Why We Can't Afford to Ignore Wearable Technology in Enterprise

Written BY

Emily Friedman

July 27, 2016

Last month’s Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit was a truly special event, and I’m not just saying that because I helped organize it (wink). In less than a year – from the very first EWTS in October 2015 to June 2016 – the enterprise wearables space has progressed by leaps and bounds, in a direction that is both exciting and daunting. And yet, more than hard facts or a clear path forward, what emerged out of this year’s conference was a sense of community. So begins our latest blog series discussing the 10 major themes in enterprise wearables today, as supported by the insight shared in Atlanta. In this post, we share the first two big themes.

Hands- free is what makes wearables so disruptive to business and why we cannot afford to ignore this new category of technology.

I’m not saying anything new here but perhaps this view has become more widely appreciated over the past year. No longer merely a headline for an article, more and more people and organizations truly believe that wearables are the next big thing in enterprise. Gone are the days when his fellow analysts balked at J.P. Gownder‘s claim that wearables for enterprise would be a bigger market than consumer devices. As Zebra Technology’s Tom Bianculli declared in the opening keynote, “The number of people in this room will double next year.”* How does he know? Because wearable technology, augmented reality, machine learning, IoT–it’s all happening. There is no question, no speculation, no real debate. The tide has turned and we must ride out the wave together.

Tom also informed us that over a third of the  global workforce is now mobile. That’s 1.3 billion deskless workers who need their hands free to do their jobs better, faster, safer, and more accurately; and that fact alone – if nothing else – makes wearable tech inevitable, even if for the time being we cannot justify implementation with hard numbers.

Hardware: Wrist is largely missing from the discussion; OTS vs. custom solutions debate

Augmented Reality and smart eyewear pretty much stole the show at EWTS, or at least dominated the exhibit hall. Why the lack of wrist devices, you ask? It is most likely a matter of maturity. The wrist-mounted enterprise wearables market does not seem to be as mature as the head-mounted display one. It is probable that those hardware companies focusing on the wrist have not yet shifted their sights to the enterprise (perhaps they haven’t yet caught onto theme #1 above); but that doesn’t mean that wrist wearables and other non-eyewear devices do not have a role to play in the workplace.

J.P. Gownder spoke about non-head mounted devices and gave use case examples, in addition to strongly endorsing Virtual Reality for enterprise.** He assured us that “the market is bigger than smart glasses,” referring to authentication devices like the Nymi band, body wearable cameras by Vidcie, health monitors, and chemical sensors. And J.P. was not alone in at least mentioning devices other than smart glasses: We heard about the use of ring scanners in combination with smart eyewear in logistics environments, where it may be more convenient to use a ring as opposed to a barcode reader in a pair of glasses to scan items located below the waist. In addition, several speakers talked about smart clothing and gear in the construction industry and beyond. Cory Simon of NASA described the spacesuit as a piece of wearable technology, while Ben Cooper of VF Corporation proposed we leverage existing technologies and form factors to which we are already accustomed, like the hard hat and work boots, as a path to success. This notion was seconded by Todd Wynne of Rogers-O’Brien, who phrased it as “augmenting the wearables we already have.”

“I’m a big believer in focusing on what’s already acceptable in our industry. Our guys all wear hard hats and safety vests. How do we make these wearables smarter [while holding] onto comfort and wearability?”

Responding to a question from the audience, Mubarik Choudry of Shell talked about the possibility of using smartwatches for safety applications in the field, to sense biometric data and provide alerts, as well as in situations where the worker has to deal with short checklist items. Dr. Peter Chai has been researching the use of smart glasses for teleconsultation at UMass but is also experimenting with ingestible biosensors; and Rogers-O’Brien has been exploring a number of rather unconventional wearable devices, including the DAQRI smart helmet, RTLS (real-time location system) technology in the form of a light-up safety vest, and even partial exoskeletons by Ekso Bionics.

