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Wearable tech proves business value hands-free and in field

Wearable technology could make its mark in the enterprise in the near future, with hands-free police and military pilot projects already under way

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Wearable technology has been hitting the consumer headlines in recent months, greatly assisted by the Apple Watch. But industry commentators believe that it is in the enterprise market that such devices will really make their mark over the next few years.

While many consumer wearables leave something to be desired in terms of aesthetics, Brent Blum, global director of wearables for Accenture, points out: “No one goes to work and says my welding mask isn’t cool enough. So there are very different design considerations.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to implementing wearable tech for a business use, organisations have much deeper pockets than the average consumer, who is likely to baulk at the cost of smartglasses and smartwatches unless there is a clear use case – the most popular one at the moment is health and fitness.

In the enterprise space, however, there are use cases aplenty. Although the market is still in the early adoption phase, with most companies trialling rather than actively implementing the technology, this situation is expected to change over the next year or two.

Business applications

For instance, one European telco is employing smartglasses for fieldwork. The difficulty is that its infrastructure is ageing just as much as its personnel. This means not only that different chunks are under almost constant repair while upgrade work takes place, but also that its workforce is starting to retire, taking their skills and knowledge with them.

The telco is therefore starting to send more junior engineers into the field equipped with smartglasses, which display a series of tasks for them to complete in sequence. They can also access a knowledge base and connect to experts in real-time, using the devices if they hit any problems.

Another example of current usage is the Metropolitan Police’s deployment of body cameras that are roughly the size of a cigarette packet. The aim here is to try and rebuild public trust in a force that has been embroiled in controversy following incidents such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes as a suspected terrorist and the killing of Mark Duggan, which triggered the London riots.

Despite some privacy concerns, a trial with 1,000 officers across 10 London boroughs seems to have shown the value of the cameras in helping to scrutinise police behaviour. The cameras were also helpful in gathering evidence of offences, leading to more early guilty pleas and thereby speeding up the justice process.

As a result, most of the Met’s 20,000 uniformed officers will now be issued with the cameras by March 2016.

Pros and cons

But Blum believes that wearable technology really comes into its own in two key areas. The first is where people need to do hands-free work and wearable devices can be used to store biometric data for access control, such as opening doors and starting forklift trucks.

He also foresees a time when monitors could be inserted into the brim of a hard hat or pilot’s cap to monitor brainwaves as a way to determine factors such as stress levels and tiredness.

“Airline pilots are required to have a certain level of rest, but different people naturally require different amounts,” says Blum. “So you could assess who should be flying based on who is the most psychologically capable at any given time. Or if you discover that everyone is suffering from stress, perhaps you could offer them some training.”

Despite potential benefits such as cost reduction and increased operational efficiency, Saverio Romeo, principal analyst at Beecham Research, warns that wearable technology presents challenges.

For one thing, most devices do not come integrated with each other or with enterprise systems, so organisations either need to do that themselves or hire third parties to help. SAP has teamed with Vuzix, for instance, to create augmented reality glasses aimed at manufacturers, logistics companies and service technicians.

The smartglasses connect with a smartphone to access data, which is displayed on a screen in front of the eyes of the wearer, who interacts with it using voice commands. Possible users include warehouse staff, who can find products on their pick list with them, scan the barcode to ensure they have the right item and confirm it has been picked.

Another issue is security. Romeo explains: “Wearables are one more element in the internet of things, which means they are open to potential attack. So, if they’re part of an enterprise IT network, security has to be a strong consideration. Without a proper device management approach, they can become a weak point because, at the moment, they’re very hackable.”

Even though implementations can prove quite expensive as it is still early days, he is confident that the market will take off.

“I believe the number of deployments will increase at quite a decent pace due to benefits such as reduced operational costs, increased efficiency and the like. But while the market will grow, not everyone will be using the technology – it won’t take over the world,” he says.

The system is still being optimised, but is based on the Unity games engine, which includes maps and audio support, the Oculus Rift VR headset and back-end decision-making software developed by Plextek Consulting, which acts as the intelligence behind the system.

Soldiers can look around using the headset and, with the help of a hand-held controller, move across the virtual battlefield to get to their casualty, who may be suffering life-threatening injuries following an explosion.

