Through Google Glass, Maybe

Everybody is hopping on the wearables bandwagon. Since the publication of my HBR article on wearables, I’ve been asked a number of follow-up questions from executives, tech analysts, and most especially from entrepreneurs.
Though the questions vary, they generally fall into three buckets.

“Aren’t Head-up Displays (HUDs) like Google Glass where the market is going?”

No. Not necessarily. Pricey (and for now, socially awkward-looking) HUDs will likely be a sliver of the nearly half-billion units that will ship by 2018. By comparison, most other types of wearables will be relatively cheap, and as socially unobtrusive as a ring or wristband.

No doubt, there will be well-defined segments of HUD wearers. For instance, emergency first responders and many disabled people will immediately benefit from additional contextual information the tools display that enhance safety and the ability to navigate tricky situations. The more you consider real data and use-cases, the more you see wearables’ potential to support humanistic aspirations.

However, as I suggest in my HBR piece, we should vigorously question the ethics and effectiveness of any “asymmetrical” uses of HUDs. The presumption that a Google Glass wearer has a right to ascertain information from others who haven’t opted in isn’t necessarily socially acceptable. (HBR editor Scott Berinato calls Glass wearers who point their devices at others who haven’t opted in “glassholes”). It may not even be legal. In the work place, any use absolutely must be accompanied by clearly stated benefits to the employee (not just the employer) and ensure her data privacy. Otherwise, it’s Orwellian.

Aren’t wearables basically just a hands-free PC or smartphone?

Some wearables are indeed the next stage in the evolution from PCs to smartphones to tablets. Samsung’s watch, for example, tethers to its phone and lets you take and receive calls and texts. But many others tools and applications, such as the one I describe below, are discontinuous. They support radically new ways to improve work and society. The opportunity in the discontinuous space is probably bigger, and certainly some of the killer apps for wearables haven’t even been conjured yet. Something will take us by surprise.

Aren’t wearables just the latest cool new toys?

When people ask this sort of question, they’re usually wondering if these things are just technology for technology’s sake. They want to know about purpose, whether and how they can use (or “hire”) a wearable to fix a problem. In my research, I already see evidence and use cases of a number of ways wearables are helping organizations solve specific and sometimes intractable problems.

Here’s an example of a wearable that speaks to each of the three points above: it’s not socially awkward to wear and offers a radically new solution to a big problem.

The problem: Each year in the United states, about 5 percent of hospital patients catch an infection while being treated, leading to nearly 100,000 deaths.  Hospital-borne infections like MRSA cost hospitals about 10 percent of their operating budgets, and the overall US health care system about $35 billion.

The challenge: Research shows that 70 percent of these infections could be prevented or made less severe by following basic hand-washing guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), though only about 4 in 10 hospitals effectively comply.

The solution: Some hospitals in Florida are piloting a wearable solution called IntelligentM. Doctors, nurses, and all other caregivers wear RFID wristbands with motion sensors, that interacts with tagged locations around their hospital.

For instance, at a hand-washing station, the smartband tracks the user’s sequence of hand movements and offers prompt feedback: Good hand washing that follows the WHO guidelines leads to a single quick vibration in the wrist, while missing the mark prompts three vibrations as a nudge to try again.

The devices connect to other critical locations, equipment, and “events” in the facility, proactively reducing oversights by busy staff. Staff receive alerts as soon as they walk into a patient’s room if they haven’t first washed their hands. Same if they’re about to perform a procedure requiring hand washing, such as inserting an IV needle.

Wearers also upload their data at the end of each shift and then receive a monthly hand hygiene report card. This shows each provider’s compliance results and, for comparison, those of her unit and facility. A surgeon can see that her unit was 80 percent compliant, but that she only hit 52 percent—a number that should provoke a change in her hand-washing routine.

The aim here is to replace visual observation, the costly and labor-intensive approach used at most hospitals to track hygiene. With visual observation the data-sets tend to be small and statistically unreliable, while the numbers from the wearables initiative are abundantly detailed. These context-based and segmented analytics are meant to help administrators spot individual and group trends. Instead of simply knowing that her hospital was 72 percent compliant, an administrator could see that ER nurses are 89 percent compliant before dressing wounds but only 57 percent compliant after touching patients—a red flag worth addressing at a team meeting.

As New Yorker writer and physician Atul Gawande has noted, the barrier to attacking big problems like hospital germs is that they are “invisible…and making [solutions] work can be tedious…” In the everyday tedium of washing hands, a buzzing wristband can serve the critical function of reminding a busy doctor when there’s a better way to go through the motions.

When I look past the knee-jerk use cases (“let’s look at the Eiffel Tower and get a Wikipedia entry about it”) and sci-fi scenarios (“let’s rate people like books and get a star rating when we look at them”) I see the real rise of wearables in cases like the hospital wristband— specific, positive developments where wearables are going to—indeed are already—making a difference.

H. James Wilson is senior researcher at Babson Executive Education. He is co-author ofThe New Entrepreneurial Leader: Developing Leaders Who Shape Social and Economic Opportunity (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011)This post first appeared in the HBR Blog Network.

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