Wearables for business: 'A tool, not a nice to have'

We caught up with APX Labs CEO Brian Ballard to talk about Google Glass in business and augmented reality in the enterprise, an area where Epson is strong.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

While wearables are an interesting consumer market — even though form, fit, and function remain issues — the money and returns will be seen in the enterprise space.

This week, Google courted enterprise developers and touted a use case with the Washington Capitals enabled with APX Labs, a four-year-old privately held company that specializes in enterprise wearable platforms.

More: Google courts enterprise developers for Glass | Google Glass in hospitals? Royal Philips, Accenture think so | SAP, Vuzix aim to push wearable use in enterprise

APX has two software platforms. The first, Skylight, is designed to take corporate data and push it to wearable devices. A software development kit enables enterprises to build custom applications. The other, Skybox, is APX Labs' platform for stadiums and delivers stats and overlay graphics to fans.



We caught up with APX CEO Brian Ballard to talk about the future of wearables in the enterprise. Ballard is on the front lines of the integration work required to deliver wearable returns. "In the enterprise, there's less resistance to wearables. They are seen as a tool not a nice-to-have," said Ballard.

Brian Ballard, CEO of APX Labs

The other item worth noting in the smart glasses space: There are other players beyond Google, which has popularized the space. For instance, Epson is a major wearable vendor for companies. 

Among the key wearable points from Ballard:

There's a difference between all-day availability and all-day use. For instance, Google Glass is designed for business use when all day availability is needed. "Glass is a great informatics system that can push contextual relevant information," explained Ballard. "For all-day use, something like Epson's augmented reality glasses are better." Epson's Moverio BT 200 smart glasses were made generally available this week.

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Best use cases. Although Google Glass used in a stadium or arena garner headlines, Ballard noted that there are a lot more use cases. Any job where a worker is in the field, needs her hands free, and needs information can be one made more efficient with wearable technology. Ballard estimates that wearables can deliver return on investment within a year in many cases. One key area would be a field service application where expertise can be centrally tapped into a wearable.

TechPro Research: Guidelines for Google Glass and wearables in the workplace 

Wearables policy

Healthcare. Ballard said wearables are being used in a lot of pilots in the healthcare system. Glass can be used for nursing or patient monitoring "when you need a status update pushed to me," said Ballard. For something like image-assisted surgery, Epson's Moverio glasses would be better. In that scenario, a surgeon would use the glasses to have high-res imagery laid over a patient. That view would be tied into a surgical navigation machine.

Front lines of big data. "We've never been able to connect the person to big data systems. Through wearables, people become both an input and output," said Ballard. Companies that are investing in big data systems are best suited to use data from wearables. For instance, it's one thing to connect to a static ERP system. It's more promising to connect to a real-time in-memory system. Enterprises need to get to augmented reality systems akin to video games. "If you can get that experience and performance out of a computer game you should be able to get it from big business," said Ballard.

Productivity. One area where wearables shine is in logistics. A warehouse worker can use smart glasses to get an image of what they're looking for as well as directions on where to walk. The upside: "A new worker on day one can almost be as productive as an experienced one," said Ballard.

Connectivity. One of my big hangups about wearables is that most of them depend on the personal area network model. In other words, a wearable is almost useless without a Bluetooth connected smartphone. In the enterprise, these connectivity issues are lessened. "In indoor scenarios, wearables are connected to corporate WiFi," said Ballard. "If inside a warehouse or stadium the connection isn't an issue." On the consumer front, Ballard agreed that cellular enabled wearables would be a boon to the industry. "For consumers, cellular for wearables would be important because the model is wildly different. An enterprise can define the use."

Stadium economic models. Ballard said the Capitals' Glass experiment is about providing a good fan experience and enticing them to come to the games. The model is tricky. For now, AXP and the Capitals are doing free demonstrations because Google Glass' terms don't allow commercial usage yet. Ultimately, pro teams could use Glass or other wearables in a sponsorship model.

Primary verticals. APX started as a specialist in military applications for wearables but has broken down its business into federal and pro sports, as outliers with industrial, logistics, health care, manufacturing and field and service as core customer industries. Ballard added that education could be interesting as well as police and first responders. Education has budget issues and wearables for police and first responders raise more privacy issues.

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