Wearable technology: Passing fad or next big thing in the consumerization wave?

Most people are still trying to get a handle on how to use their mobile phones and tablets effectively so the idea of adopting and integrating wearable technology into your life may seem as far off as The Jetsons. 

Wearable Technology – Gaining momentum
While wearable technology is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that it will soon enter the mainstream. We are already seeing many consumer electronics companies increasing their focus in this area. Companies like Sony are divesting certain product lines like their popular Vaio laptops in favour of focusing on their SmartWear line of wearable electronics. Companies are learning early on, that form and style are as critical as function. Designs of Wearables need to factor in the trendy side of fashion, if they expect to hit the mainstream. We foresee that those wearables that provide some real practical value-add will be accepted as ground breaking and may not require a heavy emphasis on style. Other key vendors moving into this space include Intel, Samsung, Apple, HTC, Texas Instruments, and Google. The race for the “killer wearable app” is on.

Some of these big players are already beginning to shift their core product focus to prepare for the whole wearable technology movement. For instance, back in January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), new Intel CEO, Brian Krzanich, talked about the company’s focus on moving beyond tablets and smartphones. His basic message: “Make Everything Smart”.  Obviously Intel wants to be “inside” everything smart!

Intel’s demonstration included a new low-energy chip system called Edison, due to be released in mid-2014. The chip is about the size of a SD card and supports Linux and includes WiFi and Bluetooth. Examples included smart coffee cups that double as baby monitors, biometric earphones that allow you to track your fitness and a smart headset that automatically connects to your personal digital assistant.

Search for Killer Apps
In addition to big players like Intel, there are numerous start-ups and research teams exploring wearable technologies in search of the application that sticks.

One example of such an early breakthrough is a start-up company called Fin that has created a personal digital touch “ring” that you wear on your thumb or fingers that transform your entire hand into a control center for your digital gadgets such as phone, TV, remotes, house lights, car radios, etc. using Bluetooth technology. Using your hand and fingers as a mechanism for controlling your digital devices is a real practical and almost natural extension for most people.

There are also plenty of research project underway such as the “Sensory Fiction” project currently underway at the MIT Media Lab. The concept is to augment a traditional 2 dimensional reading experience into a fully virtual reading experience that uses all the senses. The reader wears a vest-like contraption that uses ambient techniques such as lighting, vibration, temperature, compression, etc. to create physical sensations that correlate with the story’s setting and emotion being described in the story. The equipment has a series of sensors that can work to increase a readers heart rate, lower skin temperature, create shivers or use some of the 150 plus LED’s that are part of the books reading interface. All integrated and timed to the story’s plot.

Other companies such as Disney are also delving into digital imagery by experimenting with the interactivity of their books and toys to provide new ways for readers and children to interact with tangible objects.

While Google Glass has certainly grabbed many of the wearable headlines, I think they have run into problems on the applicability, practicality and the over style sense of what they provide. Let’s face it: they still look way too geeky for most consumers to adopt. Right now they are probably best suited for the gamers.

However, there are early experiments that were conducted in the medical and education industries, and now we are seeing some commercial applications begin to appear. For instance, Virgin Atlantic recently announced a pilot program at London’s Heathrow Airport to allow its agents to check in upper class passengers. They believe this technology could be extended in the future to better serve customers’ needs by providing real time information on flight status, meal preferences, foreign language translations, etc.

However, moving a little closer to the eye, to the creation of smart contact lenses might be the answer. Swiss scientists at the ETH Zurich have developed a flexible and transparent electronic circuit that could be used in the production of smart contact lenses. The fabrication process is quite intricate but essentially involves using a substance called parylene to create a circuit that can be embedded into the contact lens. The initial focus is on medical benefits for ocular health such as glaucoma and other eye conditions. The commercial applications could evolve to include such things as Nike+ FuelBand.

The SmartWatch has probably single handily created the most buzz within the wearables market with many models now available from Sony, Samsung, Martian and the Pebble, which was actually designed and built through crowd sourcing and funding platform Kickstarter. Most of the watches are able to connect to your iPhone or Android phone to receive vibrated alerts for text messages, emails, calls and social media accounts. Most can also store native applications on the phone. Many feel that until Apple gets into the SmartWatch game, these will continue to be a novelty.

