Enterprise Wearable Solutions: Augmenting the Mobile Worker

David Krebs

Until recently, the wearable form factor had been relegated to very niche deployments to address specific workflows centered on data collection primarily in the warehouse: voice input technology, wristmounted computers and ring scanners to improve worker productivity and operational accuracy through these hands-free solutions.

However, companies like Google and Apple have brought the concept of the wearable device into the mainstream. Now flush with consumer-oriented devices, like fitness bands and smartwatches, awareness is being raised of the wearable’s form factor in the enterprise and consequently creating new use cases that extend beyond the warehouse. In particular, public safety has emerged as an area of focus for wearable devices that include body-worn cameras to provide better digital evidence chains, particularly as high-profile cases where digital recording have been present have made national headlines.

As with the consumer market, however, wearables have yet to capture the imagination in the way that tablets and smartphones have done to revolutionise enterprise mobility over the course of the past decade; instead, they largely remain auxiliary items full of potential but at the end of the day are complementary rather than stand-alone. Nevertheless, the growing fascination with the form factor has meant there is growing interest in including wearables into enterprise mobility deployments, particularly with the advancements in wearable OSes and the refinement of wearable-based UIs and contextual information.

Real-time video capabilities and augmented reality are proving potent selling points for the form factor, in addition to greater portability and productivity from being hands-free. Google’s re-introduction of Google Glass as an enterprise-oriented device will likely lead the way in introducing line-of-business applications and use cases across industries where the resistance to wearable electronics is notably lower than in social settings. 



While VDC anticipates moderate-to-strong growth for wearable devices, it is anticipated that the adoption of more mainstream consumer-oriented wearable devices, like smartwatches, will remain limited for at least the next couple of years. Currently, the larger issues with the new generation of wearables remains in ensuring that manufacturers and app developers treat the device as something other than a miniaturised version of a smartphone and address requirements specific to a worn device. In addition, issues like battery life and the ability to hot-swap will be critical for organisations looking to deploy wearables in LOB applications – this has been a particularly acute issue for many of today’s smart glasses that have a battery life of two hours or less. Nevertheless, improvements in mobile OS, the growing availability of APIs and overall interest in the form factor, will provide ample opportunity for wearables to become an increasingly central element of line-of-business workflows.

The spectrum of wearable devices and use cases continues to expand beyond the traditionally niche deployments of the past; previous generations of wearables, which span back decades, have been extremely industry- and task specific given the technological limitations of the time and the relative lack of ergonomic design. Within the last two to three years, however, there has been a renaissance of interest in wearables that has been fostered by initiatives from tech giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung. The introduction of wearable-specific operating systems like Android Wear, Tizen, and watchOS have provided the enterprise with a new ecosystem to build upon the advances being made in display technology, voice-operation solutions and contextual information. The resulting media hype surrounding these advances has helped to foster a notable uptick in interest from the enterprise.

What is the Killer Application for Wearables in the Enterprise?

Within the enterprise, as with much of the consumer market, the greatest obstacle to higher adoption rates is the ability to move beyond the promise of improved productivity towards concrete use cases that provide tangible value. Companies within the postal and courier sector, as well as warehousing are experimenting with heads-up displays and augmented reality, could improve worker productivity through a number of pilot programs that have included Google Glass and the Vuzix M100. Despite the excitement surrounding such programs, and the marked improvements in picking accuracy, technological limitations such as battery life and durability remain considerable obstacles to widespread deployment.



In spite of these hurdles, there are new industry verticals that are eagerly looking to incorporate wearable devices into LOB workflows; chief among these are public safety and healthcare. While there has been steadily growing interest from public safety organisations for years in the deployment of wearables for evidence management, highly publicised events like that in Ferguson, MO have brought a heightened sense of urgency to these investments. Recent data from VDC reveals that public safety to have one of the highest deployment rates of wearable devices among the industry verticals surveyed, and among those organisations with current deployments, body-worn cameras represent an overwhelming majority of the devices used.

The primary obstacle for public safety, however, will be overcoming the lag between the growth of the body-worn camera market and the development and incorporation of complementary technology to support it, including cloud storage and video analytics, not to mention public acceptance. Healthcare, by contrast, is looking increasingly towards augmented reality as a means of enabling hands-free productivity, particularly in areas like the OR, where interaction with devices can necessitate frequent re-scrubbing. Google and Phillips Healthcare have been at the forefront of much of the development of applications and solutions that leverage wearable technology for both staff and patients alike. VDC anticipates that these two industry verticals will lead much of the investment into the next generation of wearables and best internalise the value proposition of the form factor.

For consumer-grade devices, enterprise applications are growing but remain limited in their reach, particularly as a large portion of the market belongs to tracking devices that are meant for health and fitness applications. Nevertheless, smartwatches are slowing making their way into the mainstream, albeit at a slower rate than many of the manufacturers would like. Even trend-setting Apple appears unable to work its magic to stir demand quite in the way that it has for its previous devices. By contrast, the public’s reception of the Apple Watch has been notably cooler, with much of the media calling into question the need for such a device on the market. The seeming lack of a “killer app” has limited the enterprise value proposition beyond a more streamlined means of communication and notification, although there is a slowly growing ecosystem for applications for the enterprise.

Companies like Salesforce and Good Technology have been at the forefront of development. The former’s launch of Salesforce Wear in the summer of 2014 - which enabled developers to create enterprise applications specifically for HUDs and smartwatches – is a good example of this. Meanwhile, Good Technology (now BlackBerry) has sought to incorporate smartwatches into its enterprise mobility management solutions as a means of providing mobile identity and access management features, including two-factor authentication and access control through its Good Work solution.

The restricting factors for growth in the wearable markets remain firmly centered on the issue of applicability. On the end-user side, this manifests as uncertainty of the specific value proposition that wearables provide. Lack of a clear ROI presents a considerable hurdle that OEMs which are manufacturing non-industrial wearables will need to overcome, especially if the form factor is to gain traction in an enterprise setting.

In order to gain widespread acceptance, the new generation of wearable devices will need to transcend the current consumer fad to demonstrate material improvements to an organisation’s workflow. The ability to work hands-free in labour intensive workflows and real-time communication capabilities for technically complex situations for equipment/site inspections and remote diagnostics already provide a clear and strong value proposition. However, in industry verticals that can benefit from wearable devices, that proposition is less obvious. As a result, the key to higher adoption rates across these verticals will require a strong application ecosystem that is tailored to the unique requirements of a wearable device – namely, limited display and UI, as well as faster interaction times to relay and input information. 



Despite these hurdles, VDC believes that the rise of consumer wearable devices and their peripheral and application ecosystem will help pave the way for a new generation of enterprise-oriented and industry-specific devices by helping to normalise the form factor and establish a broader base for applications. Although consumer wearables currently offer limited utility within an enterprise setting, they nevertheless help to demonstrate the value proposition of the form factor and serve as a proof of concept in the capabilities of wearable in a broader environment that transcends ring scanners and fitness sensors. If the current attention given to smartwatches and their ilk can evolve beyond a fad and the devices gain widespread appeal, the effect on markets in the fostering of a sustainable ecosystem of OS and application development could be similar to that of the rise of smartphones and tablets in a LOB setting, presenting both a wealth of opportunities and challenges to traditional OEMs.