A few short years ago, wearables were hailed as the latest technology with staying power, sure to change everyone's daily lives. But just a few short years later, people have started asking, does the Apple Watch really do much?
Market trends echo these sentiments. In 2016, smartwatch sales hit a plateau with just under 16% of U.S. adults regularly using wearable devices. In addition, leading players like Pebble completely shuttered their businesses. It begs the question:
Are wearables dead?
Those of a certain generation might think back to the secret agent comedy Get Smart, and the myriad of ridiculous places that concealed agent Maxwell Smart’s telephone. Among the 50 or so were his necktie, comb, shoe, belt, wallet, a handkerchief, a garden hose, and even a cheese sandwich. Some of the modern world’s “smart” devices probably seem just as far-fetched.
But do wearables deserve another look? More importantly, do wearables still hold promise in field service? We think so.
In field service, wearables could potentially monitor and improve technician health and communication while driving. They could help pinpoint the location of technicians on their way to or from a service appointment. And wearable virtual reality (VR) goggles can even lead technicians through a troubleshooting routine or guide them to fix a broken system.
But is that enough? Will wearables survive another year? Will they be viable in the world of field service?
Are Wearables Truly Dying a Slow Death?
At first glance, it may seem the consumer market is dying. One of its earliest smartwatch innovators—Pebble—shut its doors last December after being acquired by Fitbit. And Fitbit posted lower than expected earnings in 2016, prompting a layoff.
But it's not all doom and gloom. According to IDC, nearly 98 million wearable devices shipped in 2016, and over half were fitness trackers. Plus, IDC projects over 124 million wearables to sell in 2017, with 57 million of them in the form of fitness trackers.
Some analysts say consumers see the Fitbit and other health trackers as redundant because smartphones provide many of the same basic functions (tracking steps and distance covered). Ramon Llamas, research manager of wearables and mobile phones at IDC, says these are all signs the market is maturing. He’s convinced consumers are interested in wearables and want to see more options.
So, what does that mean for field service?
Wearables as a Lifeline for Field Service
It may be a mistake to tie the fate of wearables in the business world to what we are seeing in the consumer market. Wearables actually saw strong uptake last year in other markets, including the medical and sports industries. This is a natural fit, since these sectors can largely apply wearables as initially designed for the consumer market (to track health and fitness). This may help explain why research firm Tractica predicts more than 66 million wearable devices will be shipped yearly for use in enterprise and industrial environments by 2021.
Wearables that enable hands-free communication and better task completion could make a mark on field service. Here are three categories with significant promise:
Field personnel often have their hands full…literally. Whether they are driving a vehicle, holding tools, or climbing a ladder, they can’t be distracted. That’s one reason wearables such as smart watches are so appealing.
Imagine the possibilities. A field technician on a pole or on the side of a building can call a remote expert for help diagnosing the situation—without holding onto a cell phone. Or they could use a voice command to access a knowledge base of information. The tech could even log the service details by voice in the moment, making sure all records are updated immediately and accurately.
The benefits of wearable watches are clear—techs stay focused on the task at hand while taking care of their calls more efficiently. The result? Higher first-time completion rates, faster and better service resolutions, and higher customer satisfaction.
At the same time, ready access to in-the-moment information can help company leaders better identify trending issues and prioritize responses. For example, if multiple technicians report back on the same issue with a newly launched piece of equipment, management can take immediate measures to proactively address the problem.
With smart clothing that resembles everyday wear, smartwear is a realistic possibility in field service.
Consider a smart jacket created by Google in partnership with Levi’s. Conductive fibers allow the wearer to connect to and control their smartphone by using their cuff like a touchscreen. Interacting with their smartphones while on call can expose field techs to potential hazards by distracting them from the task at hand. These dangers may reduce if instead they could swipe their jacket cuff to use their phone.
There's also smart clothing that can read temperature and other environmental factors. A smart vest or jacket with this capability could help technicians gauge the environmental factors that might be contributing to a system problem or failure. In addition to quickly and accurately pinpointing the cause, such clothing would eliminate the need to carry additional equipment.
Smart headwear might be the most natural choice of wearable for those in field service. After all, many technicians already wear helmets or other head coverings as part of their uniforms.
Smart hats in a range of styles are already in use in industries like trucking and mining. Some can monitor for signs of fatigue and send alerts to those in risky situations or operating sensitive machinery.
Similarly, a headset that incorporates virtual reality along with a camera and communications capabilities can provide technicians with access to data and remote expertise. Imagine a technician is dispatched in the middle of winter to isolate a problem with a buried telecommunications line. Using the headset—which overlays information about the line’s location and relevant physical landmarks—the tech could literally look beyond the snow to identify the right section of cable and even locate the nearest entryway to access the cable.
Once underground, whatever the tech is seeing would be displayed back at headquarters so the remote expert could provide in-the-moment insights and suggestions. Moreover, the headset could overlay diagrams directly onto the cable, providing the on-site tech with clear guidance on how to handle the issue.
Though many of these wearables are still in their infancy, it’s easy to see their potential. It’s just a matter of time until they either get laughed off as the equivalent of Get Smart gimmicks or prove their merits and viability in the real world.
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