Wearables are everywhere, and major tech firms like Apple and Samsung are selling them like hotcakes. According to IDC, more than 70 million wearable devices were shipped worldwide last year alone, and this statistic will grow to 237 million by 2020.
Clearly, wearables are here to stay. The common assumption, though, is that they're solely for consumers. Of course, there are plenty of fitness and health trackers out there all of which have their uses but this technology also has the ability to transform the way we work.
Businesses, regardless of size or sector, are turning to the latest wearable innovation to make life easier for employees and to streamline operations and it seems to be working. A report by cloud company Rackspace found that employees using wearables saw an 8.5% increase in productivity and a 3.5% increase in job satisfaction.
Wearable tech is the future
Shaun Baker, head of Crown Workplace Relocations, predicts we're heading into an era of workplace tech with wearable technology playing a big part. He says it's capable of doing a lot of good, and businesses will keep bringing it into their operations.
"There's a big shift going on in workplace design at the moment and wearable technology is certainly part of it. The days of the Google' style office full of boys' toys and stripped-back warehouse design are on the way out," he tells IT Pro.
"For the next era in workplace design, all the fun is going to be in the tech but we're talking about tech that makes a difference, not tech for show. For instance, the days of laptops being hauled everywhere could be behind us as technology allows office workers to beam a keyboard onto their own sleeve.
"Cicret is a French start-up which is looking to take its wristband bracelet product which enables you to project content onto your arm to the market.
"The concept is to do exactly what you do with a tablet but on your skin and without your smartphone. The company has already created a functional prototype. The product has an Android OS which enables phone screen mirroring. It works with iPhone and Android, has a removable battery and is water resistant. It's one to look out for."
While wearables may be garnering a lot of of interest, many people believe they're more suitable for early adopters. But that's not always the case. Martin Gunnarsson, product director at IFS R&D, suggests there are multiple types of adopter when it comes to wearable tech.
He says: "I think the first wearable to reach the workplace will be smartwatches, with three types of adopters. First, you have the casual gadget geeks' who use smart watches to connect them to their smartphone notifications and play games while on the move.
"Next you will see professional users such as field service technicians or maintenance engineers who need a hands-free user experience. This group will benefit from specialised solutions that improve work productivity and quality. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, are the customers. For example in the health sector you can use wearables to monitor pulse or walking distance."
AR and VR business revolution
Most people see wearables as just smartwatches and fitness trackers, but there's more to it than that. Virtual and augmented reality are also revolutionising the area, fuelled by headsets launched by the likes of Samsung, Microsoft and Facebook-owned Oculus.
Kazendi, an innovation studio, is one of many businesses using wearable technology in the work environment. Maximilian Doelle, chief prototyper at the firm, says: "Having worked in mixed reality using Microsoft HoloLens for the last 8 weeks, we are certain that wearable mixed reality headsets will revolutionise the way we work.
"A simple example would be, for instance, the infinite dimension of mixed reality you can place Holograms everywhere you like and they will stay persistent, no more limitations in terms of screen estate.
"Another example is the visualisation of 3D objects in engineering contexts. Through HoloLens's ability to recognise the environment through 3D scanners in real dimensions, it can display virtual objects in life size a 2m wide car will be displayed perspectively correct, appearing to be 2m wide. Japan Airlines has used it to demonstrate a simulation of its engines."
Georgina Wilczek, conference manager of VR & AR World, says virtual and augmented reality devices have the ability to cater for a tonne of business purposes especially across areas such as training and operations. "Beyond the gaming and entertainment sector, augmented reality technology can now fulfil many essential business needs across a vast range of sectors," she says.
"The enterprise market is waking up to the possibilities augmented reality offers to support training, operations and R&D. It is already proving a tremendously powerful and cost-effective tool to modernise internal processes, improve efficiency and augment staff capabilities."
Exploiting wearable data
The data that comes from wearables can also be incredibly valuable to businesses. Richard Lack, director of sales of EMEA at customer identity management platform Gigya, says firms can exploit it to learn more about their customers and to offer them personalised experiences.
Lack says: "By tying all of the data points generated from connected devices back to a user's identity, businesses are able to create truly personalised and lifestyle-based experiences for consumers. The key focus of the IoT is solving problems and introducing simplicity to customers and research indicates that 73% of shoppers prefer to do business with brands that use personal information to make their shopping experiences more relevant.
"By 2026 users will be closer to experiencing an entirely fluid digital experience, both online and with real world IoT devices, all communicating via that single digital identity. We are already seeing the likes of Apple, Facebook and Google moving to dominate digital experiences, and by 2026 these services will have developed considerably."
Masses of potential
Matt Hunt, CEO of app developer Apadmi Enterprise, says interest in wearables is constantly growing and they're already creating a lot of benefits in the office. They can help businesses communicate better, boost productivity and improve processes.
"While the market for wearable tech in the workplace is still relatively young, the devices available are already having an impact and are expected to revolutionise the workplace over the next decade," he says.
"Wearables such as smart watches, glasses and clothing, are transforming the way businesses communicate, as well as helping to boost productivity, streamline businesses processes and maximise efficiencies.
"Tech is starting to be developed specifically for business purposes take Google Glass for example, which is developing a second version that will give workers access to instant, up to date information on a hands-free screen. This is set to revolutionise how various sectors operate, such as in construction and healthcare."
Caution still needed
All this said, businesses should adopt wearables with a degree of caution.
"There are still significant numbers of people who feel ambivalent towards this emerging trend in the workplace," Hunt explains.
"We conducted research asking employees how they would feel if their employer required them to use wearable technology as part of their role. While 24% said they would be happy to use it, a quarter said they would consider changing jobs and the remaining 51% didn't know how they would feel.
"So while the use of wearable tech presents exciting opportunities to disrupt established working practices in a range of diverse sectors, careful consideration needs to be taken. Some sectors have greater potential to benefit from this type of tech than others and it all depends on context and whether both employees and customers will be comfortable to welcome wearable tech into the mix," he adds.
Wearable technology truly is an exciting area, and not just for consumers. They have the potential to revolutionise the way we work and do business. And while some employers and employees will be cautious to begin with, they'll no doubt reap the rewards in no time.
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Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.