acts as a key in lieu of card access to a secure area, or that turns on a piece of equipment? Similar applications are popping up in the travel and hospitality sector, and might provide a layer of security, safety and convenience in a wide range of industries. Which tasks – like clocking in and out of a shift – could be taken out of workers’ hands and made mindless with a basic wearable? And why are there few well-known wearables of this type on the market today? Perhaps we’re not yet ready for implantable chips capable of the same, but Amazon’s employee-tracking wristband is not an ominous sign for the future of work; rather, it is a model more wearable companies should be pursuing.

The 5th Annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2018, the leading event for enterprise wearables, will take place October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. For details, early confirmed speakers and preliminary agenda, please stay tuned to the conference website.

Image Credit: Amazon/USPTO

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