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Wearables Are More Than Lapless Laptops

Don’t get too focused on how you'll wear it. Imagine what would make you feel undressed without it.

The next generation of network-edge device has been, perhaps forever, (mis)labeled as “wearable” tech. As labels go, that’s as accurate but irrelevant as “cellular” phone (only an engineer needs to know what that adjective means) or “fluorescent” light (ditto). These terms of novelty give no hint of the benefits that would make a user care, or a business invest — but those benefits are many, not merely prospectively but in ways that are measurable today.

Enterprises should look beyond the label to see the new leverage that’s at hand to improve productivity in every workplace: Opportunities for context awareness, data fusion and improved integration of the physical and the digital worlds in domains that range from the conference room to the oil patch.

In the field, someone looking at a physical object like a malfunctioning valve can immediately be assisted with augmented-reality data. A QR code on that valve, for example, could trigger a superimposed description of what that valve is controlling. Location awareness could prevent an action elsewhere in a process plant from endangering a worker who might be affected in another part of the facility.

In a factory, updates on process speed and quality can be brought to an operator’s or supervisor’s attention without taking hands off work in progress. In a meeting, a participant will be able to check a fact or note a new input — with barely a noticeable loss of eye contact — and quickly share what might be useful, with a gesture that puts that information where others can see it, as well.

This is not a time for leisurely study and gradual introduction. New devices enter the workplace more rapidly in every successive wave of connection, miniaturization and on-board analytic sophistication. It took the landline telephone 73 years to go from 10 percent to 90 percent market penetration; the PC did it in 30 years, and the smartphone and tablet are on track to make that same climb in less than eight. Keep pace with this acceleration, or your workplace may look as out of date in 2020 as a factory would look today with people balancing a laptop computer in one hand while holding a wrench with the other.

At the same time, try to shed the mental baggage of the “wearable” label, which can limit a person’s thinking in the same way as a label like “portable computer” or “cordless phone” or “horseless carriage.” Each of these labels once described something that was functionally familiar, and that people employed to do familiar things while enjoying one notable improvement — but a wearable device is not just a “lapless laptop,” any more than an iPhone is merely “keyboardless,” or a multispectral camera merely “filmless.” Incremental thinking does not change the world.

We should instead define the opportunity not as repackaging the tasks that our digital tools perform now, but as a list of device behaviors that would increase our productivity at work and our convenience in daily life. Those requirements should drive the form. New connectivity, new miniaturization, new power sources can all play a part — and if we wind up with something that used to be the size of a brick that now can readily go on a wrist or fit into a pendant or an eyeset, that’s fine. But let’s see if we can make that an outcome of utility, instead of designing a gadget from something we saw in “Dick Tracy” or on “Star Trek,” and then asking what it’s good for.

The first thing we should demand from our next-generation personal device is awareness of context: That it be location-aware, motion-aware and environment-aware, where each of us has an “environment” that includes who is with us, what else is happening near us, and what resources are available to us.

Traditional digi-device form factors, like desktop and laptop and even tablet, don’t reliably move with us: They’re on a desk while we’re in a meeting room, or in the trunk while we’re driving, and they’re generally unaware of anything except (at most) their own location. Hardly anything in use today can automatically adjust its manner of delivering information based on location, velocity, acceleration and nearby available technology — we don’t expect traditional devices to adapt, without our attention and tedious system administration, to our being stationary versus moving, alone versus in a meeting, limited to a built-in screen versus being in a room that has an entire wall of displays. Improvements to this continuity of experience are already on their way.

The second thing we should demand from devices is seamless connection — that they be always on, autonomously discovering, discreetly advising and proactively assisting. This second set of capabilities is further advanced, although right now that’s a mixed blessing: Anyone who bothers to look will find abundant examples of devices that are much too easy to discover, and many others that offer advice that may confuse or mislead. There’s a lot of engineering to be done at the level of identity, privilege and auditability management — not only at the level of the network, but also within devices themselves.

The good news is that most of the value to be added here will not need to be on-board in the personal device, which will reduce the “early adopter tax” by letting even first-wave devices get significantly smarter over time. We’ll also see Metcalfe’s-law effects: As the density of devices in a region goes up, their ability to combine various measurements of what’s happening can make all of the cooperating users better off.

The third transformation will be augmenting our real-world activities, rather than competing with them. In manufacturing, field service, public safety and national defense, there will be needle-moving improvements in performance (including, in many cases, substantial reduction of costs).

‘Wearable” is not an engaging label, especially to anyone under 25. The Beloit College “Mindset List” for faculty welcoming the class of 2014 included the warning, “They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day.” As tag lines go, “Now you can wear it!” may be less than compelling.

Don’t get too focused, therefore, on how you’ll wear it. Imagine what would make you feel undressed without it — and then, make it so.

Peter Coffee is VP for Strategic Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the IT and business community to define the opportunity and clarify customers’ requirements on the company’s evolving Salesforce1 Platform. Reach him @petercoffee.

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