Wearable computing is an emerging technology that’s affecting both the consumer and enterprise space. Long the domain of science fiction, wearable devices are slowly reaching the mass market, with the most recent high-profile example coming in the form of Google Glass, a pair of glasses augmented with a small display and what amounts to a tiny computer complete with wireless networking and GPS functionality. While Glass seems the most futuristic, there is also a rapidly expanding segment of wearable computing that embeds small sensors on one’s person or immediate environment.

The connected sensor revolution

As I write this, a Fitbit fitness device sits in my pocket. About the size of a USB memory stick, the device uses a tiny gyroscope and altimeter to track how many steps I take and stairs I climb during the day. While these functions are available in a common pedometer, the power of the Fitbit is that it also includes low-power Bluetooth networking and quietly exchanges data with my iPhone on a regular basis. I can view calorie consumption, set goals, and share achievements with friends, and also adjust settings that are then transmitted to the device.

The Fitbit is representative of the emerging “connected sensor” in that it’s small, cheap, and serves as a data collection point that leverages the power of a larger network to perform more complex analysis and reporting. In the enterprise space, several companies are embedding Fitbit-like sensors into common workplace objects. A small sensor in an office chair can report its occupancy rate, allowing reporting on how meeting space is used. While seemingly rudimentary, this type of data could drive a decision to split large conference rooms into smaller spaces or guide planning on a new office space. In more advanced cases, RTLS (Real-Time Location Systems) use GPS and local networks to plot the location of the object to which they are tagged. This could allow hospitals to track nurse rounds, or a warehouse to track how forklifts move through the building, generating opportunities for improved efficiency.

Whether these devices use a mobile phone or communicate directly via WiFi, nearly ubiquitous wireless networks make data gathering from a connected sensor possible, allowing for active reporting from the sensor rather than waiting for a synchronization process or for a sensor to pass a data collection point. Real-time, bi-directional sensor capabilities are finally approaching commodity price points.

The wearable computer

As opposed to tiny sensors that remain largely out of view, the more obvious result of wearable computing is what amounts to tiny mobile computers with novel display technologies and user interfaces. At its core, Google Glass is nothing more than a low-end mobile phone in terms of processing, memory, and connectivity capabilities. The device leverages a mobile phone or WiFi network for connectivity and from a specifications standpoint is largely unimpressive. The obvious revolution with Glass is putting a display directly in the user’s field of view and creating a user interface based on voice, gestures, and taps of the glasses’ frame.

The other area of wearable computing that is receiving a great deal of attention is the lowly wristwatch. After the success of the Pebble Smartwatch, a device that largely acts as a secondary display for a mobile phone, heavyweights like Apple, Sony, and Samsung are rumored to have watch-sized devices in the works. In the past I’ve mentioned my Motorola MOTOACTV fitness watch, which is essentially an Android-powered computer with WiFi, GPS, and touch-sensitive display in a watch-sized device. While the watch interface is a bit more traditional than something like Glass, with the right applications and connectivity it could generate revolutionary functionality.

Preparing the enterprise for wearable computing

Outside the direct applications of connected sensors, company-issued Google Glass or smart watches are likely several years off. However, there are areas in which your enterprise can prepare immediately for wearable computing. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the volume of data these devices will produce. IT has a tradition of collecting data first and determining their use second, resulting in unwieldy data hoards that produce little value. Additionally, each of these devices represents a potential node on your network that may require monitoring and management.

Like tablets and smartphones, perhaps the easiest way to get your feet wet with wearable computing is to identify tech-savvy employees who are already using devices like the Pebble Smartwatch or a connected sensor-type device, and provide company-sanctioned time to experiment with the devices and report their findings. Not only will this bring your leadership team up to speed on this emerging sector, but it will also provide some free staff development. While wearable computers are only now leaving the domain of science fiction, and it will likely be several years before the majority of your staff are sporting something like Google Glass, this is a technology worth watching.