Can wearables improve business?

The wearable-computing market is enjoying a boom period, with technology finally catching up to its decades-old promise. Recent smartwatch and head-mounted display launches have caught consumer interest in a major way, but can wearables really be of benefit in the workplace? The most modern research suggests that they can, but businesses are advised to tread cautiously if they want to minimise risk and reap the full benefit of this technological revolution.

Researchers have mixed findings

A study published in June this year by Goldsmiths, University of London found that a test platform comprised of three different wearable devices boosted employee productivity by 8.5 per cent and job satisfaction by a further 3.5 per cent.

“Using data generated from the devices, organisations can learn how human behaviours impact productivity, performance, wellbeing and job satisfaction,” claims lead researcher Dr. Chris Brauer. “Employees can demand work environments and hours be optimised to maximise their productivity, health and wellbeing.”

Other studies, however, have suggested the technology has less of an effect on its operator than first suspected. A paper published in the British Journal of Psychology in July found that the use of a head-mounted system with eye-tracking capability made users modify their vision in a prosocial manner, taking how their gaze would make others’ feel into consideration, but that this effect lasted for just the first 10 minutes of use, after which they returned to their previous habits. Only when the eye-tracking was brought back to their attention did they, temporarily, become prosocial once more, the wearable having become all but forgotten in the meantime.

Wearables adoption continues to grow

One company that firmly believes in the benefits wearables can bring is salesforce.com, which recently launched its Salesforce Wear application development platform.

“A lot of use cases for wearables are starting to form,” says Adam Spearing, salesforce.com vice president of EMEA Platforms. “One of the UK ones which I like is [workforce management platform provider] ClickSoftware. They’ve built, on a smart wrist device, the ability to manage the whole scheduling process around shift management, and how you actually get the right skills and right people and availability of people.”

Even without commercially available enterprise-specific applications, wearables are already finding their way into the workplace. Rick Trotter, director at UK-based Tohu Muna Software, uses a first-generation smartwatch as part of his daily routine.

“It’s set up to synchronise all of my notifications so I can leave my phone on my desk, in my bag or in my pocket and either discreetly check while in meetings or away from my desk working with colleagues, or in the back of server racks. I’m also working on integrating a server monitoring system I designed so that, from my wrist, I can get an overview of server statuses.”

Security must always be a consideration

Any business looking to implement wearable technology should take security into account first, especially where employees are using wearables as part of a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy.

“It’s the same as you have with any bring-your-own-device-to-work,” says Spearing. “You’ve got to authenticate the device itself, make sure you know who it is and what it is and where it is. I don’t think it’s a whole new case of ‘oh my god, here’s another additional layer of complexity for the poor old IT folks to manage’.

“It’s a concern; it’s another consideration that companies have to make in how they’re going to allow wearables to be used. But it’s very straightforward to solve because we’ve gone round that loop with the tablet and the phone devices already, so it’s an extension to that.”

The biggest hurdle, however, is in finding – or developing – the right applications to meet a real-world need before jumping on the wearables bandwagon.

“A wearable device is a lovely piece of technology, but you need to have an application for it. You need to have a business case that makes sense.” Without that, Spearing says, a wearable is just another executive toy.

Proceed with caution

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the burgeoning wearables market, but while they have a definite appeal for consumers, their efficacy in the enterprise is largely unproven. Both academic research and early implementations – including a highly successful programme at APX Labs, which uses head-mounted systems as hands-free reference platforms for field service agents – suggest wearables can be of true benefit in the right environment, but the technology has to be tempered with a solid use case and a sound software platform.

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