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The Wearable Revolution

We've been treating wearable BI as a someday-maybe thing rather than a soon and inevitable reality, but the wearable revolution is upon us.

We've been treating wearable business intelligence (BI) as a someday-maybe thing, not as a soon and inevitable reality. Sure, a "wearable" BI experience is coming, but that's for the distant future. Right?

Not if a recent forecast from market-watcher International Data Corp. (IDC) is right.

IDC projects that sales of wearable devices will reach 102 million units by the end of the year. That's 29 percent more than 2015, when vendors shipped 78.1 million wearable devices.

That isn't all, however. According to IDC's forecast, the market for wearable devices will grow at a 20.3 percent compound annual growth rate. By 2020, global sales of wearable devices will total 213.6 million units. That's more than double IDC's projection for 2016. That said, it's still just a fraction of the global market for smartphones, which IDC's rival Gartner Inc. says reached 1.4 billion units in 2015.

Long-term, the market for wearable tech has the potential to dwarf that of the smartphone, however.

IDC senior analyst Jitesh Ubrani foresees the emergence of a diverse marketplace for wearable technology. "Watches and bands are and always will be popular, but the market will clearly benefit from the emergence of additional form factors, such as clothing and eyewear, that will deliver new capabilities and experiences," he said in a statement.

Smart watches and wristbands are the most common and popular items of wearable tech. Combined, they account for about 72 percent of all wearable tech revenues today; by 2020 that proportion will increase to almost 82 percent.

However, another category of wearable tech -- smart eyewear or smart glasses -- is poised to see significant uptake in the enterprise. "Eyewear has a clear focus on the enterprise as it stands to complement or replace existing computing devices, particularly for workers in the field or on the factory floor," Ubrani continued.

Ubrani's statement is less a prognostication than an extrapolation on the basis of existing trends. Companies are already using wearable tech -- in particular, smart glasses -- to boost productivity, simplify operations, and even to support new business models.

Consider global logistics giant DHL Express, which used smart glasses from XOEye Technology/Vuzix Corp. and Google Inc. in a pilot project to optimize its warehouse 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."

DHL Express's warehouse pickers wear smartglasses that provide a head-up display. It's an application for wearable tech that could be used to communicate BI and analytics information, too. If you think about it, the way we consume, process, and analyze information fits rather neatly into the smart eyewear experience.

Today, smartglasses make up a tiny sliver (0.1 percent) of the wearables market; wristbands and smartwatches, remember, account for about 72 percent of wearable tech sales.

By 2020, however, smartglasses will be almost 9 percent of wearable sales. That's good for a 201.2 percent compound annual growth rate -- easily the top among all wearable categories.

There's another wrinkle here: the wearable context, particularly in its immersive aspects, has the potential to bring a whole new dimension to information consumption and analysis.

For better or worse, Google's Glass technology -- which Google no longer sells -- is still probably the best-known smartglasses product. The Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset isn't a smartglasses product per se, but it does incorporate a head-up display.

The business use and applicability of virtual or augmented reality is another question entirely. It seems likely that the smartglasses of the future will support a virtual or augmented reality experience of some kind. Last January, Microsoft announced its Windows Holographic "mixed reality" platform; Redmond's much-hyped "HoloLens" headset will be a key component of Windows Holographic -- once it finally ships, that is.

"Microsoft's recent Windows Holographic announcement and abundance of hardware partners along with Google's competing Android platform are projected to drive uptake in eye-worn devices," IDC said. "Initially, such devices are expected to bring a transformational shift in mobile computing to select industries and job functions." IDC projects that sales of smart eyewear will account for more than 40 percent of wearable revenues "due to the high prices for specialized commercial devices."

It's true that BI vendors aren't doing much with wearable tech right now, and what they are doing is mostly focused on the Apple Watch. (Several vendors, including Salesforce.com, have announced support for the Apple device.)

As the market increases, however, this will change. The smartwatch display is a not an especially promising tool for communicating information; smartglasses and VR headsets hold considerably more potential. All have the potential to supply one or more enterprises with a wealth of information to analyze.

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 evets@alwaysbedisrupting.com.


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