Can wearable tech boost business productivity?
You couldn't walk more than 20 feet at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas without running into some new form of wearable technology. And if the Consumer Electronics Association is right, the same will be true of the streets in your town before long.
Consumer interest in buying wearable devices in 2014 has quadrupled from 2012, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The majority of that interest revolves around fitness devices.
While the focus of wearable tech these days is largely on the consumer market, analysts note that there are tremendous implications for the business world as well, which could result in improved productivity, reduced job-related injuries and billions of dollars in savings.
The field service industry is one of the areas that could benefit most, said Angela McIntyre, an analyst with Gartner. Technicians sporting wearable cameras could get assistance with a problem they can't fix themselves, solving the predicament quicker and saving them a return trip.
"With this technology, you don't have to send your best people to faraway locations," she said. "They can talk with a local person, and if [the company] has this integrated into a pair of smart glasses, you can do it all with one device hands-free. … It could potentially save the field service industry alone $1 billion."
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The use of wearable technology in business is far from hypothetical. Michael Becker, former director of the Mobile Marketing Association and strategic advisor for Somo, noted that many hospitals are already embracing the concept.
"The health-care industry is using it now, especially in hospitals, where they combine augmented reality with wearable devices to 'see' people's veins when they're inserting needles or operating," he said. "That creates more efficiency, in that they're getting the job done faster, but they can also do it better. So therefore they're also reducing costs."
Similar technology, he noted, could easily be used in other industries, such as construction, where electricians could "see" within the walls when running wiring.
"It's a heads-up display," Becker explained. "It's the plumber's, the repairman's and the fighter pilot's."
Wearable tech that monitors vital signs in real time might be a tool for fitness enthusiasts, but it can also be useful for industries like mining and emergency first responders.
"Wearable technology could potentially save the field service industry alone $1 billion."
At CES, OMsignal introduced an undershirt that tracks everything from the wearer's pulse and EKG to their breathing in real time.
"Our view of the ultimate wearable is the thing you've been wearing all of your life: clothing," said OMsignal's CEO and co-founder Stephane Marceau. That's the sort of technology that can be especially useful in a dangerous or disastrous situation.
"Think of a firefighter wearing a device like that," said McIntyre. "You can tell if that person is in trouble, and if communication goes out, you can track them through other means. First responders are already looking at those types of devices."
Wearable tech in business could make the lives of consumers more efficient as well. The retail world is increasingly using wireless headsets and wearable displays on their wrists, or on lanyards around their necks, so they can get information quickly without having to rely on a fixed terminal. That not only allows the consumer buy the product and get on their way, it reduces the chance of them abandoning the purchase when they're left alone.
The increased use of wearable tech in business does come with a new set of privacy concerns, though.
Employers will be able to monitor workers even more closely—and could conceivably have access to medical information they don't today. Similarly, McIntyre noted that just as insurance companies currently offer lower auto rates to customers willing to install tracking devices in their vehicle, they could offer a similar program for access to your health-monitoring devices.
Wearable tech could even alert your boss to when you're goofing off or cutting corners.
"What is wearable tech?" posed Becker. "It could be a piece of technology on a vacuum cleaner so now I know if the cleaning crew actually cleaned the floor they say they did. It's a term that's hard to quantify at this point, and that's part of what makes it so interesting."
—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com