From The Editor | January 31, 2018

What Issues Are Preventing The Broader Adoption Of Wearable Technology?

A conversation with Spencer Gisser, Research Associate, Enterprise Mobility & Connected Devices at VDC Research

Wearable Technology Field Service

Spencer Gisser, Research Associate, Enterprise Mobility & Connected Devices at VDC Research joins us to discuss his recent research on wearable technology and its impact on field service.

Nicastro: Tell us a little about yourself and the research you are currently conducting.

Gisser: I am a Research Associate in VDC Research’s Enterprise Mobility and Connected Devices Practice. I am currently authoring a report on the state of wearables in the enterprise. This report will cover a wide range of wearable form factors and use cases, focusing on which enterprise workflows align best with wearable technology and how we see the opportunity unfolding – both from a technology maturity perspective as well as commercial opportunity. We are looking at a wide range of wearable form factors and associated technologies, including smart glasses, smart watches, body cameras, wrist and belt mounted computers, and the integration of voice technology, image capture, and AR/VR applications. This report is scheduled to publish in mid to late February, 2018.

In addition, I authored a report in 2017 covering the intersection of mobile technologies and field services which also address wearable adoption among service technicians.

Nicastro: How would you characterize the use of wearable technology to support field service applications and workflows today?

Gisser: Field service is proving key to wearable adoption – in particular smart glasses and heads up displays. While the technology still has some growing up to do, we are finding enterprise really gravitating towards the idea of hands-free computing. Be it for worker safety or remote guidance for complex maintenance and repair processes, organizations are beginning to realize real and quantifiable benefits from these solutions. More specifically, anything with complex machinery, for example, is fertile ground for smart glass adoption. Beyond that, though, field service organizations are only beginning to understand the benefits that smart glasses and other wearable technologies can provide. Much like the benefits realized from innovations like automatic identification technologies or touch-based interfaces, human factors advances made possible by wearable technologies will take time to realize.

Nicastro: What are the leading field service use cases that are driving investments in wearable solutions today? How do you see plans evolving?

Gisser: That’s a great question because the current use cases are foundational to this technology’s future. These devices are solving a major problem that faces virtually every field service organization today: how to use experienced technicians who are moving out to help new technicians who are moving in.

There has been a major demographic shift in field services, and smart glasses let these organizations retain experienced technicians in support roles. Using remote assistance, these experienced technicians can see through the smart glasses of younger technicians in the field and can pass their knowledge to the next generation. Smart glasses are also valuable for field service when sophisticated machinery is involved, primarily in HVAC and telecommunications equipment. In these settings, efficiency gains are extremely important.

We are also seeing some interesting developments around the combination of location and wearable technologies. Smartwatches, for example, are being used by sanitation workers at a large airport to check into locations and verify that work is being performed and when it is being performed. 

Nicastro: What are the primary technical or commercial limitations preventing broader adoption of wearable technology?

Gisser: Issues remain numerous. While maturing, hardware limitations are far ranging with battery life perhaps topping the list. Especially for head-worn solutions such as smart glasses, battery life is such a huge issue because a battery lasting a full shift today will be too large to wear comfortably on one’s head. Some vendors will dispute this, but this is the feedback we have consistently received. Beyond battery life issues such as durability/ruggedness, hygiene (especially as many of these solutions will be shared and worn by many different workers), field of view (for mixed reality headsets), and impact of ambient light on display viewability are among the most prevalent performance barriers. Beyond device capabilities, the issue of application viability cannot be ignored. Is the solution completely replacing the need for alternate modes of computing and communication, or does it represent an augmentation to an existing solution? Are field service applications and workflows compliant with wearable solutions, or are completely customized solutions required? These are but some of the challenges enterprises face.

Although wearables have been beginning to prove their value in many use cases – such as time to repair, customer satisfaction, worker safety, error reduction, and other metrics – theses benefits have not yet been “established” in the minds of many field service organizations, and this is largely an education issue. When it comes to servicing capital-intensive and complex machinery, for example, smart glasses can deliver ROI in an incredibly short length of time, and this message needs to get out to field service organizations.

Then there are issues in communicating other capabilities that smart glasses can deliver. Most field service organizations don’t know that AR-powered remote assistance can dramatically cut down training time, that monocular smart glasses offer hands-free, tablet-like functionality for a low cost, or that there are truly rugged solutions that can function safely in explosive or high-voltage environments.

Nicastro: What about AR/VR and mixed reality solutions? How ready are these technologies for adoption? Where is interest greatest?

Gisser: AR/VR and mixed reality solutions similarly have the potential to provide enormous benefits for the organizations that use them. With the ability to indicate every action a technician needs to perform step-by-step, these devices can dramatically cut down on the time it takes to service complex equipment. Additionally, using IoT data to provide visualizations of machine states allows technicians to quickly diagnose problems by visually examining the VR representation of the given machinery. As one might expect, today we see VR more aligned with worker training applications while AR and mixed reality solutions present more viable in-field use cases. The cost of adoption and maturity of applications and issues such as field of view will keep these technologies mostly on the sidelines in the near terms. However, over the next 2-3 years we expect the technology to migrate from test labs to real world scenarios.

Nicastro: What recommendations would you have for any organization considering wearable solutions for their workplaces?

Gisser: The first and most important step is to get educated as to the benefits that wearable solutions can provide and also what their limitations are. As with many emerging technologies, early adopters/evaluators are generally very open to sharing experiences and lessons learned. There are several fantastic conferences dedicated specifically to enterprise wearable solutions that are a must attend for any organizations serious about committing resources. That said, it is important to approach this with an open and inquisitive mind – there is no perfect solution and a fair amount of misinformation can cloud opinions.

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