Why Cops and Cable Guys Will Be the Pioneers of Wearable Tech
Pristine’s Google Glass software provides first-person views of surgery as it happens. But Glass is hardly the only wearable poised to take over the workplace. PRISTINE
You’ve read about Silicon Valley “Glassholes” who wear Google’s digital eyewear everywhere — including the shower. You’ve seen the ad where creepy hipsters on skis try to impress a woman with their Samsung smartwatches. They suggest that we’ll all be using wearables, everywhere, for everything. But for many of us, our first encounter with wearable computers won’t be at home or on the slopes. It’ll be in the workplace.
That’s the word from J.P. Gownder, a business tech analyst with Forrester Research. As the wearable hype reaches a peak this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Gownder released a report arguing the workplace provides the most natural fit for wearable tech that reads our environment and enhances our senses. We’ll soon see wearables, he says, on everyone from cable guys and cops to nurses and surgeons.
“We assume that all important technologies begin in the consumer realm and go into the enterprise,” Gownder tells WIRED, referring to the bring-your-own-device movement that’s come to dominate corporate IT in recent years. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case with wearables.” While Google, Apple, and Samsung chase the consumer market, he believes, other projects will more quickly gain a foothold in the business world and bring the first true wearable successes. Here’s why.
Wearables Can Actually Help Us Get Our Jobs Done Better
In the consumer world, there’s still an awfully big question hanging over all the wearable hype: Is there a good reason to replace your phone with something that sits on your face or wrist? Answers typically revolve around the ability to keep our heads up and our eyes on the world, not focused on our phones. But the need for wearables at work is far less abstract.
Take Eyes-On, the smart glasses Epson made with Evena Medical. Designed especially for nurses, the Android-based system lets the wearer, in effect, see through the skin of patients to get a precise real-time map of their veins. Health care workers no longer have to guess where to stick the needle when they set an IV or draw blood.
“It comes down to being relevant by vertical, by job function,” Gownder says, noting Eyes-On is “definitely not” a consumer device. As soon as businesses find a specific way wearables can enhance the work they do, he explains, they will rush to adopt such devices.
Those uses aren’t limited to things so serious as medical care. Gownder gives the example of the cable guy who comes to fix a faulty connection. If a technician can’t figure out the problem, he or she typically has to come back for a second visit. WithLooxcie’s Vidcie head-mounted camera, the technician can send live streaming video of the problem to other technicians and get real-time advice on how to fix it. Suddenly, two annoying days spent waiting for the cable guy have been cut to one.
“In this case, the customer doesn’t even know,” Gownder says of the Vidcie’s role in avoiding another appointment. “They know that the problem was solved. They don’t know a wearable was involved.”
Work Wearables Don’t Need to Be All Things to All People
Apple’s stroke of genius in pushing the world away from feature phones to smartphones was creating the App Store. Because anyone with the know-how could build apps on top of iOS, the iPhone became not just a tool made by Apple but a platform capable of serving widely disparate needs, from emailing and social networking to expense filing and barcode scanning.
That same notion has driven most mainstream thinking about wearables, which probably is the result of Google Glass. As a device, Glass basically works like a smartphone that runs applications in front of your face, a concept people easily grasp. It’s familiar. But Gownder says that’s not the right way to think about wearables. “Wearables are a long-tail space,” he says. “It’s not like smartphones, that are one market. It’s all sorts of different sensors and solutions.”
In other words, the strength of wearables lies in their potential to be specifically designed to do a particular task well. There are many different ways to wear things on your body, which means wearable devices can be tailored to the job at hand. The job at hand doesn’t have to be tailored to the device.
That paradigm is especially suitable to businesses, where specialization is the norm, Gownder says. Though it might sound paradoxical, the narrower needs of companies and other organizations really opens up the marketplace for device makers. Instead of straining to craft smartphone-style gadgets with wide appeal, engineers and designers can pick one of any number of niches and focus on that market’s needs.
For instance, Gownder says, Motorola Solutions — the company that remained after Google bought Motorola’s smartphone business — has developed a specialty in wearables for law enforcement and first responders. One such device is a biometric system that monitors the vital signs of police officers and firefighters in the field. Other tools include wearable chemical sensors and a gun lock sensor that alerts officers when their weapons are unlocked.
Many of these uses might be too specific or technically complex for an all-purpose smartphone or even an all-purpose wearable like Google Glass — though Gownder says Glass app developers also are looking at enterprise uses for the device. One example is Pristine’s Google Glass software, which lets surgeons stream live first-person footage from the operating room. In any event, the uses for wearables in the business world are more obvious and more diverse than in the something-for-everyone consumer market.
Dorkiness Isn’t a Problem at Work
Wearables face another hurdle in the consumer world: Style. Because you wear them on your body, you care about how they look. As a fashion statement, WIRED’s Bill Wasik writes, “successful wearable devices will need to convey a message to the world that the wearer is happy to send—even if the batteries are dead.”
But such concerns won’t be an issue with wearables at work, Gownder argues. After all, UPS drivers don’t worry about the look of the parcel scanners, the color of the trucks, or the cut of those shorts.
“Social stigma goes away when you’re dealing with enterprise. It’s part of your job to use this tool,” Gownder says. “If you wear a uniform at McDonald’s, you might not like that uniform, but it’s part of your job.” Or put another way: “The surgeon doesn’t get to choose the color of their scalpel.”
Because workplace wearables will be purely utilitarian, vanity will be much less likely to come into play. Putting on a funny pair of glasses will be no more unusual than donning a hardhat or a welder’s mask. It’s just how the job gets done.
At the same time, if wearables at work become commonplace, we could see a normalization effect that paves the way for wearables everywhere. Right now, some of the resistance to wearables comes from the sheer weirdness of the concept. If we all start seeing — and using — wearables every day at work, seeing them elsewhere will begin to seem less strange.
In the same way that company-supplied car phones in the early 1990s preceded the mass market for cell phones later in the decade, the funny-looking goggles mom or dad brings home from work today could make wearable tech the norm for the next generation of tech consumers. In the end, even Google Glass might look cool.