Linking physical items to the Internet is being hailed as the next game changer in technology.
Often referred to as the Internet of Things, the phenomenon means sensors, connectivity and the heft of the Web can be extended well beyond mere phones and other intended devices into more everyday items.
Canalys, a global market research firm, predicts wearable technology, in particular, will explode this year to the tune of 17 million wearable bands shipped. Its latest forecast puts 2014 as the year when wearables become a “key consumer technology.”
Yet, in spite of all of this projected growth and interest from consumers in everything from fitness bands to smart wrist watches to Google Glass — or Google Glass-like hardware — the government may not be so quick to jump on board.
Frank Schloendorn, director of quality assurance at MaaS360 by Fiberlink, a mobile company recently purchased by IBM, has been an early adopter of wearables and someone who tracks the marketplace for this emerging field. He says government agencies, like the business sector overall, are going to face security and management obstacles that will prevent them from embracing the advent of wearables, at least immediately.
“It’s not technology that’s really enterprise-ready yet,“ he says. “There’s not a consolidated system or way to manage it.”
Laptops and smartphones, on the other hand, are now advanced enough an account manager or head of an organization would maintain the security and ultimate control over all of its network of devices. Wearables are not at that point, though they likely will be a few years from now.
For instance, if a government worker were using Google Glass, that person’s supervisor would have no way to monitor or — worst-case scenario — disable the Glass. Someone not wearing the eyepiece wouldn’t even be able to know for certain if the device was on or to switch it off in a pinch, hence proving privacy challenges.
“There’s no central control,” Schloendorn says. “For companies, especially those where security is paramount, they’d have to treat it like a physical camera that the operator shuts on or off. So, if there was any doubt about recording, the user wouldn’t be allowed in.”
Currently, the market is also incredibly fragmented with a handful of major players and as many operating systems represented. Standardization is even more of a challenge when Sony, Samsung, Google and others are wearable vendors. Google has announced its new platform for Android. So, eventually that could fit the standardization bill, Schloendorn says.
Overall, when it comes to wearable technology, Schloendorn anticipates fitness bands will be the first casualty of the totality of wearable products, as the devices go away because they’re performing too specific of a task.
“Once the iPhone came out and people got iPhones, they didn’t really need an iPod anymore,” he says. “It’s just like that.”
Instead, the wearable technologies that will persist and keep surging in popularity will fall into two major categories: headsets in the vein of Google Glass and smart watches. The smart watches are ideal for passive collection of data. Some time, not too far into the future, there will be devices that are more sophisticated versions of Life Alert systems. The devices will track a person’s vitals constantly and let a physician or medical professional know, in real time, if there’s a problem or dip in the numbers.
“It’s combining all information into a single device,” Schloendorn says, “being able to do everything comprehensively and easily. That’s where we’re headed.”
This sort of application, where the user does not have to actively do anything and is more of a conduit for information, is well suited for the health care or medical industries.
Google Glass or other eyewear and headset-style wearables are best for users that would derive a benefit from going hands-free. In this wearable space, Schloendorn envisions practical usages for law enforcement, first responders and other federal agencies. Right now, one of the more innovative Glass apps, Word Lens, translates road signs into different languages so a nonnative speaker can understand signage while driving, yet keep both hands on the wheel. It shows the potential for what can be done. For instance, Schloendorn could imagine situations in which parking officials could use a device to scan vehicle license plates while using their hands to document their findings.
And already, development companies that work with governmental departments are tinkering around with Glass to test how the hands-free nature could help during an emergency.
But the enduring hurdle for agencies themselves is that these wearable units are designed with individuals in mind, much more so than organizations who would want to keep tabs on each set or device.
Early adopters of wearable tech tend to be the usual sort of early adopters for mobile and web products: young. Because wearable tech is still coming into its own, the motivation is largely about trying out what’s possible, getting in on the ground floor of an emerging development.
Larger, more established companies will follow in those footsteps, with some of their individual employees tapping into the technology sooner than the formal organizations do.
“There’s the wow or the cool factor for them,” Schloendorn says. “So far, I don’t see it as being a case of ‘I need it because it’ll help my day-to-day work life be better.’”