This article is brought to you by ComputerworldUK in association with Intel IT Center

The Apple Watch is arguably the most fashionable wearable on the market, even though most of us are still waiting to strap one on our wrists. But this new category of device is about far more than a new fashion object. 

Wearables have huge potential in business, both in developing new customer experiences and new revenue streams and in delivering new tools to the workforce.

Augmented reality glasses and internet-connected pacemakers are among dozens of possible devices that stand to have a profound impact on everything from manufacturing to healthcare but even if we are on the cusp of a revolution in wearable technology, old IT issues remain.

For both customer-facing and enterprise-focussed apps, security, usability and connectivity – all core IT issues – are paramount.

In the enterprise, wearable computers are an, in effect, an extension of the BYOD or Choose Your Own Device (CYOD) universe: portable devices that input, process and display data, integrating it with the application infrastructure. Therefore, IT professionals should apply the same criteria they do to other mobile devices: which means having adequate security and security policies in place, as well as a good rationale for deploying them.

The thing is different about wearable computers is that they allow organisations to achieve far more than they can with existing laptops, tablets and smart phones. For example, use case scenarios are emerging from manufacturing, where the emergence of wearable computers can significantly enhance the productivity of individual workers.

At the CeBIT technology trade show conference, Intel demonstrated the ProGlove on its stand, a sensor-based ‘smart glove’ that can boost productivity for manufacturing and logistics jobs by enabling manual workers to get things done faster. The glove uses wireless, scanning and sensing technologies so it can collect data that can be analysed to improve things like production and inventory management.

According to the ProGlove team, the glove could initially be used for automated, hands-free scanning of goods; monitoring and training of workflow sequences; identification of tools and parts to avoid incorrect usage; and to deliver 100 percent documentation of goods and processes.

It hints at a bionic future where enhanced workers can be more deeply connected with the technology infrastructure to create efficiencies that were simply not possible before.

As well as creating efficiencies, greater connections also mean greater risk. As the market for mHealth devices grows, for example, so will the potential threat: health information being both a privacy and a life-related issue (hackable pacemakers and hospital equipment being the nightmare scenario).

According to Juniper Research, in just five years there’ll be more than 100 million smartwatches in use worldwide. mHealth interfaces, like Apple’s HealthKit and Samsung’s SAMI, will help propel the global healthcare accessory market to $3 billion by 2019, forecasts Juniper Research.

The challenge for technology manufacturers, user organisations and individuals will be to ensure the data is secure on device, in transit and at the data centre level. Organisations will need to create policies that can both secure information generated by the wearables, and facilitate new services and greater levels of productivity.

Consequently, wearables will dig up all of the concerns and arguments created by BYOD devices when they first started to come into the enterprise.

Reinventing healthcare

Mhealth is a developing market, and one that holds incredible promise. Devices and apps can capture information as diverse as blood pressure, oxygen levels, activity, falls, tremors and eating habits. One prototype wearable monitoring device, designed by a UK-based team, is vumbl. This stylish, discrete sports and activity necklace monitors biorhythmic information from the human body through vibrations and relays it back to its user through touch.

Separately, Intel has developed a wearable computer for Parkinson’s sufferers and is part of a trial to collect data that can be shared with researchers.

The company is working with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, an organisation that was established in 2000 by the actor and Parkinson's sufferer, to study the disease. There are estimated to be five million people across the world who have been diagnosed with Parkinson's, which is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's.

The trial is currently underway and enables patients to be monitored remotely, and the data stored in an open system that can be accessed by scientists. The study also explores how patients are responding to medication, with trial participants being monitored using an array of wearable devices.

Wearable computers offer a more objective way of monitoring patients than previous clinical trials, which relied on the patient describing their symptoms and experiences.

mHealth wearables also enable data to be added to a larger pool for more effective analysis. Data can be mined in real time; and transferred across distances. Patients don’t need to live near the research facility or even go into the lab: they can be monitored at home or work.

New retail experiences

As well as healthcare, wearables also promise to innovate other sectors. They are already enabling retail and service companies to develop new customer experiences.

Disney’s MagicBand is an example of this. The colourful wrist band allows consumers to have a better experience of the company’s theme parks. The MagicBand is an all-in-one device that allows theme park visitors to enter the parks, unlock their Disney Resort hotel room and buy food and merchandise. It also gives them priority access to rides that they have selected online.

In theory, retailers and service providers can join forces to offer wearable users access to a range of primary and third-party-owned wares. The customer gets a single, personalised and engaging experience; and services and revenue streams are delivered to the partner companies through the wearable computer’s various, interconnected APIs.

It looks like the wearable computing space is starting to hot up. Intel recently ran a competition for wearable computers with scores of prototypes vying for attention, including the ProGlove and the vumbl mentioned above.

At the same time, technology manufacturer’s are preparing the components to produce wearables and handle the data that comes from them. This includes products like Intel’s Edison platform, designed for both wearables and IoT.

Another is the Intel Quark System on a Chip architecture for low-power, low-size computing, and the Intel Curie module which is the first platform of its kind from Intel, being  a complete low-power kit designed for companies interested in developing wearable technology solutions.

The prototyping technology now exists to make wearable computing a reality. The network is prepared, and the market is ready. All that’s needed now are for the innovators to step forward and take their ground.