The other popular wearable application is the “smart band”. These are typically rubber bracelets that have embedded chips for tracking anything from movements, GPS locations, etc. The most popular applications continue to be to monitor activity and fitness regimens. Companies like Sony are positioning these bands as mechanism to “Log Your Life”. According to research from Canalys, 1.6 million smart bands shipped in the second half of 2013 compared to only 200,000 in the first half, which represents 700% growth. Canalys predicts as many as 8 million could ship in 2014 and over 23 million by 2015. Applications in medical and wellness monitoring represent huge opportunities. But there are plenty of opportunities to also enhance your customer’s experiences with your product and services.

For instance, Disney is already using smart band technology to improve its guest experience and push the boundaries of creativity and innovation. Their launching of the MyMagic+ which integrates a guest experiences across their mobile, web and wearable (“MagicBand”) and physical park locations to offer improvements such as FastPass+ which allows guests to reserve rides before their visits.

And the market for these wearable technologies will be big. Research last year by Credit Suisse called wearable tech “the next big thing” and predicted the industry was set to grow from around $3 billion to $5 billion today to $50 billion within five years. Some believe this is conservative.

So what does this all mean for businesses?
The consumeration of IT movement that started several years ago was responsible for fuelling rapid adoption of consumer technologies such as mobile (BYOD), social and cloud (BYOC) within the enterprise. In the era of the Millennial Enterprise, we believe this movement will continue where consumer oriented innovations continue to drive enterprise adoption. Even if that means disruption.

So when and where does all this wearable technology hit the business realm? Some are predicting it won’t go mainstream until at least 2020, but we’ve already seen what can happen to enterprise IT when that one killer application hits the consumer base.  So my recommendation is to get ahead of it and begin to explore the use of these technologies within your customer and employee base. Use your imagination and have some fun!

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Frank Palermo

Executive Vice President - Global Digital Solutions, Virtusa. Frank Palermo brings more than 24 years of experience in technology leadership across a wide variety of technical products and platforms. Frank has a wealth of experience in leading global teams in large scale, transformational application and product development programs. In his current role at Virtusa, Frank heads the Global Technical Solutions Group which contains many of Virtusa’s specialized technical competency areas such as Business Process Management (BPM), Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence (DWBI). The group is responsible for creating an overall go-to-market strategy, developing technical competencies and standards, and delivering IP based Solutions for each of these practice areas. Frank also leads an emerging technology group that is responsible for incubating new solutions in areas such as mobile computing, social solutions and cloud computing. Frank is also responsible for overseeing all of the Partner Channels as well as Analyst Relations for the firm. Prior to joining Virtusa, Frank was Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Decorwalla, an emerging B2B marketplace in the interior design industry, where he was responsible for the overall technology strategy, creative direction, and site development and deployment. Prior to that, Frank was CTO and VP of Engineering for INSCI Corporation, a supplier of digital document repositories and integrated output management products and services. Prior to INSCI, Frank worked at IBM in the Advanced Workstations Division, and took part in the PowerPC consortium with IBM, Motorola and Apple. He was also involved in the design of the PowerPC family of microprocessors as well as architecting and developing a massive distributed client/server design automation and simulation system involving thousands of high-end clustered servers. Frank received several patents for his work in the area of microprocessor design and distributed client/server computing. Frank holds a BSEE degree from Northeastern University and completed advanced studies at the University of Texas.

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One Comments

  • Ganeshji Marwaha March 6, 2014

    Excellent write-up covering all major aspects of the wearables realm. It was a treat to read.

    I believe, the next immediate center of attention is going to be smart watches that double up as health monitors, fitness trackers, add-on to smart phones and so on. From a technology perspective BLE is going to play a major role in all that. The platform segment is getting even more fragmented with the introduction of these low end devices. Samsung has already moved to Tizen from Android, Pebble did not use Android to begin with and I believe platforms like Firefox OS will get more attention going into the wearables era.

    Interesting times ahead !

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