Wearable Technology Is Coming to a Business Near You

Credit: Samsung.

Much of what we used to think of as futuristic is now reality. Many of the imaginative features of mid-twentieth century TV shows like The Jetsons or Dick Tracy, with their ubiquitous robots, pocket communicators, and holograms are old news. Among all these “futuristic” advances, wearable technology -- clothing, eyeglasses, watches, and more -- has been getting the most attention lately.

Some forms of wearable tech, such as hearing aids and pedometers, have been around for a long time. But now there is a whole new generation, leveraging the mass market availability and low cost of electronics and sensors made possible by the explosion of smartphones and tablets.

One example is Google Glass, the photo-and-video-capable eyeglasses with a heads-up display that responds to voice commands. The social connection and entertainment value of this is clear. The same can be said for music players that match tunes to the wearer’s heartbeat, or sweaters that change colors based on mood. But far more serious applications, such as medical uses, are also being developed for these devices.

Perhaps the biggest market for Google Glass is the business sector. According to Simone Foxman at Quartz, developers at a Glass party in August were getting excited about inventory applications that could save businesses thousands of dollars. Instead of shutting down for several days to do inventory, or hiring consultants to do it, companies could simply have employees wear Glass and run a simple app that records inventory as it is entered or removed. The app might even recognize products on the shelf and, of course, transmit what is seen to the company’s servers. Other apps could bring remote engineers virtually on-site to help technicians fix difficult problems, be it on washing machines, automobiles, or airplanes.

The market for wearable tech is expected to grow from $9 billion last year to $30 billion by 2018, according to Shane Walker at IHS Global Insights. Unlike smartphones and tablets, which users engage with directly, many types of wearable tech operate in the background.

At last week’s GLAZED Conference in San Francisco, attendees slipped on monitors to check their heart rates and temperatures to see if they were enjoying a film they watched. The data was collected and statistically analyzed, giving far more information than a Nielsen rating ever could.

Of course, all of these additional devices attached to bodies and clothing are going to need additional bandwidth to get their messages out, or in, as the need dictates. That could be a real concern for businesses looking to implement them in a workplace environment.

An announcement last month by Broadcom shows that this concern is not being ignored. The company announced a new Wi-Fi framework for embedded devices that is specifically aimed at capturing the market for wearable technology. Broadcom’s WICED (Wireless Internet for Connected Devices) platform is being integrated with Wi-Fi Direct to create WICED Direct.

Wi-Fi Direct devices can connect directly to each other without the benefit of a network or a hotspot. This capability is already available to a wide range of electronic devices, including video game consoles, digital picture frames, MP3 music players, cameras, eReaders, and televisions, just to name a few. It is also used with computers, communication devices, in-vehicle networks, home automation systems, and medical/fitness equipment.

Broadcom claims that integrating Wi-Fi Direct with Wireless Internet will allow OEM’s to develop wearable products that can connect seamlessly to the cloud.

“The value of a wearable device lies in its ability to connect to a smartphone or the Internet with minimal impact on battery life,” said Rahul Patel, Broadcom’s VP of marketing for wireless connectivity. “As the market gains momentum, Broadcom is actively widening business opportunities in this growing space by offering the breadth of IP and customized components that enable creative new smart wearable devices to be connected.”

The next big thing in wearables is likely to be smart watches (Dick Tracy, here we come), with entries by Sony, Apple, Samsung, and Intel. Besides telling the time, these devices can serve as auxiliary user interfaces for smartphones or tablets. This will mean that workers sitting around a conference table will be glancing at their watches even more than they already do to check text messages, stock quotes, or news headlines. They will also serve nicely as front-ends for music players for joggers, walkers, or travelers. Input capabilities are likely to be limited, meaning that the watches will probably be most useful as tiny displays. But let’s not rule out talking to them.

The voice command interface could be an important element of the wearable revolution since it provides a high input bandwidth with a physical footprint as small as one can make a microphone. And it will be state-of-the-art until we can find a way to upload our thoughts directly to control a computing device -- a capability whose arrival is predicted anywhere between the 2020s and 2050.

Voice activation has already found its way into voice recorders, home theater remote controls, TVs, and various home automation systems including Ubi, an Android-based voice-activated computer that can apparently do anything from searching the Internet to serving as a home intercom or a baby monitor.

Of course, there will be bumps in the road to technological nirvana, but voice recognition technology continues to improve and will most likely replace the keyboard as the primary point of entry into the world of computing before long.

But considering how annoying it already is to stand around a public space listening to people speaking loudly into their cell phones, imagine adding people talking into their glasses, their watches, or buttons on their jackets. It makes you hope someone will develop a device to respond to a whisper.

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