Virtual Reality also had its moment thanks to Gownder: Now that fundamental technical and experiential problems of VR have been solved, a large ecosystem of VR developers has evolved, and the economics of VR devices have radically shifted (compared to the early days of the technology); J.P. says that virtual reality has great potential in enterprise for complex asset visualizations, virtual social spaces, and new shopping experiences. Michal Wojtak and Taylor Cupp of Mortenson Construction spoke about the value of VR in the AEC industry, where the technology is eliminating traditional roadblocks in the design decision making process by helping customers to visualize and better understand building concepts. You can imagine that 2D building plans don’t mean much to the average construction customer; savings can be had from using VR to give clients early reviews of designs, since finding potential areas of customer dissatisfaction before building commences means less rework after the fact. In addition to supporting the design process, VR can be used to train future operators of a facility. Like Rogers-O’Brien, Mortenson is also looking at exoskeletons, along with hearables and equipment and environmental monitoring, which is not wearable tech exactly but can provide critical data that is then communicated to workers via wearable devices.

On the devices front, there is a bit of a debate that took place across the many sessions at EWTS, which considered the value of off-the-shelf (OTS) wearables over purpose-built or custom solutions. The hammer arguably came down on the side of adapting consumer devices for enterprise purposes whenever possible: Proprietary devices are expensive, while commercial products have a more established ecosystem to “back them up” and will generally suffice if you’re willing to put in some work on the implementation end.

Zac Penix of the AES Corporation was all for buying wearables off the shelf: “My favorite wearable is my Fitbit because it does one thing and does it very well…how do we implement this in a global workforce? We want to buy something that does one thing very well and that people will use. Can we buy it off the shelf? If we have to build it, can we build it with industry partners? [But] if we have to build it we probably won’t because, frankly, there won’t be an entire ecosystem driving it and improving it perpetually.” According to Zac, AES typically steers away from custom device development for a few reasons: Price-wise, an OTS device will beat out a proprietary one every time; and since wearables are still a nascent space, it may be risky to put all your eggs in one (expensive) basket, i.e. in a technology company that doesn’t have a consumer leg to stand on.

“I would rather buy 40,000 devices that cost $20 and then spend $2 million integrating and solving problems [like data and security] than buy 40,000 devices that cost $2,000 apiece. I’m willing to spend the time and money integrating, making robust, cyber-secure, because I’m fairly certain that in a nascent space like wearables I’m going to be replacing the tech in two years anyways.”

Though Zac was mainly referring to wrist wearables, he was not alone: In the medical community and public sector, often the funds just aren’t there to go down the proprietary road. Dr. Peter Chai said that as a doctor he is always asking how he can use OTS tech: “We need OTS devices that are cheap and easy to use, and that [doctors and patients] will actually interact with.” In healthcare, questions like “Is Medicare going to pay for the device?” and “Can you bill for a remote consult?” arise, further complicating matters. According to Sgt. Dan Gomez of the LAPD and Dr. Kathleen Deloughery of the DHS, the plan of action in the first responder community is to first look for a commercial product and then ask if the OTS device can be ruggedized. Likewise, in his evaluation process, Brian McCarthy of Nature’s Best looks for something that is flexible and scalable, and can standardize processes across the business; he wants to be able to leverage a single device across multiple job roles in the supply chain. Something highly customized might stifle that ability.

Workers are very good at breaking things, and workforces can be very large (tens of thousands of workers spread out across the globe). Some industries have fewer resources than others, and the pace of technological change and advancement is quick. These are all arguments for OTS devices. But how do we “enterprise” consumer products, and when is it better to use a custom device?

Clint Wheelock of Tractica noted that it wasn’t so long ago that for applications like remote assist and telemedicine, the technology was all purpose-built. We’re talking expensive portable devices or machines that were typically ruggedized, bulky, and produced in a small volume for the task at hand. Of course, with the advent of smaller, more mobile and more wearable form factors, that model has really shifted; yet there are definitely certain applications for which more purpose-built devices are necessary. The choice between consumer and proprietary might come down to individual company preference or policy, or an organization’s financial, R&D or other means, or be determined on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, Zac Penix described a custom device that AES is currently building: A Fitbit-like wearable that detects high-voltage electricity and will warn a worker not to touch something. Despite its stance against proprietary wearables, AES does not believe the consumer market will get to the point of producing such a device anytime soon. In Vuzix’s Lance Anderson‘s personal view, once wearables are taken as a “ubiquitous tool in society” (or in all industry), the wearable tech industry as a whole may begin looking at more bespoke or customized devices. So, there could very well be smart glasses designed specifically for the construction industry, or for the warehouse environment, or for physicians–only time will tell.

*All quotes are transcribed from the sessions and presentations given at EWTS, June 16-17, 2016 in Atlanta, GA, and therefore may not be exact.

Further Reading