A Publication of WTVP

The next big thing won’t be a new smartphone or tablet, but something much more personal—and it’s destined to reshape the way we work.

It’s clear that the way we work has changed forever, thanks to mobile technology. It’s reshaped our roles and responsibilities, and permeated nearly every facet of our daily activities. Smartphones have spread the day out and made us available no matter where we are. These powerful, pocketable computers allow us to get things done even when we’re on the go. For many of us, the very concept of a nine-to-five day is long gone.

The ubiquitous connectivity afforded by these devices has given us access to corporate resources and information at all times. The Intranet, Extranet and other company communication tools are being reshaped. Software as a Service (SaaS), cloud-based tools and platforms, and other changes in IT infrastructure are making the physical workplace a flexible proposition. With a Wi-Fi-enabled device, any coffee shop can become our office.

The methods by which we communicate with our coworkers have also changed with the increasing popularity of these devices. Text messaging, Skype and a multitude of other video, voice and text chat services have exponentially expanded connectivity options with our fellow workers.

Meanwhile, tablets are now a “have-to-have” technology tool for professionals who need a balance of power and portability. In 2010, when the first iPad was released, it was seen as a “cool” device, but certainly not required for business—much like laptops when they first debuted. Today, entire organizations are shifting their salespeople and technicians over to iPads and tablets, away from the usual laptops.

The Next Big Thing
The next big thing won’t be a smartphone update or a new tablet, but something even more personal—something far different from the last shift in workplace technology. Indeed, wearable technology is destined to reshape the way we work.

For the last couple months, I’ve been a Google Glass Explorer, and the possibilities I see for work are endless—and not just because it’s “cool.” In fact, when I have Glass with me and interact with others, many would say it’s not cool, just geeky. I don’t disagree. These new form factors are different. They certainly aren’t the norm, and look a bit sci-fi to most people.

Thinking more deeply about wearable, though, it’s clear that while it is an evolution of the technology we are already using, it’s a revolution in the ways we can interact with the devices and services to which they connect.

It’s smaller and less obtrusive (in use, if not appearance) than a smartphone or tablet. You don’t need to take it out of your pocket to use it. And you can interact with these devices without taking your hands or eyes off what you are doing. In short, it’s seamless.

A Universe of Innovation
Wearable technology is part of a much larger movement taking place in technology today. Known as ubiquitous computing, this larger umbrella of changes is already underway, directly influencing the design, development and primary uses of wearable technology.

The concept is that basically any device can be used in a capacity that allows for computing to take place. Mainframe computing, desktop computing, portable computing and now ubiquitous computing offer a continuum of ways to think about the constant progress, miniaturization and distribution of computing devices and services. We are now at the early onset of ubiquitous computing, with a few areas of innovation bursting onto the scene. The areas I’m tracking at this point include:

The Internet of Things is a concept that gained steam in the late ‘90s. The basic idea is that any device, no matter its function, could be made part of a network, enabled to respond to functional commands, and provide status or utility to people or other machines. By 2020, according to technology research firm Gartner, there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things. You may already have some of these things in your home: a Nest thermostat or Protect carbon monoxide detector, a home security system, a home automation system, a smart TV, a game console like the PS4 or Xbox One, or even one of the more advanced refrigerators or other large appliances.

The Quantified Self is already a part of your life if you are a Foursquare user, check into Facebook locations, contribute reviews to, or use sites like BeerAdvocate or Untappd to track your favorite new brews. Most recently, the Quantified Self has become popular through fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Nike FuelBand and Jawbone’s Up product. I have a Fitbit Aria scale in my bathroom that wirelessly syncs my progress (or lack thereof) to my Fitbit account, which is tied to the motion tracker in my phone. At any given moment, I can tell how many steps I need to meet my activity goal… and get that extra motivation to skip the cookie with my afternoon coffee.

Lifelogging has become a major trend among athletes, Internet enthusiasts and other active people looking to document and share their daily activities with others. The use of wearable cameras, such as the ones from GoPro, combined with sites like Tumblr, allow people to instantly share videos and images with others in their community. Google “DashCam” or search on YouTube and you’ll find thousands of relevant videos to watch.

The first products that qualify as “wearable computers” have already hit the shelves. The Pebble Smartwatch, Samsung Gear and a range of similar devices duplicate or augment the features of your smartphone on your wrist. Google Glass is already out in limited quantities—for a hefty $1,500—while the Epson Moverio, a competing smartglasses product, is available to pre-order for a more affordable $699. Numerous other vendors are emerging; the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past January was packed with new devices in this space. Smartglasses are sure to be a fast-moving market as companies rush to incorporate the technology into smaller and more rugged packages.

