How wearable technology could transform business

Wearable technology in 1998 Work in progress: This "wearable computer" was showcased in South Korea in 1998. The question now is whether newer, more manageable, tech can revolutionise business

Once upon a time seeing your life flash before your eyes was something people did their best to avoid.

Technology of Business

The arrival of Google Glass seems to have changed that.

The excitement surrounding the prototype glasses, which let you take photos, send messages, get directions and a whole host of other things, has been extraordinary.

Google Glass is one of a number of emerging wearable technologies that are supposed to change our lives.

The debate rages on about just how positive a development this is as computer and person are brought ever closer together.

By comparison, very little has been said about the impact that wearable technologies could have on business.

Google Glass Looking to the future: Google Glass puts tech before your very eyes - but would you be comfortable wearing it to the pub?
Happy birthday

Admittedly it's early days, but the vast majority of companies are yet to find a use for it.

Recent research by US cloud technology company Rackspace found only 6% of businesses had provided such devices to their staff.

But Ved Sen, head of mobility at Cognizant Technology Solutions, thinks all that is about to change.

The range of applications that something like Google Glass alone could have tumble from him.

"Imagine the man fixing the boiler. He's lying under a heavy device and he needs his hands, but he can still be in a computing environment.

"Take a salesperson walking into a client's office; they might be able to access instant information in front of their eyes. 'What was the last order this company placed? Are they happy with us?' Even 'when was the client's last birthday?' " he says.

But the applications don't stop with hi-tech glasses.

Mechanics Hands-free: Wearable technology could give manual workers the ability to be connected

"Let's suppose I'm a manager of a large facility," Mr Sen continues.

"As I walk around, I have something in my shoe and as I pass certain devices that could read whether a device is fine and if it isn't it will tell me - perhaps by buzzing."

However, he denies that the technology, particularly in cases like that of the salesman, will simply facilitate less preparation and even laziness.

"I'm not saying we should dumb down the individual but instead give them the kit to access information when they want to," he says.

"This is about improving our ability to engage with our surroundings."

New connectivity

Duncan Stewart, research director at Deloitte, says wearable technology will have the greatest effect on business in areas where it replaces something noticeably inferior, or nothing at all.

"The most impact is not when it is replacing the smartphone or PC, but when it gives connectivity to someone who doesn't have access to a mobile or laptop," he says.

"Someone driving a forklift in a warehouse can't use a PC or smartphone because they will crash into someone.

"But imagine if they can drive around and be able to pinpoint a pallet and then the particular box they need on that pallet."

Forklift truck driver Driving change: Finding the right pallet is one way wearable tech could improve the lot of the forklift truck driver

He compares such a fundamental change to the explosion of payments via mobile phones in Africa.

"There they may not have access to things like cheques or ATMs, so this form of payment is huge.

"Compare that to the USA where it is estimated eight million of these payments were taken in 2012 - 7.5m of those were people paying for Starbucks drinks."

Retail booster

The health sector is already getting involved with wearable technology through items like Nike's Fuelband, which measures users' physical activity.

There is talk of pills that, when swallowed, will not only dispense their medicine, but also monitor your body's responses.

The retail environment is another area that could particularly benefit.

Wearable technology and you

  • 47% of wearable technology users felt more intelligent
  • 61% felt more informed
  • 37% stated that wearable technology helped with career development
  • 61% claimed that their personal efficiency improved.

Source: Wearable Technology from Novelty to Productivity, Rackspace

Wearable technology could allow customers entering stores to compare and contrast items instantly in a similar way they can online, with special offers appearing before their very eyes.

James Cronin, director of digital commerce firm Venda, says this connectivity could be a massive boost for ailing high streets.

"This holy grail of personalisation has been shown to be of tremendous value to both consumers and merchants and in recent years has become the norm in online channels," he says.

Actually making this work is another matter altogether.

Cognizant's Ved Sen says it is all very well for customers being able to walk round a store looking for a TV and being beamed price comparisons, warranties and compatibility details when they scan different products.

"But the retailer will have to enable that. I don't want to have to kneel down to find the barcode from underneath a TV," he says.

No offence

Companies targeting consumers with wearable technology will also have to be careful not to offend them.

"Wearables are, by their very nature, intensely personal devices," says Tunde Cockshott, of technology consultancy Amaze.

"They are collecting information about me and my experiences, my body, my location, my environment, my activities, my field of vision, my interests.

Smart watch Time for tech: Smart watches like this one from Sony give your wrist access to email, apps and your phone

"Brands cannot storm into this deeply personal experience and be welcome," he warns.

"They will need to think of how they can use this data in a way that is relevant and will provide users with a service or utility that fits into their augmented lives."

As with any new technology there are numerous other issues to be addressed.

It will be expensive for early adopters, there will be glitches, and there will be all sorts of problems with the lack of compatible systems.

Then again it could be an altogether more mundane problem: batteries might run out, leaving those who become reliant on their devices for information high and dry.

Digital attack

There will also be issues about privacy and security.

Start Quote

This technology is real-time, we will be living it; we won't be glancing at it”

End Quote Nicholas Percoco Trustwave

If wearable technology is going to give us access to huge amounts of information, that will make it a prime target for hackers.

After all, you would be wearing a computer, even if it does not look like one in the traditional sense.

Nicholas Percoco is senior vice-president at Trustwave, a company of "white-hat" hackers who are employed to find weaknesses in companies' digital systems.

"If I am an attacker and I want to go after someone's personal life, targeting a high-profile individual, I would want to break in the system through wearable technologies," he says.

"These technologies allow you to spy on people, find out who they are talking to, etcetera.

"This technology is real-time, we will be living it; we won't be glancing at it."

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories