Fashion and technology have always had strong parallels. For every group of tech-savvy fans lining up to buy the latest gadget revealed at a big tech show, there is a collection of fashionable cohorts ready to wear the creations that have just arrived off the catwalk.
Wearable technology has wrapped these two industries into one, creating an immense level of excitement and expectation across both industries. However, do these devices have the potential for positive application within the workplace? Or are they simply a well-designed distraction?
What in the world are wearables?
Wearable technology, often shortened to wearables, is defined in a joint University of California and University of Toronto study as small devices that can be attached to the body and process a significant amount of computational function. These can be “clothing, recognizable personal accessories (e.g., glasses, contact lenses, watches) or additional devices (e.g., pocket device to count steps)”.
Many wearables can collect, store and process information of a user, putting them under the Internet of Things family. Measurements include pulse, steps taken, eye movement and even advanced medical figures such as skin hydration and breathing patterns. Google glass, the Apple watch, Occulus Rift and the Fitbit are just some of the examples of products that are advancing the way we work, exercise and interact with the world around us.
In 2019, IDC predicts that shipments of wearable will reach 126.1 million units, a 45 per cent increase from the number of shipments in 2014. Research Manager of IDC's Wearables team Ramon Llamas shared his insights regarding the future market shifts of these devices.
"The price of these fitness bands have come down so significantly in some markets that smartphone OEMs are now bundling them with smartphones at little cost. Meanwhile, the market is quickly shifting toward higher-priced devices that offer greater functionality.”
Can we balance form and function?
Just like choosing a new computer, car or suit, how it works is often as important as how it looks. Deepika Raj and Jung Ha-Brookshire of the University of Missouri explored the common breakdown in communication between technical engineers and designers who often clash in building a wearable device.
“It is important for wearable technology companies to find ways to improve collaboration among the different disciplines. Otherwise, products can ultimately suffer if one or more sides are not effectively addressed," said Raj.
Despite the pressure of owning a trendy, sleek accessory, having a reliable device should be the priority for employees. This means a piece of technology that gives clear data, is durable, fits well and has good connectivity with other devices.
In the not-too-distant future, wearables may become very minimal and more close-fitting than ever seen before. A team based at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has developed a set of stretchy circuits that adhere to the skin in a similar fashion to a temporary tattoo, allowing even closer monitoring and collection.
Although its use is intended for medical contexts, it demonstrates how invisible these devices can be and that looks may not be such a factor in the future.
How does it affect the workplace?
Technology’s fundamental raison d'etre is to make humans’ lives easier and more enjoyable. Wearables are proving to meet this criteria, as a survey from Rackspace found that British companies who implemented these technologies saw an average 8.5 per cent increase in productivity and a 3.5 per cent increase in job satisfaction.
The ability for employees to self-manage their habits and behaviour can lead to a better optimization of their time and is an often enjoyable experience as well. Employees can understand what their ideal working hours are, how their sleep patterns affect their day or even how much exercise they are getting.
However, there are fears of loss of security and privacy when wearables are applied as a third-party monitoring tool. Chris Brauer, Director of Innovation at Goldsmiths, stated that wearbales can create a very oppressive environment in an August 2015 Bloomberg Technology article.
"It can be seen as an intrusive surveillance tool rather than something that improves productivity or performance," he said.
Organisations need to ensure they are treading the line carefully between optimising their employees’ output and becoming too overbearing in overseeing sensitive measures. Allowing freedom for individuals to self-manage should be the aim when creating wearables polices or programmes.
How quickly will NZ adapt?
Like most tech trends, many companies are all words, no trousers when it comes to wearable technology and other devices in the IoT spectrum.
According to ISACA’s most recent IT Risk/Reward Barometer, only 15 per cent of companies across the globe were certain that they had policies in place to ensure security in employee-owned wearable devices. However Australian and New Zealand companies are more likely to have policies in place regarding wearables.
With the global cybersecurity landscape only becoming more threatening, it is important for companies to ensure their measures are airtight, up to date and inclusive of all devices in the organisations’ network. It only takes one weak point in the system to expose an organisation’s information to unsavoury characters.
When it comes to the benefits these devices offer, the opinion remains neutral. Out of the Australian and New Zealand business people surveyed, 40 per cent were unsure of the potential impact. Globally, 30 per cent were also uncertain.
However, with 32 per cent seeing clear benefits of employees using wearable technology, it is definitely something worth exploring. Wearable technology is only getting more popular and now may be the time to start getting into fashion.