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Coming Soon to a Smartwatch Near You: Wearable BI

The smartwatch has arrived -- and how! Is it too soon to talk about optimizing dashboards for the "wearable experience?"

It looks as if we'll soon have to rescale our reports, dashboards, and visualizations for another new user experience (UX) -- that of the wearable device.

Last year, demand for personal fitness devices such as Fitbit and the new Apple watch helped increase sales of wearable devices by 171.6 percent, year over year. That's according to market watcher International Data Corp. (IDC), which says wearables were one of the big hits of the holiday season. Fitbit Inc., Apple Inc., and other vendors -- there's an Android wearable, too -- shipped 24.7 million units in Q4 of 2015, an increase of 126.9 percent over 2014.

All told, IDC says, vendors moved 78.1 million wearable devices last year. For some perspective, total sales of smartphones reached 80 million units in 2006, according to a then-contemporaneous IDC report. That was on the strength of a 42 percent increase in growth.

The wearables market is just beginning to take off, according to IDC. "Triple-digit growth highlights growing interest in the wearables market from both end-users and vendors," said IDC research manager Ramon Llamas, in a statement.

"It shows that wearables are not just for the technophiles and early adopters; wearables can exist and are welcome in the mass market," Llamas' statement continued. "And since wearables have yet to fully penetrate the mass market, there is still plenty of room for growth in multiple vectors: new vendors, form factors, applications, and use cases. This will help propel the market further."

Fitbit is still the dominant player in the wearables space, with nearly one-third (29.5 percent) of the overall wearables market in Q4 of 2015. Apple, not surprisingly, came in second, gobbling up 15 percent of market share in Q4 -- and shipping 4.1 million units, according to IDC.

Apple has already eclipsed the combined market shares of Chinese powerhouse Xiaomi Inc. and Samsung, the leading manufacturer of Android wearables. Xiaomi was third in IDC's tally, with 2.7 million wearables shipped; Samsung was fourth, with 1.3 million.

Wearable BI

BI and analytic vendors aren't yet talking about optimizing for a "wearable experience." Still less are they articulating "wearable first" development strategies.

Maybe they should be.

True, several vendors have announced support for wearables -- chiefly, the Apple watch. To take just one example, announced a native version of its Salesforce Wave Analytics app for Apple's new device.

The thing is, businesses are already using wearables to support operational or production processes. An exemplar is global logistics giant DHL Express, which used smart glasses from XOEye Technology/Vuzix Corp. and Google Inc. in a pilot project to optimize warehouse "picking" operations. DHL's Trend Research unit described the rationale for this project in a fascinating report, Augmented Reality in Logistics.

"Augmented Reality ... [is] where every object you see could be enriched with additional and valuable information. AR is defined as the expansion of physical reality by adding layers of computer-generated information to the real environment," the report notes. "Information in this context could be any kind of virtual object or content, including text, graphics, video, sound, haptic feedback, GPS data, and even smell." Augmented reality, the DHL researchers argued, "is more than a simple displaying technology. It also represents a new type of real-time natural user interface for human interaction with objects and digital devices."

Still another adopter of enterprise wearables is Lee Company, a heating and cooling solutions provider. (Full disclosure: this author will be forever grateful to Lee Company for coming to his rescue when his pipes exploded in the middle of a Nashville winter.) Lee Company featured prominently in a press release issued just last month by XOEye Technology, which partners with Vuzix to produce smartglasses wearables.

As the examples of DHL and Lee Company demonstrate, there's a kind of built-in consonance between the wearable UX and the experience of consuming and, to some extent, analyzing data. The smartglasses used by both DHL and Lee Company provide the equivalent of a head-up display (HUD), whereby relevant data is served up to human actors. Wearables, be they smartglasses, watches, or other form factors, are well-suited for displaying information not just in a new way, but also in a uniquely immersive experience.

Consider some of the early consumer applications for wearables: there's Fitbit, for starters, but both Apple and Samsung also bundle native health monitoring and telemetry apps with their smartwatches. These apps generate visualizations, charts, graphs, and (let's agree to relax the definition slightly) "reports." It isn't that BI and analytics are a natural fit for the wearable UX. It's that some of the activities we perform in consuming and analyzing data translate, quite neatly, to the wearable context – and that the wearable context, particularly in its immersive aspects, has the potential to bring a whole new dimension to information consumption and analysis.

On the consumer side, app developers will continue to innovate, Llamas and IDC predict. "End-users expect improvement from what they have now," he said.

"Historical data, like steps taken and calories burned, has been a very good start. Prescriptive data, like what else a user can do to live a healthier life, coupled with popular applications like social media, news, and navigation, will push wearables further, and attract more users."

It stands to reason that BI and data visualization software won't be far behind.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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