‘Wearable’ Tech Toys Will Grow Up to Change Everything

Knowledge is power; tech ‘toys’ are just another way to use it.

Sales of tablets and other small form-factors are already bleeding the life out of the market for traditional PCs, as well as flooding the enterprise through wide-open BYOD programs.

Now wearable computers threaten to break out from the margins of the barely practical and into the mainstream, according to a report published by market research firm Berg Insight Oct. 10.

Throughout 2012, those wanting technology to fill more than a pocket or backpack bought 8.3 million smart glasses, smart watches and wearable fitness trackers worldwide. The debut of smart watches from Samsung, Apple (rumored), Sony and Microsoft, among others, will drive growth in sales of wearable computers at a compound annual rate of 50.6 percent through 2017, during which another 64 million will be sold, according to the Berg report.

Sixty four million is a trifle compared with the 227 million tablets IDC predicts will be sold during 2013, or the 1 billion smartphones that will fly off shelves and into pockets, puddles and the dark spots between couch cushions during this year.

For the next few years the market for wearables will continue to consist mostly of sports- and health-related devices, even in 2018, when sales will grow to as much as $30 billion compared to $9 billion in 2013, according to financial analyst Shane Walker at IHS Global Insights.

This is the future: smart eyeglasses or contact lenses that could act as heads-up-displays. Touch screens, haptic and voice controls built into clothing, jewelry, temporary tattoos or stick-on appliques that could replace scrunch-over-the-smartphone thumb-typing, not to mention cube-bound mouse-and-keyboard work.

Walker predicts growth areas for wearable electronics during the next several years will continue to revolve around health sensors and automated health-maintenance systems that could end up reducing the cost of health care for chronic conditions, including diabetes, by using wearable sensors and telematics to monitor the physical condition of patients, replace hospital stays and reduce the need for human caregivers, according to IHS.

That doesn’t mean they’re not becoming serious computing devices, or that they won’t cause changes even more dramatic than those caused by smartphones and tablets. Shrinking circuits, metamaterials, next-generation batteries or environmental power sources (solar, broadcast power, kinetic, etc.) will eventually make wearables useful for longer than it takes to walk from the charger to the door. They’ll become the interface of choice for anyone on the move, but won’t replace won’t replace keyboards and physical, tote-able tablet-like monitors or other gear that are better suited to a workplace, especially for time spent sitting in one place and working for hours at a time.

Instead, wearables will become very smart, very mobile peripherals, connected to a tiny, efficient, secure computing device that fits in a pocket and provides all the compute- and communications an end user needs. Every other device, network, pool of data or application an end user needs (wearable or not) will become peripheral to that phone and have to connect to it.

That personal computing hub will become the platform on which everything in IT has to be built. They will connect to everything wirelessly, belong to the end user and become the bottleneck through which all work and personal data flow – not for a few early adopters or mobile workers, but for every single employee.

It won’t happen right away, but it will happen.

Even a recent Gartner press release was circumspect about predicting when exactly wearables would make the conversion from fancy pedometer to BYOD-qualifying laptop replacement. Technical breakthroughs provide openings for “creative minds determined to exploit this technology for commercial gain as evidenced by sizable investments in wearable technology from Samsung, Google, Apple and Microsoft,”it read.

Wearables aren’t the only disruptor on the way, however.

Universal connectivity to personal and work data and to environmental information supplied by the Internet of Things (everything from reports on how long the line is at the cafeteria and whether there’s any vanilla ice cream left in the freezer, to the outside temperature and whether it’s raining) will change the way end users work, how they work with each other and how IT has to support them.

Radical changes in form factor, along with the evolution of 3D printing and other next-generation initiatives, will result in a galaxy of devices that are wearable, embeddable, autonomous, bio-connected, self-repairing, home-manufactured and perpetually interconnected. Employees will bring them into the workplace, which will make the datacenter that much more heterogeneous in coming years.

exhibiting every other unlikely characteristic of technology found in a datacenter because they will all be connected as part of the information environment employees bring with them into the workplace.

“We must embrace the notion that IT is now a part of everything,” wrote Gartner analyst and Managing VP Daryl Plummer. “As the structure of businesses and industries change, the IT systems that support them will change and so will the skills, processes and controls needed to keep them functioning. The day when 3D-printed computer architecture exists is upon us, and the days when the digital business, smart machines or the Internet of Things change what computers are may not be far off.”

Wearables, in short, aren’t going to replace tablets or smartphones any time soon – possibly not ever. But that doesn’t mean IT won’t have to deal with them, or that they won’t have an impact even greater than tablets and smartphones.

Like PCs, LANs, PDAs, laptops, cell phones SaaS, social networks and every other piece of consumerized IT users have injected into the corporate bloodstream, wearables are just another indication that IT and datacenter-appropriate technologies aren’t the gravitational hub of the technology world any longer. They are the base that allows everything else to work, but they’re still just a subset of a larger world onto which users are painting electronic intelligence as quickly and as thickly as vendors can produce it.

The sensibilities that are driving development of wearables (user demands, in IT-speak) are increasingly driving decisions in the datacenter that once focused only on technical or business requirements and considered user interfaces an afterthought.

Not any more. The interface is the technology, as far as users are concerned, and IT strategies must be reconfigured to create the interface users demand, whether those fit neatly into datacenter plans or not.

Imagine being the CIO who sent the CEO and a team of negotiators to an M&A negotiation with tablets and smartphones and PDFs loaded with every relevant document. Now imagine if every other user in the meeting had Google Glass, broadband wireless network connections and a series of software agents hovering around, ready to define every obscure term, call up every bit of financial information, and find research that shows the holes are in someone else’s argument. Imagine how it would change the collective assumptions about knowledge, expertise and competence when everyone in a room has instant, invisible access to the best information available on any topic, all the time.

Expertise would still be valuable. Knowledge –at least the ability to present relevant facts or context at the appropriate time without apparent effort – would be a commodity available to anyone with decent IT.

That’s why even datacenter snobs should care about wearables – for the impact, not the hardware.

Imagine being the CIO explaining to the CEO why that kind of science-fictioney tech is too gimmicky and gadgety to bother with – while the boss is still smarting from the sight of a whole negotiating team fact-checked, contradicted and humiliated by better-“informed” opponents.

Don’t get distracted by the term “wearables.” The word is irrelevant. So is the form factor, for the most part. The important thing isn’t where the device lives, what it looks like or whether using it means opening, unfolding and booting up – or just talking into your sleeve. The important thing is whether interacting with the hardware makes you or your users any better informed, more productive or more effective, especially when dealing directly and in person with other users.

Centralizing, securing, encrypting and disaster-protecting all that data and insight via a network of datacenters may prove cost-efficient, but doesn’t accomplish much if the necessary answers are locked up in a server farm rather than popping up on their own just when they’re needed.

Knowledge is power in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it. Technology – wearable or not – is just a way to get it there.

Image: Shutterstock.com/ agsandrew