by Stephanie Overby

Wearables go to work

Apr 27, 2016
Consumer ElectronicsTechnology IndustryWearables

From fitness trackers to smartwatches, wearables have made a splash in the consumer market, but few enterprises are using the new technology. Nonetheless, most CIOs say wearables are destined for the workplace.

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Credit: IDG

In 2014, Aleksander Vukojevic joined Duke Energy’s emerging technology office, where he evaluates new tools that have the potential to be deployed in the enterprise within three to five years. The technologies he has vetted range from predictive analytics to drones. But there’s one that everybody asks him about — wearables. “Everyone thinks they’re cool. Everyone wants to try them. And everyone wants to know what else they can do,” says Vukojevic.

Over the past year and a half, interest in wearables has intensified — as has the development of wearable options. “When I started, there were just a few players,” says Vukojevic, a former power systems engineer. “Things have changed so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up with everything new that’s coming out.”

Nonetheless, “everyone thinks they’re cool” isn’t a good enterprise business case.

From fitness trackers to smartwatches, wearable computing has made a splash with consumers. But most enterprises have yet to venture into the market. PwC found that just 3 percent of companies were investing in wearable technology in 2015–down from 6 percent in 2014. “Limited success stories and the risk of failed or ineffective implementations are causing CIOs to proceed with cautious and careful optimism,” says Mark Benson, CTO of Exosite, which develops software to help companies visualize Internet of Things data.

The vast majority of CIOs — 81 percent — believe that wearables will enter the workplace eventually, according to a Robert Half Technology survey of 2,400 IT leaders. Of those polled, 37 percent said they expect implementation in the next three to five years while 24 percent said the arrival of wearables at work is five or more years away.

“Enterprises are still in the very early stages of understanding how and why implementing wearable technology across their workforces could be useful,” says Jim Tate, vice president of client services at IT services company Vitalyst. “There is definite interest in — and potential for — utilizing wearables to help employees accomplish tasks faster, capture better enterprise data, and make important information readily available. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to understand what this would look like, how it would work and, ultimately, how enterprises could realize a return on investment.”

Forward-thinking IT and business leaders, however, aren’t waiting. They’re helping to shape the wearable computing future and are beginning to demonstrate clear, and potentially significant, value for their businesses. They’re using technologies like head-mounted displays (to enable hands-free work and remote collaboration), fitness trackers (for use in wellness programs that lower employee healthcare costs) and systems that deliver more instinctive training and decision support.

Building a business case

Brent Blum has been on the front lines of the wearable computing revolution since the start. In 2006, he developed a portal at Accenture Technology Labs that aggregated health data from LifeShirts, smart garments designed to monitor medical patients’ vital signs. He created Verizon Wireless’s first wearable health device and portal, led the development of a medical Google Glass proof of concept for Philips NV, and co-authored a patent on augmented reality safety glasses.

Today, Blum leads Accenture’s wearable technology practice, helping companies imagine and evaluate wearable concepts for the enterprise. The practice has three Fortune 100 clients. “For consumers, a wearable has to look good, be extremely easy to use and integrate with their lifestyle,” says Blum. “In the enterprise, you don’t have to deal with the same difficulties. But you do have to create a clear, valuable business case.”

Wearables excel at enabling hands-free work and providing advanced context for the things people do, says Blum, who sees the most interest among companies in the aerospace and defense, oil and gas, manufacturing, and logistics sectors. “In the beginning, some leaders were willing to take a leap of faith that wearables would improve the business,” Blum says. “But now they want to see the data. They want to know how much time and money it will save. And that’s difficult to answer.”

“Solutions are emerging slowly but are largely untested at broad scale,” says Exosite’s Benson. “Wearables in the enterprise today are finding most traction where there are safety and operational efficiency benefits — using head-mounted displays for asset integrity management, for example — as is prevalent in process industries. In these industries, the risk of downtime due to failed components is high, the sensitivity to employee safety and security runs deep, and the resulting potential benefits are significant.”

