PA Consulting: Businesses should explore wearables

07 August 2014 4 min. read
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From digital wrist bands and smart watches to intelligent skin patches and head-mounted displays, this is the year of wearable technology. But while much attention has focused on consumer applications, the potential of these devices for the business world has been largely overlooked.

Many companies believe it could be up to five years before wearable technology will be mature enough for enterprise applications. They are missing a huge opportunity to innovate and get ahead – powerful apps are being created today that improve business operations and enhance customer experience. Companies that are not seriously experimenting with this technology run the risk of being left behind by their more innovative rivals.

The secret of success is to look for immediate return on investment. Rather than going for big implementations and complex scenarios, start small and identify specific areas where wearable technology could be helpful. The power of wearable technology is not about a single device but an ecosystem of devices that can be interconnected in the enterprise world. For many, the moment of realisation came when the Google Glass operating system became compatible with iBeacon, Apple’s micro-location system.

This showed that knowing the precise indoor location of someone wearing a head-mounted display, and being able to link that person to a company’s back-end enterprise resource processing system, had many applications. Field engineers, for example, can receive asset information about the equipment they are looking at directly on their head-mounted displays. Supermarket staff can walk down chiller aisles and check at a glance that all fridge temperatures are correct. Warehouse staff can find out which items are stored on pallets they are looking at.

The possibilities are even more exciting when you add pictures, diagrams and step-by-step instructions in audio, video and text. These let the hands-free wearer be guided on what to do next and speak commands to ask questions, perform searches, activate and navigate.

Such functionality is ideal for jobs with a clear workflow and specific tasks that need to be followed in a set order, from an apprentice chef making burritos in a Mexican restaurant to quality control in a factory. It can be used by site engineers and for repairs where experts are not available and people doing jobs need to document their work and check that it is correct.

To explore wearable technology applications, PA Consulting Group has run more than 60 workshops worldwide across industries including manufacturing, retail, healthcare and utilities. We have also worked on specific projects, for example with a leading UK supermarket chain. All major supermarkets are under contractual obligations to suppliers as to how their goods are displayed on the shelf. These agreements cover everything from pricing to the location and size of the display.

Manually checking compliance is a huge time consuming paper-based task, which is prone to error. Failure to comply with contractual obligations can result in big financial penalties, so supermarkets need to get it right. The supermarket application we developed lets a member of staff wearing an iBeacon-enabled Google Glass headset see an image of what the shelf in view should look like. An on-screen pointer can be used to select further information, such as whether stock is in the warehouse.

If more supplies are needed, the user can tap on Glass and notify a colleague wearing a smart watch, who can then rectify the problem and send a notification that this has been done.

We also created an application for click-and-collect. This uses iBeacon to tell warehouse staff via their smart watches when specific customers arrive at the car park to collect their shopping, ordered in advance. This enables staff to schedule collection and reduce customer waiting time.

In health, the convergence of developments in battery, sensor and adhesive technologies is creating an innovation tipping point. Body-wearable devices with rich functionality are becoming small, cheap and durable enough to be minimally intrusive to the patient. At PA, we created an unobtrusive device that is about the same size as a 10-pence piece but is powerful enough to remotely monitor a patient’s vital signs and check that they have taken their medication. The technology costs less than a dollar to make, but it could enable healthcare providers to deliver continuous care.

Earlier this month, Google and Novartis announced a partnership to jointly develop a high-tech contact lens that will help diabetics track their blood sugar levels by measuring glucose in eye fluid and communicating the data to a mobile device.

US-based Zephyr Technology has developed a body patch that transmits patients’ vital signs such as heart and respiration rate, electrocardiogram and positional and activity information. Many more body patch developments are on the way.

These are so widespread that within a few years you will feel naked if you are not wearing technology. Wearable technology is here to stay, and is only going to get better. Manufacturers are working on improved design, cameras and battery life. Devices are getting cheaper and will increase in number – the key element is how you make use of them. Experiment now and you’ll be creating competitive advantage for your business. 

An article from Matteo Aliberti, consultant at PA Consulting Group and an expert in wearable technology. This article was posted earlier in The Financial Times.