Wearable Tech World Feature Article
April 14, 2015

Wearable Technology and Its Impact on Retail

Smart watches, connected glasses and even smart contact lenses are gradually making their presence felt in the mass market. These devices are tipped to be the next big thing, capable of running apps that will allow employees and consumers alike to purchase and interact with products using a simple blink of the eye or verbal command.

Wearables, particularly smartwatches, are being marketed for consumers with a lot of fanfare, but, surprisingly, it is the applications for employees that are most interesting. This technology’s impact on industries as wide ranging as retail, logistics, manufacturing and the supply chain has the potential to be massive.   

The frontrunner among smart glasses, Google Glass, is currently undergoing a shift in focus towards enterprise applications. While the initial consumer-facing experiment that was the Glass Explorer program is being phased out, Google is doubling down on the technology’s development for use in business. Over the last two years, retailers have used Glass for hands-free order commissioning in warehouses, decentralised fulfilment centres and store locations. Technicians have developed field service applications, where smart glasses are used to access manuals and machine parts information, and to share views with more experienced colleagues via “eye sharing.” Microsoft’s HoloLens and Oculus Rift have proposed applications for advanced technical modelling, and medical technology companies are even testing ways for smart glasses to help autistic children parse social interactions.

But because of their limited distribution with consumers, smart glasses are not quite ready for many meaningful consumer applications in the mobile shopping context just yet. To gain large-scale adoption, smart glasses like Samsung Gear VR, Microsoft HoloLens, and Epson Moverio need to be further miniaturized. Ideally, popular glasses brands such as Ray-Ban and Warby Parker would directly embed the technology platforms in their products. This would enable the computing power and innovative approaches of smart glasses to be combined with stylish designs that would appeal to a mass-market consumer base. With this level of integration and the resulting adoption, it would finally be worth the effort for retailers to offer consumer-facing applications for wearable’s, accessible through normal glasses or, ultimately, contact lenses embedded with smart glass technology.

While fully-functioning smart glasses may be a bit further down the road, there is a wearable that is already available and radically changing the landscape of consumer and enterprise information delivery: the smartwatch. For consumer-facing applications like mobile shopping or in-store self-scanning, smart watches that connect to smartphones via Bluetooth—like the Samsung Galaxy Gear, Pebble, and Moto 360— enable a wide variety of information delivery services and are proving to be unobtrusive, easy to wear and easy to operate for the millions of consumers who have purchased them. With the upcoming market entry of the much-anticipated Apple Watch, we can expect to see increased adoption across the board. Just as the iPhone helped create an entirely new marketplace for mobile applications, we can expect to see entirely new consumer-facing retail applications that are optimized for the wrist-savvy consumer.

Also critical to the development of consumer smartwatch applications is the inclusion of native camera hardware. While most current offerings have eschewed this feature so far, some—such as the Galaxy Gear 2 and fledgling hardware concepts by Arrow—recognize built-in cameras as integral to the smartwatch user experience. The near future will likely see a wide range of experimental designs that include cameras, but regardless of which configuration proves successful they will open up a number of avenues for real-world interaction beyond video calls and photography. Paired with advanced scanning software, smartwatches have the clear potential to be used for more convenient in-store shopping experiences. Customers will be able to compare prices and reviews of similar products, check for additional inventory availability, place orders for out-of-stock items, and even receive suggestions for accessories based on purchase history, all while keeping their phones in their pockets. As integrated smartwatch cameras become more common, retail apps that support these features won’t be far behind.

Wearables also have a part to play in the implementation of augmented reality (AR), allowing customers to see how a new piece of furniture would look in their virtual living room, for example. Such use cases are already being deployed in selected concept store locations today. To roll out wearable AR experiences to large audiences, however, retailers will depend on wide adoption of smart glasses such as Gear VR, Moverio, or the next consumer iteration of Glass.  

Mobile Point of Sale (MPoS), which allows retailers to check out customers from anywhere in the store on a mobile device, is not so easily enabled through today’s wearables.  The screens on smart watches are too small and checking out a customer through Google Glass (e.g., by recognising a customer’s face and automatically retrieving their credit card information) in most cases would be rather awkward. For wearable point of sale to become a practical reality, further miniaturisation of smart glasses or different form factors for smart watches will be required.

Behind the scenes, the picture is different. Even in their current, occasionally bulky forms, smart glasses lend themselves well to the hands-free user experience – the supply chain and retail industries are therefore ripe for the innovation offered by wearables. An excellent example is in mobile order fulfilment, which can be made more efficient by utilising barcode scanning running on smart glasses. A “pick-by-vision” approach allows the warehouse or stock-room employee to retrieve a pick list, move through the warehouse to the proper bin locations – via the most efficient path as indicated on the heads-up display – and scan each item on the list using their smart glasses to verify the picks before collecting all the products and making them ready for dispatch.  

As more practical and user-friendly wearable device applications are developed, consumer adoption will increase. It won’t be long before we see shop assistants using smartwatches or smart glasses for quick visual references, to check stock inventories, or to guide customers to a particular section of a store. Retailers are beginning to realise the cost benefits and efficiencies that this new technology affords in the back office, and as every new wearable device or device update appears we move closer to mass-market adoption and a flurry of consumer-facing applications.

Samuel Mueller is the CEO and co-founder of Scandit and is responsible for overall strategic direction, marketing, sales and business development. Prior to Scandit, Samuel was a management consultant and project leader for multinational companies such as Swiss Airlines, Swiss Re and IBM as well as a corporate researcher at the renowned IBM Zurich Research Lab. While at IBM, Samuel was awarded an IBM Research Division Award and a total of three IBM Invention Achievement Awards. He has authored numerous patent applications and has published his research results in leading conferences and journals. Samuel holds a PhD from ETH Zurich and graduated summa cum laude with an MSc in Computer Science and an MA in Financial Economics, both from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is regularly invited to speak at high-profile industry conferences such as MobileBeat 2011 in San Francisco or, most recently, FutureStores 2014 in Seattle.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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