From glasses that respond to people’s gestures and display instructions before their eyes, to gloves that bleep when the user picks up the wrong component, wearable electronic devices will transform the workplace.
Also beginning to make an appearance are electronic badges, wrist and arm bands, smartwatches and clothes with sensors woven into their fabric. Further applications are likely to emerge once people become more aware of the potential.
The market for workplace wearables is still young, says Richard Absalom, principal analyst of enterprise mobility and productivity software at research company Ovum. “But we think it will start to take off in 2016.”
In Ovum’s annual Employee Mobility Survey, of 4,500 people in 20 countries, only 8 per cent said they wore wearable technology at work. They are probably mainly Fitbits, Nike FuelBands and smartwatches, Mr Absalom says. However, of those with smartwatches, almost half (47 per cent), said they were using them at work. “We think this is primarily to receive notifications when they have e-mail,” he adds.
Return on investment
Companies will not buy wearables for staff unless there is a quantifiable gain in terms of enhanced performance, says Erik Jacobson, wearables expert at consultancy Accenture. “What companies want to see is return on investment and demonstrable benefits, such as improvements in safety, efficiency and staffing,” he says.
Companies will not buy wearables for staff unless there is a quantifiable gain in terms of enhanced performance
Such devices are at their most useful when people need to keep their hands free, whether they are up a mast mending a power cable or repairing a jet engine and unable to remove their anti-static gloves. In the past, if they needed to check something, they would have had to stop what they were doing and consult laptops, tablets or other devices.
Smartglasses, such as Epson’s Moverio, have built-in sensors including a camera, gyroscope, accelerometer, microphone and a GPS location detector. Wearers can control them by speaking commands or by moving their arms.
They have transparent lenses on to which images can be projected to create so-called augmented reality. In complex manufacturing, they can be used to overlay blueprints on what the user is viewing and give step-by-step instructions, enabling a component to be positioned correctly or engineering diagnostics carried out in the right order.
Epson’s smartglasses are being used in the final inspection of vehicles, says Valerie Riffaud Cangelosi, new market development manager for Epson Europe. “Our customers are companies that want to apply digital information for training, maintenance and logistics,” she says.
Smartwatches are useful for workflow and scheduling, says Mr Jacobson, reminding people of their next task, changing instructions or raising an alert if a crucial step has been omitted. “They typically replace a walky-talky or act as a much more modern, nuanced pager, and are useful in large locations such as supermarkets, warehouses, hotels, hospitals and airports,” he says.
Obstacles to new technology
But there are obstacles to wearables gaining acceptance in the workplace. One problem is distrust of people wearing cameras, says Simon Hall, wearable technology expert at PA Consulting. “There is a role for heads-up displays with video recording in hazardous environments, such as oil rigs and power plants, where there is a high risk of accidents,” says Mr Hall. “But not in normal corporate workplaces, where it is more gimmickry than utility.”
Google Glass was seen as “creepy”, claims Mr Absalom, “because people could start filming at any moment”.
Aesthetics are also important. Although fashion is not a factor in workplace wearables, you need to bring the workforce with you, says Mr Jacobson. People who have to wear high-visibility jackets, hard hats and steel-capped boots to work will be less concerned about how a device looks if it makes them safer or helps carry out their jobs. “The barrier is lower, but design is still important,” he says.
Many organisations have reservations because, like smartphones, wearables can represent a major threat to security. However, most are just an extension of smartphone technology, says Mr Absalom. “So organisations should be able to use their existing mobile device management software,” he points out.
Workplace wearables need to be easy to use. Not everyone is a geek or a techie, says Ms Riffaud Cangelosi. “And devices need to be comfortable,” she adds. Epson is working on making its headsets comfortable eight hours a day. Batteries will also need to improve. At present they are heavy, get hot and don’t last long enough.
Using devices to monitor workers can be seen as intrusive, creating an oppressive working environment. It may be acceptable when there are safety concerns. For example, sensors to detect alertness and warn truck drivers when they are dangerously sleepy, to avoid fatigue-related incidents. But it can be seen as too much of an infringement of privacy, says PA Consulting’s Mr Hall.
Accenture has been approached by financial services companies to monitor people making big financial decisions. They don’t want bad deals being done by stressed people, Mr Jacobson says. “This is something we’re looking at for the future,” he says.
However, workers seem willing to monitor their own fitness, as is happening at Novartis, the Swiss pharma giant. The company offers employees free wearable devices to monitor their daily activity rates. It has also set up an annual triathlon in which employees form teams to compete with each other in virtual running, swimming and cycling races.
Employee uptake has grown from 9,000 in 2013 to 16,000 this year across 65 countries. Of those who took part in 2014, 83 per cent reported a positive impact on their attitude to exercise, 62 per cent reported a decrease in stress at work and 49 per cent said they had lost weight.
Workers might appreciate monitors which, when used in combination with clever analytic software, can predict how productive you will be based on your sleep patterns. If employers made them available to staff, Mr Hall says, people could predict when their best work would be to help plan their days.
Employers will also need to consider who owns the devices. Mr Jacobson says: “Do people leave them for the next person at the end of their shift, in which case their might be concerns about hygiene, or do they take them home?”
Unlike when buying employees laptops, companies will have to decide if they are going to provide a range of sizes. A 6ft man is likely to have much bigger wrists or a larger head than a 5ft woman.
But the main constraint on uptake of workplace wearables is the lack of “killer apps”. A recent recruit to Apple, for example, says the main use for the Apple Watch seems to be buzzing a reminder to people to get up out of their chair every hour to exercise their legs.
The success of the much-heralded HoloLens heads-up device coming from Microsoft next year will depend on there being an ecosystem of applications. As Mr Absalom concludes: “Companies are not going to invest in wearables unless they make work smoother and more efficient.”