At Lockheed Martin Space Systems, wearables fit into a larger strategy to digitize the product life cycle, from concept to maintenance. “Because we are moving away from paper drawings into a digital environment, wearables are a welcome tool that can help our employees better interact with products and each other,” says Shelley Peterson, wearables lead in Lockheed Martin’s systems engineering group. “For select use cases, wearable technologies offer new capabilities to streamline the human-to-computer interface, increasing productivity and safety while accelerating timelines.” In manufacturing, for example, by superimposing instructions and schematics directly into a real-world work environment, wearables eliminate the need to stop what you’re doing to read drawings and instructions. “The ability to accelerate the timeline and mitigate risk is valuable, especially when working with high-value equipment,” Peterson says.

The “cool” factor with emerging technologies fades fast, says Duke Energy’s Vukojevic. “You have to find a use case that will give you the most benefit right away.” Vukojevic began with the most obvious benefit he could imagine as a former substation test engineer for the $23.5 billion company: using smartglasses to deliver live video and audio from the field to the systems operations office. “When I was out in the field, I’d encounter things I’d never seen before,” he recalls. With smartglasses, an engineer can share video and audio with colleagues in real time instead of having to call someone to explain what he’s seeing.

The power of collaboration

John Simmins, a technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), is looking for similar opportunities on a wider scale. He’s working with EPRI’s members to research and develop use cases for wearables in the power industry.

Simmins used to manage engineering and operations software for a utility company, where he introduced a mobile platform that used ruggedized laptops. But he felt the implementation was less than ideal, so he promised himself that one day he’d solve all the problems he saw. “Wearables are the ultimate solution,” he says. “You don’t even have to use your hands to interact with the electric grid or your co-workers.”

Simmins and his collaborators — which include EPRI members as well as universities, startups, and federal labs — have worked with XOEye, Google Glass, GoPro cameras, Daqri’s Smart Helmet, and a handful of skunk works projects built on the Raspberry Pi platform. “If everyone chips in $100,000, suddenly we’ve got a million dollars in research,” Simmins says. “What’s more, we get multiple points of view from groups of like-minded individuals, which is really powerful.”

The research has yielded a few systems to handle very specific tasks, such as inspecting transmission towers and maintaining distribution grids. “It’s not exactly ubiquitous yet,” says Simmins.

One problem with wearables is that they aren’t yet comfortable enough for people to wear all the time. Also, “being outside or in a high-magnetic field can cause issues,” says Simmins. “Every industry has very specific requirements. But wearables are currently one-size-fits-all.”

And that actually means that now is the ideal time for enterprises to get involved. “[We] have the opportunity to be at the forefront of the development of these technologies and influence the form factors, methods of communication, standards and augmented reality effects that they use,” Simmins says. “That’s better than getting a product later on that isn’t suitable to your needs.”

At Lockheed Martin, the focus is on tailoring wearable devices to meet very specific security and IT requirements. “Working with technology partners now is an opportunity to further shape the technology to address needs specific to our environments,” says Yvonne Hodge, CIO of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, “and we have found that technology partners are very interested in and responsive to our feedback.”

Calculating risks

When Christian Pezzin was interviewing for the new chief digital officer position at OCME in 2014, he pitched a plan that involved using wearables to improve customer service. The Italian company builds equipment for packing, filling and handling containers in the beverage, consumer goods and petrochemicals sectors. If you’re drinking a bottle of something right now, it may have passed through one of OCME’s machines.

The day after he joined OCME, Pezzin started researching his idea, buying smartglasses for his team and some customers. He settled on the Pristine EyeSight Enterprise video communications tool, which works with Vuzix M100 and Google Glass. “The advantages of the solution are clear,” he explains. When wearing the glasses, OCME field technicians can get instant support when servicing clients. Or if customers don the glasses themselves, OCME personnel can solve their problems remotely.

Smartglasses aren’t new, but their business applications are. “Many factors might affect the usability of this consumer gadget when you’re dealing with an enterprise-grade environment,” says Pezzin. “There aren’t that many companies thinking about enterprise scale usage. So the risks are everywhere.”

