Industry Market Trends

Wearable Computers are All the Rage

Nov 23, 2004

Body-worn computers are shedding their strictly-for-the-military image and getting fashionable in several industries. Discover why some companies are trying them on for size:

Body-worn computers are finally in style. Drawing closer to mainstream acceptance, these wearable systems are making some industries take notice. Shipments on these computers will likely exceed $560 million by 2006, says tech consultancy Venture Development Corp. From businesses performing maintenance to cutting edge hospitals, many are discovering the usefulness of these body-worn gadgets.

For example, telecommunications company Bell Canada outfits some 300 field-service technicians with durable, on-body computers that go where laptops can't—up utility poles. Also, Memphis-based Federal Express equips mechanics with wearable computers so they can quickly input maintenance notes into a database and enable parts runners to replenish repair carts with needed items. Additionally, Northwest Airlines ground personnel in Detroit and Minneapolis now utilize wearable computers—as well as bar-code wands and on-body printers—to check in passengers standing in line.

Driving the increased usage of body-worn computers are advances in wireless access. For example, improved wireless bandwidth is making the technology a good fit for mobile check-in at hotels. Ditto for back-office functions. For instance, Florida-based freight transporter CSX Corp. has conductors wear these systems so they can expedite rail orders and transmit invoices quickly and accurately.

Manufacturers of wearable computers have set their sights beyond their traditional target—the U.S. military. While divisions of the armed services and government agencies are still their main customers, wearable-computer makers like Anteon, Xybernaut and InfoLogix, have wooed other businesses by touting the more-practical applications of their systems. That has helped reinforce the idea that the technology is not just for military operations.

"We're seeing these companies grow over time because there are some real-world applications that do offer tangible benefits to users of the technology," comments Richard Dean, program director at research group IDC in Massachusetts, to CFO Magazine. "There is traction with a number of industries, especially maintenance and support."

The technology still has some wrinkles to iron out, however. Current wearable PCs are on the heavy side, and headsets can be unsteady. Additionally, battery life is limited and will likely remain problematic until new power sources (e.g. body-heat batteries) can be honed. And LCDs do not work well with the technology, especially for workers who are exposed to different light sources. Also an issue: designs are still not user-friendly. "Most of the mobile computers still make you stop what you're doing in order to interact with the system," remarks Jackie Fenn, who tracks trends for Connecticut-based research group Gartner, to CFO Magazine.

Despite these issues, many companies are still choosing to don these on-body gadgets. And with advances in wireless capabilities and miniaturization, products are expected to diversify even more. Indeed, the technology's move into the mainstream appears to be just a matter of time.


Ready to Wear
Karen Bannan
CFO Magazine, November 1, 2004