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Wearable technology and human performance

Wearable technologies could make us healthier, happier and more productive at work. To learn more about this new trend, read our blogpost.

Igniting the future: Canada Impact Workshop -- February 26, 2014

By: Terry Stuart

I used to drive to the grocery store when I needed milk. Come to think of it, I once drove to our local park to walk my dog, Hitchcock. Then I bought a FitBit fitness tracker. The wearable bracelet counts my steps and, with a few clicks, reports them to my FitBit friends through social media. 

We all see a daily count of the steps everyone clocks. Maybe we’re a bit competitive, but we’ve done some interesting things to reach the top of the leaderboard each night: pacing through airport lounges and scheduling meetings with the location set as: “Walking around the block.”

Together, the FitBit, smartphone and social-media site form an ecosystem that’s changing our behaviour by driving us to make healthier choices. And it’s not limited to fitness trackers. 

We could see games to help ADHD sufferers gain focus, those with insomnia learn to relax or those with epilepsy manage their seizure triggers. 

The cost of sensors is coming down fast and computing power is improving exponentially, making way for countless ways in which wearable technologies can improve human performance. Far more so than for tablets and smart phones, weight and bulk matter. So does fashion. And these factors will all play a role in shaping the future of the market and how we use wearables. But what’s already clear is that we’re in the early days of a shift that could make us healthier, happier and more productive at work. 

The calculator watch on steroids

Toronto’s InteraXon gives us a glimpse into the potential of wearables. Their Muse brain-sensing device takes the concept of lab-based, 128-sensor EEG readers and puts it into a slim, wearable headband. It’s a kind of fitness tracker for your mind and InteraXon markets the device for stress reduction. It sends real-time feedback on brain-wave fluctuations to your smart phone, where an app with games lets you interact with and improve your emotional state.

Devices like Muse also expose brain-sensing technology to a broader audience of tinkerers and app developers, democratizing innovation. We could see games to help ADHD sufferers gain focus, those with insomnia learn to relax or those with epilepsy manage their seizure triggers. While still at the experimental stage, devices like Muse could one day be used as a computer input device, liberating the physically disabled.

Balancing our theta waves may be just the beginning. A growing “quantified self” movement envisions total monitoring of physical, psychic, nutritional and environmental metrics through an array of wearable sensors.

Entrepreneurs are creating lots of innovative, wearable “fashion technologies.” An NFC ring can unlock your front door in the same way you might tap a debit card to buy lunch. A pair of ski goggles offers a head’s-up display of altitude and speed readouts, and tells you where your ski buddies have wandered off to — if they have the same device. You really do have friends on a powder day. 

Dress digitally for success

In the workplace, form follows function. Early applications are likely to occur deep in a company’s operations. Augmented reality could guide warehouse workers, or provide service technicians with hands-free access to a machine’s documentation. Safety could be addressed with wearables that report industrial air quality and worker fatigue. Surgeons are trying out goggles that answer voice commands to show a patient’s vital signs and medical history.

The potential to transform the workplace is tremendous, and we’re just getting started.

If you’re looking to make wearables a part of your workplace, it’s a good idea to start by looking at your process constraints. Tweet this Experiment with different devices — manufacturers and developers may be looking for partners to build their track record. Keep in mind that simpler is usually better. Wearables should display only the most critical information and be easy to use.

The future of technology is fashionable

Whether it’s on a ski hill or at the office, wearable technologies benefit from the exponentially declining costs of sensors and other technologies and the opportunity for engineers and developers around the world to experiment with solutions to problems we never thought existed. Six years ago, it wasn’t so obvious that a cell phone would be able to answer spoken questions like, “What movies are playing tonight?”

Now, I get movie information faster. And when I need milk, I walk the dog to the store. 

Terry Stuart is Deloitte Canada’s Chief Innovation Officer. He is also a member of the firm’s Global Innovation Network. 

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