Mobile Next.0: Five business scenarios for the wearable, augmented-reality era

Wearable computing is coming, and combined with augmented-reality apps, it could bring some benefits for the enterprise

As mobile computing evolves, two of the most interesting developments now emerging are wearable devices and augmented-reality applications. And if mobile computing has taught us anything, it's that the old consumer/enterprise technology divide is disappearing. If users buy a device that they can use for business, they will use it for business. With that in mind, I want to review five business scenarios that are compelling for the combination of wearables and AR.

First, though, it seems like a good idea to consider the likelihood of wearables and AR becoming broadly adopted at all. We can't know this, of course, but there's good reason to believe that the trajectory of mobile computing over the past decade will carry over to wearables and AR.

That's because wearables and AR will extend the great computing transformation that has defined the last several decades, in which computing has continually moved closer and closer to the specific point where work gets done. PCs moved computing from the data center to the front office and then to users' desktops. The laptop, smartphone and tablet brought computing to our fingertips, wherever they might be.

Wearables take this one step further by making computing devices even more lightweight, portable, unobtrusive and instantaneous. They open new modes of operation, from continual sensing and measurement to natural language. I don't think it's outrageous to foresee countless enterprise end users embracing these sorts of devices in their search for more efficient business processes, and perhaps even the opportunity to completely reinvent and redesign both business processes and business models.

The market trends are clear. According to Canalys, smartphone shipments overtook those for PCs back in 2011 (488 million smartphones vs. 415 million PCs). Tablets have widened the gap. Today's mobile elite typically bring three or more mobile devices to work, and tomorrow's mobile elite may well add one or two wearables to the mix as well. Transparency Market Research predicts that the global wearable technology market will grow from $750 million in 2012 to $5.8 billion by 2018, a CAGR of 40.8%. (Wearables include devices such as smartwatches, smart glasses and heads-up displays, but also include wearable sensors and monitors. In this article, I am primarily thinking of wearable glasses, but many of the scenarios I will discuss hold equally true for some of the other wearables as well.)

Meanwhile, AR apps have found early traction on smartphones. Already, we can use such apps to find restaurants, subway stations, hotels, ATMs, Wi-Fi hotspots and more, and we can even augment our driving and take measurements of physical objects. But one reason I've thrown AR apps together with wearable devices in this article is that , when combined, the utility of AR apps will soar, since they can be accessed more rapidly while being less distracting and obtrusive. Markets and Markets predicts that the global augmented reality applications market will grow from $692 million in 2013 to $5.2 billion by 2016, a growth curve similar to that of the wearable technology market.

And now to business. The simple fact that wearable devices are hands-free gives them a distinct advantage over smartphones and tablets and, when coupled with AR applications, opens up a number of interesting application scenarios across industries as diverse as retail, financial services, healthcare, transportation and government. Here are five:

Understanding and navigating the physical environment. As I've already noted, AR apps that help us find things will increase their utility when they are incorporated into wearable devices. As wearables move from the early adopter to the early mainstream in the next few years, businesses should think about how AR apps could help customers find their stores, navigate their large facilities, determine whether a product is in stock, check wait times, report product issues and more.

Providing detailed guidance for complex manual tasks. Intricate manual tasks such as inspection, maintenance and repair within field service can be augmented on smart glasses with heads-up displays of online instruction manuals, graphical guides or other pertinent information. This sort of assistance can be extended even to surgical procedures, not to mention giving nurses and other healthcare providers relevant patient data in real time. Logistics is another area with great potential, as highlighted in Jonny Evans' recent blog, where he sees promise for wearables in delivery operations. In addition, I see potential within large warehouses, where workers need guidance finding, picking and shipping products from inventory.

Supporting military and intelligence operations. Wearable devices with heads-up displays found early adoption in the military, where they help shorten the time from intent to action. The U.S. military, as part of its Soldier Centric Imaging via Computational Cameras (SCENICC) initiative, is now exploring AR contact lenses with information such as color imaging and video provided directly to the wearer via the lens. It will be interesting to see when these innovations find their way into the business and consumer worlds.

Enhancing the shopping experience. In retail, AR technology has already made it possible for phones to act like barcode scanners and offer up extra product information, reviews and price comparisons. With wearable devices, AR apps can offer the same kinds of functionality but in a far more convenient manner, so consumers can continue to pick up and handle items while doing their online research hands-free. Retail-focused AR companies have already produced virtual dressing rooms for trying on clothing at home, and it's likely that wearable glasses will simplify that and bring it to the showroom as well.

Facilitating instant information and collaboration. The main consumer scenario is that users will benefit from instant content and collaboration. Wearable devices will make it easier to access news and weather, get updates on flight status, send and reply to messages, dictate email, get on-screen translation, take photos and video clips, and videoconference so they can see what their collaborators are looking at. The main objection has been that wearable glasses will promote stealth photographing and videotaping, though there is also concern among government agencies, such as the U.K. Department of Transportation, that wearable glasses will be a distraction when driving. As for the enterprise, the ease of access that wearable devices will provide could be used to enhance existing mobile- and social-enabled applications to improve employees' productivity, information-sharing and collaboration.

What makes wearable devices so compelling for the enterprise is that they represent an elegant, yet powerful, integration platform for end users where the convergence of disruptive trends such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud can all come together to truly revolutionalize the end-user experience. Smartphones and tablets helped to start this convergence from the end-user perspective, and wearables will help to bring it even closer to fruition.

Nicholas D. Evans leads the Strategic Innovation Program for Unisys and was one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2009. He can be reached at nicholas.evans@unisys.com.

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