Wearable Devices: The New User Interface for Logistics Software

We’re only a few days into 2014, but “wearables” — as in wearable computers or devices — seems to be the early contender for buzz term of the year. At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), wearables are dominating the headlines (along with “Internet of Things,” a related topic that I’ll discuss in a future posting). And in this month’s Wired cover story — Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone — the author, Bill Wasik, proclaims that “a new device revolution is at hand: Just as mobile phones and tablets displaced the once-dominant PC, so wearable devices are poised to push smartphones aside.”

Google Glass is perhaps the best-known type of wearable device, and last year Samsung introduced its Galaxy Gear smart watch (although the reviews have been less than favorable), and Apple is reportedly developing its own wearable device. Much of the focus to date has been on wearable devices for consumer use, such as for fitness monitoring (e.g., Nike Fuelband) and sports (e.g., Recon Instruments Jet). But unlike smartphones and social networking, which took off first in the consumer realm before entering the workplace, I believe wearable devices will turn the “consumerization of IT” upside down and gain traction first in the business world. And it will start in logistics.

In fact, wearable computers have been used in the warehouse for many years, including voice systems and wearable scanners (see product offerings from Motorola). What we’re seeing now is the next generation of wearables in the warehouse starting to emerge, which combine voice recognition technology with smart glasses that bring together video, GPS, scanning, and other capabilities. Check out the following video that shows a warehouse worker performing various tasks using smart glasses by Vuzix integrated with SAP’s warehouse management system.

If smart glasses can be integrated with a WMS, why not a transportation management system (TMS) or any other business application? In other words, will smart glasses coupled with voice recognition technology become the new user interface for enterprise software applications?

Back in 2012, I predicted that we’ll see “Siri for TMS” sometime in the future. Here’s what I wrote:

Instead of manually conducting searches and executing tasks, why not speak them? “Show me all uncovered loads” and up come the results on the screen. “Will any of my private fleet trucks be near an inbound pickup location on Thursday?” “How am I doing on my carrier commitments this week?” You get the idea.

At the time, when I said “up come the results on the screen,” I envisioned a laptop computer or tablet. Now I’m thinking the screen will be a pair of smart glasses.

When I entered the workforce back in the early 90s, I was given a desk with a desktop computer and landline phone. New employees in the future will arrive to work with their own phone, and the only things resting on their desk will be pair of smart glasses and a tablet computer.

Will wearable devices make us more productive? Are they a better way to work, or just a different, more fun way? Like all technologies, wearables will not be the ideal solution in all use cases, but I believe they will play a bigger role in logistics in the years ahead.

In the Wired article, Wasik writes, “Wearables…are a gateway to augmented reality, a more ubiquitous but less distracting data layer that gives us constant intelligence about the world around us — and keeps our attention grounded in the world, rather than off in the digital ether.”

Put differently, wearables are a window to the data and business intelligence we need — when we need it, and in many cases, proactively displayed to us — to help us make smarter decisions faster. And in a rapidly changing business environment, the ability to make smarter decisions faster is what will separate the winners from the laggards, and nowhere is this more true than in logistics.

Finally, watching the video above made me realize something else: I believe robots will take over many logistics jobs in the future, but before we get there, a new species will emerge, a hybrid of man and machine that may actually turn out to be the best of both worlds.

What do you think? Will wearable devices become the new user interface for logistics software? What are the pros and cons? Post a comment and share your perspective!