Inroads in the Workplace
Right now, there’s no doubt these glasses look geeky. They’re also a bit clunky and cumbersome. Thinking back, though, weren’t laptops, cellphones and even tablet devices about the same when they were new? Don’t believe me? Open up the junk drawer where you keep your Motorola StarTac or some of the old Nokias you still have. The technology will evolve. The price will decrease. The stigma will wash away with time. Gradually, we’ll see more business-focused devices and consumer-friendly designs take root.

If you recall, the laptop revolution was largely business-driven: companies wanted their sales teams and technicians to be productive on the go. And while the first smartphones (Palm Treos and BlackBerry devices, namely) were also marketed heavily to business professionals, the actual revolution didn’t start until 2007-2008, just after the first iPhone and the original Android devices hit the scene.

It’s likely that the explosion of wearable technology will be a combination of the two: consumers will want it for lifelogging, sports and travel, while businesses will want it for productivity aids and training augmentation.

Envisioning the Possibilities
Smartphones and tablets are great, but there are still a number of gaps in where and when they are helpful. Some of their shortcomings:

  1. You need to take your eyes off your task. This simply doesn’t work for people who are driving, operating machinery or working closely with others.
  2. You need to hold the device to use it. Try to get used to using a smartphone or tablet without two hands, or even more difficult, with no hands at all. It’s not very easy.
  3. They are tough to talk to and know little about what’s around us. Voice and spatial gestures are secondary inputs, not the primary means of interacting with the device. Google recently introduced a very cool project named Tango, which looks to better tie our devices to the world around us to enhance contextual capabilities, but it’s a ways off from reaching mainstream use.
  4. Out of the box, you can only do so much. Things are very “app-driven” at this point. Though the base capabilities of devices are improving through the use of agents and smart search, they are not ideal. How much “work” can you get done without an app, using only the built-in capabilities of your device?

Wearable technologies eliminate or significantly reduce all of these problems:

Adopting Wearable to Get Work Done
When considering who will be most affected by these technology advances—those in which hands-free, voice-activated and contextually-aware devices will provide the most benefit—it helps to categorize them in three primary areas:

The high-tech users will primarily be the likes of technicians and mechanics—those who need up-to-date schematics and documentation to get their work done. The advanced diagnostics and augmented reality these devices will provide is also worth noting. Repair help, checklists and troubleshooting will all become much easier.

High-touch industries will benefit from this powerful new way to connect with their systems and customers. Hospitality and customer service reps can keep their eyes on the person, as well as the data, when interacting with customers. Virgin Atlantic is already rolling out this technology in a limited pilot project. It seems a no-brainer that healthcare professionals will reap significant benefits in adopting wearable tech as well. I’m sure that personal assistants and office administrators all wish they had an extra hand or two; by putting the technology right in their line of sight, quite a few roadblocks can be alleviated.

High-performance industries such as law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, and athletes and trainers will benefit from the just-in-time nature of this technology, as well as computer vision for facial detection, motion-path analysis and more. Threat analysis, first aid and golf swing training will all become easier with wearable technology.

The Future: Just Around the Corner
What will be the leading rationale for business? Professional development, workforce training and job aids all share the same overall goals. Here are some key objectives you’ll want to achieve as you roll out wearable with your workers:

When will we see this happen in the workplace? Technology moves quickly, and it’s accelerating. You can already try these things out—they may be expensive, but it’s not like you’re buying a spaceship. Competition and consumers are driving the typically slow-moving side of enterprise technology, and the rate of adoption is accelerating. In 2008, smartphone penetration was at about 10 percent, according to consumer research firm Nielsen; it’s now estimated to be well over 60 percent. At the same time, the NPD Group estimates that more than 500 million tablets will ship this year. Both product sectors are outselling laptops—and the data use associated with them is quickly overtaking desktops.

Google Glass may still be a novelty, but with final release by 2015—and with the Epson Everio and other products like it hitting stores soon after—things will change rapidly. I anticipate that ruggedized versions will be shortly behind, allowing for the development of prototypes with high-performance professionals in the military and law enforcement fields.

By this time next year, or even by the end of this year, wearable devices will be available online and in stores for less than $1,000, and likely far less. By 2017 or so, expect to see these devices in the same price range as tablets, offering high-speed LTE connections and deep integration with other platforms, including the Internet of Things. When this happens, wearable will be widespread in both industry and the consumer space. In short, it will be ubiquitous.

Will you be ready? More importantly, will your business? iBi