One of the biggest issues is connectivity. OCME’s customers may literally be in the middle of nowhere, without so much as a 3G signal. Even a mobile router requires a network, and a customer may not want to open up its wireless connection to external devices. Noise has been another problem. Bottling plants aren’t quiet places. Sometimes you can hear what the wearable device user is saying, sometimes you can’t. OCME is working with the vendor to test new Bluetooth earphone options. “Whenever you take a consumer technology and bring it to an enterprise environment, you’re going to run into surprises,” Pezzin says. “We’re always in pilot mode with our antennas up. We know we’re going into something very, very new that in a year’s time could look totally different than it does today.”

Security is a key consideration at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. The lack of international standards for wearable operating systems, security technologies and networks has thus far resulted in a lack of consistent updates for adding functionality and patching security holes, says Hodge.

Asset tracking is another challenge when it comes to securely integrating wearables into the enterprise. “As devices attach themselves to their users, they can literally walk out the door if employees forget to take them off,” says Hodge. To prevent that, Lockheed has taken a layered security approach, using beacon technology to remind users to remove their devices at the end of the day and geo-fencing to ensure that wearable devices are disabled when out of range of a given location.

Integration is an ongoing issue as well. “Integrating the new wearables platforms with our existing systems requires a deep understanding of both the current and future technology offerings,” says Peterson. “Maintaining a strong relationship with technology partners allows us to explore options, shape technology to provide advanced solutions, and prepare current systems in parallel as the technology continues to advance.”

The platform problem

At Humana, senior vice president and CIO Brian LeClaire says he evaluates wearable technologies from the viewpoint of the health insurer’s customers: What is going to help them achieve their health goals? What is going to blend into their routine? What is going to support them in managing chronic conditions? “Wearable technology offers a verified way to acknowledge and reward our members’ healthy behaviors and efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” LeClaire says. “From a broader perspective, wearables are a way for us to have daily interactions and engagement with consumers.”

They also provide the $54.3 billion company with a new way to deal with rising medical costs. Humana took a step toward using technology to rein in costs in 2011, when it introduced HumanaVitality, an incentives application for mobile devices. In 2014, the company partnered with Apple to become the first major insurer to track the health information that flowed from wearable devices into Apple’s health tracking app for the iPhone. But in order for the initiative to take off, it had to take a device-agnostic approach. Now Humana supports more than 70 wearable devices, including Fitbit, Apple Health, Garmin, Polar and Jawbone. The approach is working internally. Humana’s own employees participate in the program, and the resulting savings are adding up: Healthcare costs are down 18 percent and sick days have decreased 44 percent for participating employees over the past three years.

Duke Energy is also taking an architecture-specific yet device-agnostic approach. But finding the right platform for each use case is critical — “so that it’s an asset, not a nuisance” to the user, says Vukojevic. Should the camera sit on top or off to the side? Is information delivered directly into the user’s line of sight? “The biggest challenge is to prove that it actually works. But once you do that, you have to figure out what the optimum platform is.” That may differ in the field versus the warehouse. “There’s not going to be just one platform,” Vukojevic says.

To the extent possible, Lockheed Martin aims to develop applications that will enable users to employ the best tool for the job. “In the initial phases, we pursue applications that are both platform- and device-agnostic,” says Peterson. “This allows many teams to utilize today’s platforms, while piloting new platforms like wearables. Having options allows teams to employ the best device to perform the task.”

Adding to the confusion, the wearable vendor market is fluid. “The market is going to mature, and there will be churn,” says EPRI’s Simmins. “If you’re doing an implementation with today’s hardware, you have to know that at some point in the future that technology may not have a path forward.” Companies will be acquired, change focus or go out of business. One vendor may leapfrog another’s functionality.

Accenture’s Blum sees some clients buy wearables in batches. “In most cases, customers assume the [wearable] will be obsolete in a year,” says Blum. “But they’re able to achieve the ROI based on that short life span.”

