Wearable technology is undeniably hot. Exhibitions like CES and the Wearable Tech Show have been brimming with consumer gadgets that you can place on your head, put around your wrist or clip to your clothing. And just as smartphones initially aimed at consumers - such as Apple's iPhone - were adopted by businesses around the world, it's inevitable that wearable technology will make an impact in the enterprise space.
But how? Smart wristbands are perhaps the most popular type of wearable technology at the moment, but it's difficult to see where a Fitbit or other smartband which records information about a user's health can help enterprises in their primary aim of making money.
The Pebble smartwatch is another piece of wearable technology that has been making waves, along with other smartwatches from the likes of Samsung. With its ability to display notifications about incoming text messages and emails, it could potentially be used as a valid productivity tool for busy executives.
A Wearable App for That
Pebble has an API that developers can use to create their own smartwatch apps that can be listed on the Pebble store. It's this, more than anything else, which will encourage enterprise adoption. Out of the box the Pebble may be limited in what it can do and the information it can display, but once programming software for wearable technology devices becomes more mainstream the technology will become more useful.
A giant leap was taken in that direction in March when Sundar Pichai, Google' s senior vice president of Android, Apps and Chrome, announced the company's SDK for Android software for use on wearable devices, followed by the announcement of Google's Android Wear, a version of its Android operating system specifically made for wearable devices.
According to Gartner, Google's Android operating system powers an estimated 78 percent of all smartphones in use today, made by a range of manufacturers including Samsung, LG and HTC. If Android Wear becomes an operating system standard, it will likely attract large numbers of developers writing applications for both consumer and enterprise use.
It's highly likely that derivatives of the current versions of Android and iOS will become the dominant operating systems on wearable devices like smartwatches and other smart bands, according to Daniel Matte, a wearable technology expert at Canalys. "They will be stripped down and improved," he says. "These two operating systems have been dominant on mobile, and they will be on wearable devices as well."
What kind of enterprise applications will developers write, and what sort of wearable hardware will run them? Google Glass - the company's Internet-connected eyeglasses which include a high resolution display in front of users' eyes - may provide a clue. They have already been tested by the likes of Virgin Atlantic, to see if staff can use them to provide better customer service. Possible uses could include recognizing license plates of the limo that brings customers to the airport so they can be greeted by name, or reading tickets to bring up information about customers and their flight preferences.
Richard Cope, an analyst at Mintel, says that many people may see this type of usage as unsettling. "If an employee is wearing Google Glass you may wonder if you have their full attention, and whether you are having a conversation with them or whether they are reading from a script." Still, he expects Google Glass-like technology to become very popular in the travel and leisure industries - eventually.
Wearable Tech Use Cases
The technology will likely catch on in other industries too. For example, Nashville-based XOEye Technologies has developed a set of Glass-like spectacles for industrial purposes. The software they run can read bar codes on packages or other items, allowing baggage handlers or parcel couriers to scan items without having to put them down to free their hands to use a scanner device.
They can also be used to allow a maintenance engineer to look at an engine or other piece of machinery and diagnose problems by conferring with office-based specialists, who see the same view of the machine as the engineer.
Motorola's HC1 headset works in a similar way, enabling maintenance engineers to read repair instructions and see specific components highlighted, all in their field of vision, instead of having to keep moving their attention between the engine and a repair document.
"We see applications for this type of wearable technology in industries like aerospace, where engineers can consult repair manuals, but also potentially for people like surgeons," says Cope.
But there is more to wearable technology than smart eyewear. JPL has already unveiled BioSleeve, a bandage-like package that covers the forearm and which contains sensors and inertial measurement units. The sensors detect muscle movements, and the device can be used to control a robot remotely. A Canadian startup called Thalmic Labs has come up with something similar for the consumer market (for gaming) called the Myo, which is compatible with PCs, Macs, iOS and Android.
Intel has made a sizable investment in Thalmic Labs, indicating that the chip-making giant is keen to get into the wearable technology space and ensure that the software these devices use runs on Intel hardware. In March Intel also acquired Basis Science, a provider of wearable device technologies for health and wellness applications.
Because wearable devices work without the need for an external controller or camera system to keep track of movements, they offer the potential for workers to move from site to site or to work in the field without the need to carry any extra equipment. Since they communicate with standard operating systems, application development should not be particularly challenging.
Armbands or arm-mounted terminals (which may contain GPS or RFID tags) also allow employee locations to be monitored for tracking purposes, to monitor efficiency or to save staff from having to carry around pens and paper to keep track of deliveries.
One potential problem with wearable devices is that they need to be light enough to wear comfortably. This places a constraint on the size of the battery they can contain, and therefore their battery life. "Energy is a huge issue with wearables," says Canalys's Matte. "The size of a battery on a wristband or other small device is limited, so it is going to be a huge challenge to get power to these devices."
One possible solution is wearable solar charging panels sewn into clothing - such as those offered by Netherlands based Wearable Solar. Designer Pauline van Dongen says that one hour of sunlight on the clothing is enough to charge a smartphone by 50 percent, using the integral USB cable.
That's unlikely to be enough to power industrial wearable applications. But as wearable technology makes the transition from consumer to business usage, there's little doubt that new battery and charging technologies will also be developed so it can be used in an enterprise environment.
Paul Rubens has been covering enterprise technology for over 20 years. In that time he has written for leading UK and international publications including The Economist, The Times, Financial Times, the BBC, Computing and ServerWatch.