Wearable tech isn’t as new as we might think.
In 2004, fashion design label CuteCircuit introduced the Bluetooth-connected HugShirt at the CyberArt Festival in Bilbao, Spain. As the name implies, it’s a garment designed to send hugs over a distance. Four years later, designer Ilya Friedman created a Bluetooth headset in the form of stylish earrings.
But it was the Apple Watch, which debuted in April 2015 (seems longer ago than that, doesn’t it?) that truly drove the expansion of wearables. Widely panned when it was first introduced, it accounted for $1 billion in revenues in its first quarter.
According to industry analyst CCS Insight’s Wearables Forecast, Worldwide, 2015, the wearables market—encompassing smartwatches, fitness trackers, augmented and virtual reality (VR) headsets, wearable cameras, and more—should hit $14 billion in 2016. According to the report, it’s likely to grow to $34.2 billion by 2020, or, in material terms, from 84 million units shipped in 2015 to some 245 million in 2019. Analyst firm Market by Market’s Wearable Technology Market by Product report, published in December 2015, pegs the market at $31.27 billion by 2020. Smart watches, which should total about $6.3 billion in sales in 2016, will remain the wearables industry’s 800-pound gorilla.
Channeling the power of wearables
So what does the burgeoning wearables market mean for small business?
“As with any viable trend, it’s about increasing productivity and efficiency, wherever possible,” says Anita Campbell, CEO at Small Business Trends, an information portal geared to small business. “Wearables are the ultimate in ‘hands free.’ Small business owners and their staff are out and about. What better way to get more productivity, than by having both hands available when performing some task? You can do things faster and easier, without fumbling around holding a phone or tablet in one hand. Add to that the better data intelligence and process efficiency that wearables can bring by transmitting data wirelessly, and it's a no brainer. They have the potential to improve communications, collaboration, customer service, and day-to-day operations in any number of ways.”
- Internal communications. Devices and wearables that allow for team communications and time tracking are becoming more available and affordable. “For example, VR headsets for virtual meetings from companies like Rumii can bring an entirely new element to collaboration and team meetings, helping people better visualize concepts and innovations,” notes Amber Osborne, chief marketing officer at Meshfire, a social community management firm based in Seattle.
- Enhancing the customer experience. If you already have web-based and mobile products, you have a tremendous opportunity to do more for your client base. Patrick notes that consumers often research products on a company’s website, use a mobile app to check prices or do more research on the go, and then receive location-based notifications from a smartwatch. “Sickweather is an example of a company that’s used wearables to improve the customer experience,” says Sarah Patrick, senior content developer and marketer at Clutch, a B2B ratings and reviews firm in Washington, D.C.. Patrick has researched and reported extensively on wearables. “It offers sickness forecasting and mapping by scanning social networks for illness indicators and predicting the chance of sickness in different locations. It started off as a mobile platform and extended to wearables in June 2014. With its wearable app, Sickweather was able to offer more features to help people take steps to avoid illness, such as a handwashing timer.”
- Bolstering brand loyalty. What better way to stay top-of-mind with consumers than being directly on their person? Patrick points to a Canadian restaurant chain, Pizza Pizza, as an example. While the chain allows customers to order via in-house, online, on the phone, or from a tablet or mobile phone, it also has a wearable app with a fun twist: The delivery countdown makes waiting for pizza a game. And it features a customized quick menu for people who have a hankering for the same pie every time. That means real quality time spent with the brand during every order.
- MARKETING—especially local. In recent blog post, Jess Butcher, co-founder and CMO at VR firm Blippar, made the case for true, just-in-time local marketing. “We see wearables increasingly harnessing sophisticated image recognition to drive a brand-new visual browsing behavior within two to three years,” she wrote. “Wearers will be able to ‘look’ at the physical static world around them and instantly find out more, like where the nearest movie theater is playing that film; or they can book that restaurant table, translate that menu, locate that business on a map relative to their current position. Such applications are, by their nature, local and will provide huge opportunities for small and midsize businesses to put themselves in front of their consumers in a contextual, immediately relevant way.” For a small business to manage its metrics, it needs a comprehensive dashboard that can consolidate all of its most useful information into interactive visualizations. Simplifying your metrics game through a customizable and user-friendly dashboard is the key to making better business decisions.
In the bigger picture, consider “advertising displays, sales announcements, or other in-store amusements that will soon be possible with the pushing forward of augmented reality and wearable apps,” adds Ryan Stevens, business manager at Clutch. “I don’t see there being a need for a ton of proprietary technology, and retailers, for example, would likely be able to rely on the producers of the goods as another form of in-store advertisement. If you look back at Google Glass, a large reason it failed was because there weren’t related technologies or infrastructures in place to support their use or make their use practical in everyday life. Augmented reality apps and devices will help to fill that gap.”
A wide range of potential applications
While we’ve outlined several general areas in which wearables will offer a range of useful benefits, there will also be several advantages for companies in specific industries and verticals (e.g., retail, inventory-driven, healthcare—see the “Healthcare: A Pioneer in Wearables” sidebar to learn more—and many others).
“For any operation with a lot of inventory and/or warehousing needs, for example, hands-free scanning with wearables immediately scales productivity,” says Campbell. “Or consider a business that has delivery drivers or truck drivers. Some of the new wearable technology can monitor things such as speed driven, fuel consumption, and driver fatigue and can alert drivers as needed. In retail, we’re already seeing how wearables are speeding up the checkout process.”
As wearable technology grows, there will be a wide range of opportunities to put them to work for almost any business. Not just in terms of improving your own operations, but for the chance to create solutions geared to a rapidly expanding industry.
Healthcare: A Pioneer in Wearables
If you’re looking for a sector to take an example from regarding advances in wearables, look no further than healthcare. While wearable advances have largely taken place in the smartwatch sphere, healthcare and fitness applications have helped bring them to the next level.
Clutch’s Patrick, who discussed its unique application by Sickweather, points to a couple of other examples. “HealthTap uses wearable technology as the foundation for its health-management platform,” she notes. “It offers users virtual care from a network of doctors. And, it allows doctors to put an individual’s ailment or health problem in the context of personal data collected from fitness-tracking wearables. For a different twist, Ringly took the idea of fitness and lifestyle tracking from the wrist to the finger. The business offers rings and bracelets that track activity and communicate notifications received from a mobile device. Its tagline: ‘Jewelry, Meet Technology.’”
The next phase? “Soft” wearables. “There are several companies making inroads, especially in the healthcare and fitness area,” says Campbell. “Sensoria is a startup company that has pioneered putting sensors into clothing such as T-shirts and socks. Their items monitor the wearer’s physical condition. It’s seamless because you don’t have to wear a wrist monitor or anything like that—just the sports clothing you would otherwise wear. It also puts the monitors closer to the physical part of the body being monitored, for more accurate and thorough monitoring of physical performance.”
What makes healthcare and fitness such a great fit for wearables? Because the sector has such widespread application. “Although the primary function of fitness wearables initially was to track activity, they transitioned to play a large role as lifestyle devices,” Patrick notes. “They put the data collected in a context that’s unique to the person using them, which means that anyone can potentially benefit from their use.”