The much-anticipated launch of the Apple Watch was met with the usual mixture of kudos and cynicism. Certainly up to the usual standards of Apple design and functionality, the Apple Watch is just the latest (if perhaps one of the most elegant) in a range of ‘wearables’. But are they just another consumer fashion fad or can they deliver real business functions?
Similar to tablet-based technology - which first appeared more than 10 years ago (on Windows!) - wearables are currently aimed at down-sizing while packing in more functionality. With tablets now a seemingly indispensable part of business life, is it fair to assume wearable tech will be at the same point ten years hence?
Wearable technology has already moved rapidly. The simple ‘fitness bands’ have now developed to more sophisticated smart watches, such as the Fitbit Surge, Garmin Vivoactive and the Apple Watch. Yet, the first two are largely leisure accessories – in the case of Garmin, clearly for the serious sports-jocks – with some communications functionality added. The Apple Watch offers greater direct interface with texts, e-mail, tailored apps and even direct call answering (yes, it’s like Dick Tracy) but, with most wearables, unless you are aged under 30, with dainty fingers and 5-5 eyesight, they are still mainly an alert tool to use before jumping on the smartphone or tablet for a larger keyboard, app or game.
Then there’s the ethical issues. As communication tools, wearables have already come under the scrutiny of the communicators. In July 2014, the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations led a debate in the House of Commons entitled "wearable technology is an ethical nightmare for the communications, marketing and PR professions." The arguments ranged from: “wearables will create a paranoid society where every event is noted, where every conversation is heard and where corporate reputations will be ruined”; to “[wearables are] a force for good for improving health. It is means of improving the dialogue between citizen, organisation, stakeholder, and state.”
Clearly both views have validity. Wearable technology can track, monitor, measure and analyse the location and health of an individual. This offers massive potential benefits to organisations in the health sector and business in general. A healthier workforce means greater productivity, less pressure on the NHS and a reduction in stress-related illness.
Vitality – formerly Prudential Health – is offering significant discounts on wearable technologies through supplier partnerships. The resulting data can then be uploaded with Vitality offering members further discounts depending on their level of activity. While this could be perceived as a cynical marketing ploy, the reality is a balance of financial sense (less illness, fewer claims) and social responsibility.
I recently heard about a company which has provided all its employees with fitness wristbands and set-up a team-based competition to see which employees could take the most number of steps in a month. With prizes awarded, the up-sides are team-building and a healthier workforce. Certainly, for those that can afford them, wearables are starting to change behaviours in a positive way.
However, the down-side is the potential growth of a Big Brother society. In reality, it is already here, but whether it will go the way of Orwellian doom or technology Nirvana depends on the use of Big Data over the next few decades. Either way, it is unlikely to remain the choice of the individual.
Consider, again, our team-building company. Issuing wristbands also allows employees to be tracked and health to be monitored in a potentially negative way: if employees don’t exercise a certain amount in a month, penalties could be imposed. If the company views this data as a way to identify and positively influence workforce issues then good, but it will have exactly the opposite effect if it is used as a stick with which to beat employees. I believe within the next generation most major employers will be making wearables mandatory. How they use the data is the six million dollar question, as well as how fast regulators will have to catch-up to balance personal rights against corporate interest.
Then there is the B2C debate. Supermarkets and other retailers are already heavily engaged in Big Data analysis and near field communications. Wearables can only serve to speed up this process, with wrist-worn devices flashing and buzzing up and down the aisles as diet drink or low-fat meal offers go into overdrive for shoppers whose exercise profiles indicate ‘couch-potato’.
Like it or not, the impact of wearable technology is no longer fiction, nor is it a fad. While it may currently live in the realm of the 'early adopters', I believe it will ultimately become a function of everyday life. In fact, when it comes to health and welfare, technology is already heading for the next stage, whereby individuals don't even need to be wearing tech for companies to be remotely monitoring their physical state!