Case study: MoD’s Project Hearts

The Ministry of Defence intends to roll out a virtual reality headset-based system over the next two years to train members of the British Army in triaging wounded personnel on the battlefield.

The six-month-long pilot, entitled Project Hearts, started last autumn. It came about because the government department was keen to find ways of using off-the-shelf consumer technology to prepare 18 to 24-year-olds in particular for handling trauma situations.

Each soldier receives training as a field medic every couple of years and the aim is to use the VR-based sessions as a supplement to more formal classroom learning.

More about wearable technology

Colette Johnson, Plextek’s medical business development manager, explains the procedure: “If someone is doing triage and the virtual patient starts to bleed internally but they don’t recognise the signs, the software will go to the next decision tree and make changes to the patient’s reactions. This means that their colour will worsen, their blood pressure drop, etc, until the correct action is taken.”

A role-play operator can also up the ante by introducing physiological complications such as worsening respiratory distress or environmental hazards such as enemy fire or changes in the weather.

Each session takes a total of about 20 minutes, which includes two minutes to set the virtual scene and 90 seconds to close it down by having the patient taken away by a helicopter evacuation team.

Once the system has been fully implemented and rolled out to the Army’s 100,000-plus personnel, the goal is to modify it and introduce it to Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel too.

Case study: Apple Watch

“From a business point of view, the thing that the Apple Watch is most useful for is travel,” says Kevin Linsell, director of strategy and architecture at managed services provider and cloud integrator Adapt. He has spent a number of weeks exploring its potential applications in a work context.

“Rather than stare at a phone screen, you can call up a map or directions and it buzzes on your wrist and will say turn left or right. It works well,” he explains.

Another pleasing novelty is that the Watch will work as a clicker for Mac-based presentations – you simply tap on the screen.

What does not work so well is the current lack of general app support and the inability to view HTML and web content. SMS messages, tweets, iMessages and emails can be picked up in text format only, which tends to be in the wrong colour – “for example, blue on a black screen, which isn’t easy to read”, says Linsell.

Nor is it possible to compose or to reply to emails at the moment; you can only mark them as ‘unread’. Moreover, while the Watch can be set up to display phone apps on its screen, doing so is “quite slow and so the screen times out, which is a bit annoying”, Linsell adds.

But he acknowledges that it is still early days, not least because Apple has only just released a software development kit for third-party developers, which means that Watch apps, business or otherwise, are currently scarce on the ground. He believes that at the moment the Apple Watch “is more of a lifestyle device for things like exercise” than a genuine business tool.

“I don’t really see a lot of corporate applications. Apple Pay and contactless payment might add something and I could see it being used for security purposes to access buildings or enable equipment. But so far, buying a Watch seems more like a personal rather than a business choice to me,” Linsell says.

Case study: Cognizant iCommit2Fit pilot project

To make wearable tech-based employee health and wellbeing programmes sustainable, it is not enough merely to give people access to fitness data.

To really get results, the human touch needs to be offered in the shape of weekly coaching meetings with healthcare professionals, which include assigning individuals specific goals.

These are the key findings of a pilot programme called iCommit2Fit undertaken by the US arm of business and technology services provider Cognizant between January and July 2014.

The pilot involved 127 staff members using FitBit activity trackers to capture the number of steps they walked each day. They were also asked to log their daily food intake in a digital diary, to upload all that data each week to a HealthActivate portal and to take part in weekly phone-based coaching sessions that used the information recorded.

In addition, participants received personalised emails with observations and advice from coaches. For example, if they were meeting their step goals but not losing the desired amount of weight, the coach might examine their food log and suggest an alternative diet.

Personalised coaching made a marked difference to performance. The 15% of participants who did not miss a single coaching session took 54% more steps and lost twice as much weight as those who kept only 95% of their coaching appointments. Yet they, in turn, took 70% more steps and lost three times as much weight as the 15% at the other end of the scale who missed three or more coaching meetings.

Euan Davis, European lead for Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work, says: “You have to be careful how people react to the information they receive and make sure they don’t start drawing conclusions as it can cause a lot of anxiety. So the human element is very important to ground everything and ensure it works. The key is having regular touchpoints to help staff keep to their targets.”

The company now intends to expand its programme to its 1,400 workers across the US and is considering whether to make it available as a commercial service worldwide.

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