When the first generation Apple Watch hit shelves in 2015, Shahin Khan, an analyst with OrionX, recalled saying to his colleagues that it would make a good collector's item. "Buy it, don't even open the box," he said. "Because years later you're going to say, I got the first one."
In other words, the first model probably wasn't going to change the world, but wearable technology was definitely going places. It was just a matter of time.
"Fast forward to the Apple Watch 6 that's way more useful, way more capable," said Khan, whose firm provides industry analysis on everything from 5G to quantum computing.
But as consumer wearables gain purchase, he explained, the use of wearables in the workplace, a category broadly referred to as enterprise wearables, has struggled to make lift-off.
"Essentially, the reality of development is tempering enthusiasm," Khan said. "The future is unmistakable. This stuff is going to happen. There's no question that will be the case, but I think the various pieces need to come together for it to finally have that iPhone moment."
The inherent technical challenges of tracking real-time data through a watch, or a pair of safety glasses, or a chip embedded in an identification badge have limited adoption to those industries with the biggest incentive to pull out all the stops to track their workers. For the moment, that means improving safety is the main goal of most enterprise wearables.
"If you're in construction or an industry where there is maybe a lot of exertion or high or low temperatures, there are companies developing devices, and have talked to us about devices, that monitor a person's heart rate or temperature or detect if they've fallen," said Walt Maclay, president of Voler Systems, an electrical design company with expertise in sensors, wireless communications, and low-battery technology, all essential ingredients in wearables. "If you're working in a dangerous environment, knowing the status of someone could be very valuable."
The construction will eventually become a key industry for wearables, Maclay said, "Because it reduces liability, and people are very concerned with liability." But for non-dangerous jobs "there is a lot less driving the adoption unless there is a pandemic," he added.
Health and Safety
Indeed, new pressure on employers to address health and safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a bright spot for the emerging enterprise wearables industry.
TraceSafe, a developer of wearable technology based around quarantine management and contract tracing, is currently working with Singapore's leading construction firm to ensure physical distancing on job sites. Chip-based technology allows the site managers to identify in real-time who an infected person was in contact with, helping develop a response without necessarily shutting down the entire site after an exposure.
"In the construction world, we have sort of a small square that's about the size of a bar of soap that attaches to a hard hat, and that gives people the ability to do contact tracing so you know who you were in contact with and how long," TraceSafe CEO Wayne Lloyd told Cheddar.
During the pandemic, TraceSafe also developed partnerships with major event organizers, such as the World Junior Hockey Championships, and the cruise line industry, to provide similar technology for contact tracing — usually involving placing chips in lanyards or ID badges.
While safety is dominating enterprise wearables for the moment, Lloyd said productivity and process flow optimization will eventually become a more prominent selling point. He explained that wearables can help bring some of the efficiencies of the factory floor, where everything is geographically contained and overseen by managers, to more decentralized businesses.
He shared the example of using basic location and task-tracking to determine that a highly-skilled worker, for instance, was spending 50 percent of his day lugging equipment, a takeaway that could then lead to a manager hiring a lower-skilled worker to pick up the slack.
"Those are the types of discoveries that could be made," Lloyd said. "You can make those discoveries inside of a factory, because you have a manager with an eye on everything and you're able to measure everything to a high degree, but that's something that we think wearables can offer to every industry basically."
As for concerns about worker privacy, Lloyd said it's imperative that developers of enterprise wearables make it a top concern, and build it into their technologies from the jump.
The backlash against tech and social media giants, such as Facebook, have made certain aspects of wearable technology feel "Big Brother-y," Lloyd said.
The key to combating this perception, he explained, is strictly limiting the scope of the data that is collected and keeping tracked devices in the workplace, rather than integrating new software with a worker's personal device.
"The thing with privacy is you don't want all these unintended data pieces being out there," he said. "The privacy question is all about what are the unintended things that can be used with the data if you have very specific applications and very specific functional ability."
But in a post-COVID world, the real barrier to business adoption remains getting the tech right.
"Wearables is an especially difficult implementation of [internet-of-things], because it's tiny," said Khan of OrionX. "The sensors need to do a lot in a small space with a very low power requirement."
The internet of things is a broad term used to describe the world of embedded technology in the physical world. Wearables are just one application of the concept, but they are an inherently challenging one, given that they intersect the human body, apparel, and high-technology.
People like Maclay are working on improving those capabilities with better sensors, low-power battery functions, and wireless communications, while companies such as TraceSafe are constantly looking for new real-world applications.
The coming years could end up providing a proving ground for whether enterprise wearables have their iPhone moment, which for Khan means when the right technologies come together at the right time for the right application.
"It has to be good. It has to be useful. It's tech like any other tech," Khan said.