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How wearable technologies are changing the way we work​

Workers have been forced to set aside their main tasks when retrieving data. Mary Hamilton tells us how wearable displays are changing all that.​

As a Midwesterner, it must have been something of a shock when Tech Labs transferred you to California.

The biggest change for me was moving from Chicago to Silicon Valley in 2008. I’d been with Accenture for 10 years, but my earlier life in the Midwest and on the East Coast didn’t entirely prepare me for the different feel out here.

There’s something about the pulse of the place and the new ideas that are constantly surfacing to make life more convenient. Localization and personalization services are sprouting all over.

Some of the best ones are food related, like Yupeat, which offers a daily recipe and then picks up all the groceries for you to make it, or Munchery, which provides same-day delivery of gourmet meals made by local chefs. Or transportation-related ones like Uber, Lyft or Sidecar, which have revolutionized the taxi and ride share industries.

You recently announced an exciting proof of concept with Google Glass, which is a consumer technology. Is this a big change of pace from what you usually work on at Tech Labs?

It's not that much of a change of pace, because we actually do work with a number of cool consumer technologies. People at Tech Labs spend a lot of time looking at technologies that were first intended for a consumer audience, like Google Glass, and making them work for the enterprise.

A lot of this is seeking ways to help workers become more productive. My colleagues and I are really interested in how work gets done and how these new tools can help.

Can you give an example of past tools that you’ve worked on, that are used by workers today?

Well, around 2005, we were doing a lot of work that anticipated today’s cloud environment. A lot of people came to the realization that running applications was just as easy in the browser as on the desktop.

Since then, we’ve worked with a number of tools that are now widely available, such as Web tools for videoconferencing and social collaboration. It’s exciting to see technologies we’ve had a hand in developing that are now in routine use today.

One personal favorite of mine is Double Robot, a reasonably low-cost “virtual double” that combines a standard iPad with a drivable base that can be controlled remotely from an application or another iPad. My favorite use for it was when I gave a keynote presentation to 200-plus people in Chicago from my location in San Jose. I rolled up on stage and was able to see and react to the audience in a reasonably natural way.

How did you get started with the Google Glass project?

We had a great opportunity to work with Philips, which is a medical testing client and a global leader in patient monitors. They had the healthcare software, and we had access to one of the early-stage Google Glass devices and the ability to integrate it with their software.

So building on that combination, we’ve worked with Philips to demonstrate ways in which Google Glass can be used in the operating room. For example, by checking the Google Glass display, surgeons can get updates on a patient’s vital signs while still looking directly at the patient.

Besides easing workers’ access to data, how else can technologies like Google Glass help?

We’re very excited about the potential for wearable technologies like Google Glass across a whole range of industries. We believe they’re the next big leap forward in improving workers’ efficiency and safety.

For example, a worker dealing with a problem on an oil rig could use Google Glass to pipe in an expert at a remote location, who could then view the problem through the worker’s field of vision, and give instant advice on how to fix it. Workers who go to the scene to capture data about the problem won’t have to waste time leaving the scene to interpret the data, or to get help.

Wearables can also be used as a tool to speed up workers’ learning. Apprentices can work on their own projects much more quickly if they can get their supervisors’ opinions remotely by sharing their field of vision.

What about the retail space? Can wearables help there too?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, there’s another benefit to wearables for smart retailers. They can potentially use them to improve their engagement with the customer.

How would that work?

Well, if a retailer has a big sale, and a customer is in the store viewing a sale item through an app that reflects their personal profile, they might see a customized explanation of the product’s technology that accurately reflects their own level of technical expertise. Or they might see different pricing information based on their own personal buying history.

What are the lessons you’ve learned from working with Google Glass?

I’ve learned a lot about what you might call the “form factor” – what a given technology can and can’t do.

For example, tablets and smartphones can do a lot of similar things, but wearable technology has an added level of benefit in many areas. Beyond making access to information handsfree, Google Glass offers a seamless way for real-time sharing of a worker’s field of vision. It’s exciting to think about all the potential applications it could have.

What do you value most about working at Tech Labs?

I think it’s having the opportunity to work with brand-new technology, much of which hasn’t even hit the consumer, and yet we’re already finding cool, new ways to use it to help our clients and their workers.

Plus, there’s something exciting about the feel of San Francisco, where you can walk the streets and see people using new technologies like Google Glass all the time. I guess I’m just a nerd at heart.