Wearables in the Workplace: From virtual reality to life-saving innovation

James Bambrough
By , - Enabling Digital

We’re living in seriously exciting times. From immersive virtual reality to smart fitness tracking: wearable technologies have captured the imagination of consumers, but what about the work environment? Can fast-developing internet of things (IoT) technologies and wearables help ensure workers safety and improve productivity?

I had the opportunity to address these questions and more in a recent Google Hangout On Air, hosted by Tony Hallett, IT media publisher and editor. Tony and I were joined by George Jijiashvili, wearables analyst at CCS Insight and my colleague David Taylor, Solution Innovation Architect.

It was a fascinating discussion, leaving me inspired to put together a blog on my key takeaways. With that in mind, I’ll open with a stat: According to CCS Insight, the wearables market is set to be worth $14 billion across 123 million units this year. The category leading the charge is ‘quantified health’ with 44m devices sold in 2015; this includes devices such as Fitbit, which gather data on their users from steps to heartrate.

“(These devices) have resonated well with consumers who are becoming increasingly health conscious,” revealed George of CCS.

He also predicts notable growth in the next 3-4 years for other wearable categories: “Smartwatches, seen as smartphone companions, shipped 22m units last year; we’d expect that to increase to 100m by 2020; whilst virtual reality [and] augmented reality (VR/AR) is set to climb from 15m units in 2016 to 100m in 2020.”

Industrial opportunities

Impressive numbers, but just what are the opportunities on the industrial side?

I believe there’s a growing opportunity for organisations to utilise wearable technology, not dissimilar to the way in which consumers are currently using the tech, just in a much more business-focussed manner. I see it fitting into two spaces: data gathering (Fitbit-style data tracking) and data giving (VR, AR and smartwatches).

In fact, organisations are already starting to embrace wearables for business and industrial applications. The proliferation of wearables in our personal lives is now starting to interest businesses who want to understand the opportunity in enterprise. Encouragingly, we at Fujitsu are seeing a rapid increase in using data gathering wearables, especially amongst industries that rely on mobile or lone workers “in the field” who are in a potentially vulnerable position. Essentially, using the wearable to support employees with a business need.

This makes a lot of sense as it is about protecting the workers safety as well as collecting more insight about the role. A great example is the development of the ‘drowsy driver’ wearable which monitors drivers for signs of drowsiness, ensuring that both the driver and head office are alerted if the driver is pushing their limits or endangering themselves or other road users by not resting. This is the reality of where the technology is, today. Employees can feel safer and employers benefit from increased mitigation of accidents which can damage the brand and the bottom line.

Adoption and use cases are swiftly broadening into deeper data-sharing experiences; providing richer information back to workers as well as just gathering it from them.

This is where things get even more interesting. Consider the operational efficiencies of a mobile engineer having access to the latest digital schematic overlaid on a real-world environment or real-time data on package or part locations.

“There’s one provider of AR glasses who’s working with a logistics company to provide what they call “vision picking”. This new approach is equipping warehouse workers with smart-glasses to help them pick and ship specific boxes more effectively,” says George of CCS Insight, adding: “It has proven that tech will provide rapid returns on investment, but at the same time, companies don’t want a massive disruption due to technology.”

Another clear benefit to wearable devices is that, by their very design, they don’t get in the way of hands-on tasks, leaving workers to focus on the task, not the tool.

Adoption and integration

When it comes to unlocking the benefits of wearables for organisations, it appears that taking a less technical angle, focusing instead on business outcomes, is the best way to approach wearable integration.

The key question for me is always, and I honestly cannot emphasise this enough, is – ‘What business outcome are you trying to achieve by the individual using the wearable?’ Once you understand why you are doing it and what you are trying to achieve you can engage with your systems integrators; look at the use cases and how you can establish them. The technical aspects of making it happen will follow and be set up for greater success.

My colleague David expanded on this perfectly during our discussion: “Consider the software as well as the hardware. We’ve recently been working on AR software, used in combination with a head-mounted display. This equates to a rich hands-free experience vs a device based AR experience.”

A vital distinction, and important early decision at the aforementioned “why” stage; if the business outcome is to give workers to access visual data and improve repair times by 20% – whilst leaving their hands free to swiftly and safely complete tasks – then the solution head-mounted option is the clear choice.

User buy-in

These solutions will work most effectively if you can get the buy in of the end users. Luckily, thanks to the growing consumer market, employees are becoming much more accepting of wearables – they use them in their everyday lives now – the adoption curve changes aren’t quite as steep as you think and it isn’t always enterprises that are driving adoption.

As noted by George: “Consumers will want to use their devices at their workplace. The consumer side must be watched closely, as it will definitely affect the enterprise.”

What’s vital is that employees are made aware of the benefits to them, as well as to the business; from increased on-the-job safety to sharing of data for personal health benefits, such as heart-rate and steps-taken. A wearable goes from another tool worry about, look after and charge to a real personal benefit.

Of course, we must not forget security and privacy, hot agenda topics for both organisations and individuals, I’m sure you’ll agree. This makes standards developed by independent organisations such as Coelition vital; protecting the identity and privacy of the user whose data is being captured and adding in that layer of trust to back up the exciting opportunities data sharing can bring.

As Coelition say: “Sharing detailed information about ourselves can give us exciting new ways to live and work together. But we need to trust the companies who can now see many of the little things that make us who we are.” I couldn’t agree more and I’m proud to say Fujitsu is a member.

It may come as no surprise that the right cultural considerations are also an important part of digital transformation. In fact, in our recent survey of CIOs and IT decision makers, 65% of respondents agree there’s an appetite for much faster digital adoption in their organisation.

While much of this technology is still in its infancy, we’re already seeing practical rollouts and it’s clear that we’re seeing what George would call: “the industrialisation of the consumer wearable marketplace.”

Organisations must embrace and capitalise on that to unlock the business benefits. This is an exciting time and the earlier we can adopt these changes – the better.

For a deeper dive, why not catch-up on the full Google Hangout episode below?

Fujitsu Google Hangout on Air: Wearable Tech in the Workplace

Wearable technologies have captured the imagination of consumers, but what about the work environment?

James Bambrough
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James Bambrough

Head of Digital Applied Technologies at Fujitsu UK&I
James Bambrough
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