End user evangelization

The enterprise opportunities for wearable devices multiplied at Duke Energy once end users got their hands on the prototypes Vukojevic’s team developed. “That’s where you get the best assessment of the technology,” he says. “Once they try them on, they have 20 new ideas for different use cases.”

His team developed a wearable solution for warehouse counting and is currently working on one for warehouse picking. It also created a wearable application for training employees. Soon, the team will begin testing wearable video to improve power restoration by providing instant visuals of, say, hurricane damage. Vukojevic is also thinking about how the company might integrate into wearables the real-time data that may come from sensors in the field or beacons in warehouses.

To keep wearables on everyone’s mind and keep implementation ideas flowing, a communications group publicizes progress. “We try to get everyone involved who could benefit from it, because it makes it that much easier to make the business case,” Vukojevic says. “The more people hear about it, the more ideas you get.”

Humana encourages wearable usage by recognizing and rewarding people for the healthy behaviors they already have. In order to get acceptance, “consumers have to see the benefit,” LeClaire says.

It’s not clear yet how — or when — wearables will integrate with some enterprise systems. But now is not the time to answer those big questions, says Blum of Accenture. It’s the time to “get devices in the hands of users to experience the benefits that don’t require system integration and may not even require network connectivity,” he says. “Start there to see value of the wearable as a concept.”

Blum worked with a telecom provider to distribute smartglasses to 100 field engineers repairing telecom equipment. User satisfaction, he says, went up every week. The key is to focus on use cases in which wearables make it easier for people to do their jobs, he explains, noting that “you end up with wearables that mysteriously get broken” if employees think that systems are just meant to squeeze out corporate efficiencies or help big brother keep an eye on them.

Blum also worked with Airbus to introduce augmented reality for installers of seats on the A330 aircraft. The wearable system eliminated errors and improved performance by a factor of six, he says.

Trying wearables on for size

“There are aspects of wearable technology that companies can only fully appreciate by using it firsthand,” says Blum. “Which use cases are best for my business? How will this work with my wireless network? How do I set up governance for it? Will my workers wear them? Those are the perfect questions to answer while the technology is still maturing.”

At the same time, those experimenting with wearables are reaping returns even though they’re just in an exploratory phase. “We’re seeing clients achieve value from wearables,” says Blum. “With every passing month, the hardware gets better and new cases are unlocked. Companies that put in the time today will be a step ahead once the hardware does mature.”

Since Humana’s app is already integrated with a multitude of devices, LeClaire anticipates expanding the wearables program. “Ensuring the data we’re collecting from wearables is made meaningful for the consumer” is critical, he says. “We have to help people take this information and translate it into health. There is tremendous opportunity with wearables, but only if you maintain your focus on the people wearing them.”

Enterprises must be mindful of the implications of wearable technology on personal data privacy and security, says Benson of Exosite. “Data generated by wearable technology, such as the location and activity of an employee, could be used for nefarious purposes,” he says. “CIOs are used to dealing with these types of issues across the enterprise, but wearables in particular bring an added complexity and specificity to the data.” Enterprises can ensure that data privacy and security vulnerabilities are evaluated in a comprehensive way if they engage in limited rollouts and collaborate with security and compliance teams from the beginning.

Wearables won’t be right for every company — now or in the future. “Just because a company has an Android or iPhone app doesn’t mean they should port it over to the Apple Watch or Google Glass,” says Blum. But for companies that envision wearables delivering unique business value, he says, “now is the time, with the low barrier to entry, to experiment with a 10-person pilot to learn about the potential of the technology.”

That’s the plan at OCME. “We like to be there first,” says Pezzin. “We’re not afraid of rolling up our sleeves and experimenting. I like the glint in people’s eyes when they see what we’re doing in a very traditional sector. We’re always on the lookout for the next big thing. And our focus right now is on this one.”

It’s unlikely that there will ever be a one-size-fits-all wearable product, so “don’t be afraid to engage new technology partners early,” says Hodge of Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “Because those customizations can make all of the difference between a niche tool and one that can be deployed across the enterprise.”

which develops software to help companies visualize Internet of Things data.