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Wearable technology: next big thing?

It's man and machine, not man versus machine.

Photograph: Getty Images

As the hype around wearable technology gathers momentum, and the first working examples of such devices are released to the world, business leaders are beginning to consider the impact that they might have on the enterprise. Mostly, such considerations are focused on the fast-moving sectors of marketing and e-commerce; however, I would argue that the influence of such technology could potentially be much greater.

What wearable technology represents is the ability to augment the capability of the human brain with that of a computer, and to allow the two to work more closely than has ever been capable in the past. With ideal connectivity and supporting infrastructure, the technology offers the ability to search and display any information that is available to the enterprise right in the eye-view of a worker. Not only that, but because the technology can see what the worker sees, and hears what they hear, artificial intelligence at the back-end could potentially suggest information that would be useful to the actual task in hand.

At its most extreme, that represents a hybrid of man and machine, with the capability and creativity of the former augmented by the knowledge and computational power of the latter. In some industries, this could have an impact that is not just incremental, but also transformational; in fact, it could be so significant as to completely destroy the business models upon which some sectors are based. The productivity gains are potentially so great as to have a perceptible impact on the economy at a national, regional and even global level. 

This applies equally from the highest to the lowest skill levels in the economy. Consider, for example, the management consultant, tasked with improving a company’s overall profitability – as she makes her way around that company, not only everything she hears, but everything she sees can be recorded, analysed and then compared with the information she already has about the company. Not only that, but the same would be the case for the other member of the team – and, as they work, all this information could be automatically compared to the proprietary economic models that the company holds. Equally, consider the customer service assistant who, as he or she looks at you, can have all the information about your history with the company presented in their eyeline, as well as information about you available publicly. Online retailers already provide service in this way, but the ability to replicate that personal experience offline would give high-street retailers a powerful tool to enhance the experience of their customers.

The possibilities are endless, and other industries that could benefit include the law, accountancy, medicine, engineering, logistics, retail and many more. Yet the two examples above, however, should have aroused the critical instinct in any alert reader. Even with what has recently been a dramatic reduction in the instinct to privacy amongst consumers, most would find these situations somewhat less than natural. Much as all the technologies in these scenarios already exist, combining them in the manner suggested could well be considered unsettling by a majority of the general public.  Furthermore, there are notable technical difficulties, particularly around connectivity, and the storage of information in such a way as to facilitate near-instant access.

Tackling the legal and privacy issues will almost certainly take priority – while societal attitudes are changing fast, for a long time there will remain a significant minority who do not share these attitudes, and businesses will have to be sensitive to that. That means developing business processes, policy and compliance to seek consent where possible, and doing everything possible to prevent misuse of the technology. The real-time nature of the assistance that wearable technology can provide means that connectivity is similarly crucial and businesses will need to make sure that every link in each and any network they use is as fast as possible. That will need to be complemented by a new approach to the IT infrastructure on which corporations store information, with disk technology and management software designed to minimise response times, allowing information to be recovered without noticeable delay.

Social media, data analytics, mobile devices and cloud computing are already recognised as disruptive technologies, with the potential to transform the way in which businesses can be run. Wearable technology is the next step in that process, which can bring all these technologies together, in real time, in a personalised manner and with minimum user effort. However, the obstacles for early adopters to overcome are many and significant, and the process of its development as a tool for business will not initially be rapid. That means that there is time for businesses to properly consider how their industry might be affected and to prepare to take the opportunity that these technologies offer.