IoT and the Edge

Are Hearables the Next Big Trend in Wearable Devices?

hearables wearable devices
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Twenty years ago, I went to my first NHL game, and was lucky enough to join five other friends in a luxury box overlooking the rink at center ice. Shortly after arrival, a server showed up to take our drink orders, and in an effort to get our drinks quickly and watch the game, we all ordered the same thing. The server dutifully took them down, punched them into his handheld device, and processed our order. Moments later, by the time he had finished, our drinks arrived from another server. What sort of magic was this? A server can bring us our drink orders in the time it takes us to order? Can he do it again? The answer to that last question was ‘yes,’ even when we ordered complex (and to his delight, more expensive) cocktails.

The lesson here is that technology – in this case, a connected handheld device – can expedite processes and increase productivity and revenue. Back in 1998, this seemed revolutionary. Now we are about to see this happen again.

Wearables at Work

In the service economy, where workers interact with a customer and provide a service simultaneously, wearable devices that interact with the user through audio and voice known as ‘hearables’ stand to improve and expedite the customer experience. Historically, hearables have functioned as fitness trackers, language translators, and as audio enhancers. But looking ahead, hearables will also be able to connect workers with enterprise systems to execute tasks and orders with a worker’s voice. Effectively, wait times can be reduced or even eliminated, orders can be taken down more accurately, but the interaction between customer and worker – the ‘human’ aspect of customer service – remains intact. In the process, the worker’s hands remain free to complete a task if necessary.

Take the example above, and replace the handheld device with a hearable. The server can have a more natural conversation with a customer while transmitting the order to the bar. Behind the scenes, the hearable connects to the company’s back-end servers, which analyze the conversation with artificial intelligence, computer learning, and natural language software to ensure that the order comes in correctly. Upon completion, the order arrives at the bar, gets fulfilled, and another server delivers it to a customer. In the meantime, the server can upsell the customer to additional items – food from the kitchen, souvenirs from the gift shop, etc. – and communicate those orders to the respective departments.

Clearly, the use of a hearable in the hospitality industry has definite potential. But can it go to others? Consider the following:

  • In retail, customer service is tantamount. Workers on the floor can communicate with warehouse workers, or even search inventory at sister stores to find an item, all while remaining present with a customer. No more looking down at a screen, away from the customer, or leaving the customer, to complete a task.
  • In healthcare, the medical staff can add to a patient’s file, order follow-up procedures, and message other staff while keeping their hands free to care for the patient.
  • In public safety, first responders can communicate with each other during a situation, keep their hands free to operate equipment or direct others, and share information with other departments.

Worldwide Wearables Shipments by Product Type, 2017–2022

hearables wearable devices

Our recent wearables forecast shows the total number of earworn wearables reaching 2.2 million units in 2018, and up to 12.6 million units come 2022. These include hearables that also function as fitness trackers, language translators, and those that augment audio. The market for these voice-connected wearables is still at its early stages, with just a handful of vendors offering them right now. But these are still the early stages of the hearables market, and product and experience will undoubtedly mature. Connection to IoT systems? Absolutely. A smart assistant in your ear? For sure. Communication to users on other devices? Yes.

To Hearable or Not to Hearable

If there is anything to take away from this blog post, it’s that hearables stand to positively impact your business. And because businesses continuously explore new ways to differentiate, compete, and ultimately win, service-oriented companies would do well to at least consider how to incorporate hearables into the work force. With this in mind, here are seven questions to raise when considering whether to deploy hearables with your mobile workers:

  1. What information can be collected, analyzed, and executed upon with a hearable?
  2. What feedback loop will the worker have?
  3. What – if any – infrastructure is needed to have a successful deployment?
  4. What other enterprise systems can the hearable tap into?
  5. What will be your measurements of ROI? Highest customer satisfaction? Empowered employees? Increased revenue? More jobs completed?
  6. What other information can be gleaned from this data? Worker activity/inactivity?

Of course, hearables will not be the only wearables that will have a positive impact on the enterprise. Fitness trackers already demonstrate cost savings, and new developments in smartwatch software are aimed at improving productivity. Learn more about the future direction of wearables: download IDC’s latest worldwide wearables forecast now.

In the meantime, if you see me at an NHL game next season, let’s put in an order and see how soon it gets fulfilled; paper-based, smartphone- or tablet-based, or hearables based. And then let’s talk about how you can use them in your business.

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