An Elemental View of Workplace Wearables

By Brian Ballard

Employees who regularly use their hands to build, move or fix things, or to monitor assets, can benefit from wearable technology. But it's important to first understand the full range of technologies that comprise wearables for the workplace.

Many people may think of wearable technologies, such as smart glasses, smart watches and fitness trackers, primarily as consumer products. But leading companies are already experiencing quantifiable business benefits by equipping employees with wearable technologies in the workplace.

The ecosystem of available wearable technologies is growing fast. IMS Research conservatively estimates that the wearable technology marketplace will grow to $6 billion by 2016, and Gartner Research expects smart glasses to realize $1 billion in annual cost savings in the field services industry alone. However, this rapid growth can make it difficult for enterprise buyers to know where to begin, or which devices are best for their needs.

To help businesses better understand today's wearable technology ecosystem, APX Labs has put together a visualization based on the Periodic Table of Elements. This visualization captures the numerous hardware types, use cases and common capabilities related to wearable technologies. Each element in a color-coded group is related in some important way, just like in the scientific Periodic Table of Elements. However, instead of atomic numbers and chemical properties, we've substituted value propositions and business benefits of the underlying technologies.

Using this table as a starting point, I'll describe below the major elements of wearable technologies that enterprise buyers need to know before evaluating and deploying these devices in their workforce.

Click on the above chart to view a larger version.

Industry Series
Across the bottom row of the table are the industries already using wearable technologies. Such technologies lend themselves especially well to uses in manufacturing, field services and repair, and warehouse and logistics. People who spend their days building, fixing and moving things benefit most from smart glasses and smart watches, which allow workers to access the information, applications and systems they need to do their jobs while staying hands-on with the task in front of them.

The industries listed on the table include automotive, aerospace, telecommunications, utilities and others. Leading companies in these industries, such as Boeing, have already begun publicly sharing success stories on how they're using smart glasses and other wearable technologies within their operations.

The other elements on our periodic table represent capabilities enabled by wearable technologies.

Hardware Series
The second row from the bottom represents wearable devices available on the market today—smart glasses, smart watches and some peripherals. Not every device is well suited to every job function or business need. For example, smart watches are an excellent tool for workers who need to quickly glance at alerts, messages or task lists while performing hands-on work. Smart glasses are better suited for in-view access to detailed instructions or remote guidance from colleagues through the "See What I See" video collaboration function. By considering the use case, the job function and each device's unique attributes, businesses can determine which wearable technology is right for which job.

Communications Series
In the column on the left side of the table, the Communications Series describes different high-level concept requirements to enable real-time collaboration. This includes the ability to access expert help via video collaboration, telestration, audio calling, screen capture and more.

"See What I See" occupies hydrogen's spot on the table because that is the most common element, and video collaboration and remote guidance capability are the most requested smart glasses functionalities. In any industry, complex technical tasks are solved faster and with less re-work when two individuals can look at a problem together and collaborate in real time. By enabling this ability, See What I See improves the quality of work and can also allow lower-skilled or new employees to carry out high-skilled work with a little coaching from remote experts or more experienced employees. In addition, the technology reduces costs by allowing a business to use real-time, point-of-view video feeds rather than having to fly an expert from one location to another.

Document and Share Series
Moving to the right, the Document and Share elements demonstrate businesses' needs to capture, transmit and interact with key media. These capabilities include video and audio capture, high-resolution image capture, time-lapse images, and bar-code or QR code scanning.

Platform Group
Occupying the middle of the table, the Platform Group lists common examples of wearable technologies deployed in an enterprise setting to integrate with existing applications and technologies, such as those from SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce.

The elements in this group, such as Web-based application programming interfaces, machine learning and encryption, represent the minimum requirements that any wearable technology must support in order to be deployable within most Fortune 500 companies. Enterprise buyers can save themselves a lot of time and trouble during the integration process if they ask wearable technology vendors about the items in the Platform Group up front. An enterprise-wide software platform that extends across all wearable devices and is designed to easily integrate with the elements in the Platform Group can also help make this process easier.

Data Feed Series
Continuing across the table, the Data Feed Series addresses wearable technologies' ability to work with the continuously evolving landscape of data and sensor feeds generated by the numerous connected devices and systems comprising today's Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). These include the ability to provide real-time graphing and progress bars, visualize markers and calculate distances, make use of location tracking functions and more.

Dashboard and Collaboration; Alert and Message
Next, the Dashboard and Collaboration and the Alert and Message groups represent the capabilities required for interfacing with teams, system alerts, IIoT-based triggers and the back-end reporting for these interactions. These are surprisingly simple features, such as text messaging and status icons, that unlock tremendous capabilities for businesses that want to embrace a truly connected workforce in which team members can quickly interact with the people and systems around them, without having to find a terminal. Many of these features are also well-suited to smart watches and mobile applications.

Navigation Series
The Navigation Series groups together many of the component requirements that allow businesses to take advantage of the ways in which wearable devices bridge the physical and digital worlds. Devices like the Microsoft HoloLens are pushing the boundaries of how users understand where they are in local space, and just about every wearable technology in the Hardware Series benefits from capabilities like geofencing and Bluetooth beacon-based proximity sensing in industrial environments.

Work and Help Series
Lastly, the Work and Help Series contains the elements that end users need to get their jobs done effectively. These include individual work requirements, such as workstreams, as well as the ability to capture and view help videos, and to expedite tasks. The Work and Help Series drives value through improvements in operational efficiency, and the return on investment (ROI) delivered by these elements is demonstrated through improved training, access to stored guidance from experts, and the ability to easily share "tribal knowledge" and skills from more experienced employees to new hires.

The Elements of a Connected Workplace
Companies that have already begun deploying wearable technologies have experienced improvements in the flexibility and productivity of many of their most important business processes and operations. One thing that makes wearable technologies much more transformative than the mobile technologies that came before is their ability to operate in the real world, understanding location, capturing rich context and enabling improved decision-making through real-time information and interactions.

APX Labs estimates that one in five adults works in a position that can realize immediate and tangible benefits from smart glasses. Manufacturers, especially, that evaluate their processes and identify problems needing solving in real time have the potential to experience significant gains in productivity, efficiency and compliance from smart glasses and other wearable technologies. The growing investments in IoT-enabled technologies and processes throughout industrial organizations are an encouraging step along the path to creating truly connected enterprises.

Brian Ballard is the CEO and co-founder of APX Labs, whose Skylight operating system enables the use of smart glasses and other wearable technologies to create ways for the workforce to interact with the digital and physical worlds.