A decade ago there was little demand for smartphones. Even as technology developed to the point where smartphones and tablets could be mass produced, the market was limited to early adopters and developers.

Apple changed that when it introduced the iPhone, an attractive and easy-to-use product that eased consumers into the smartphone market. Later, Apple followed up with the iPad. Neither product was the first or only product in its class, but the introduction of both rapidly drove adoption and demand.

Now, Google has introduced its Glass product in an attempt to do for wearable computing what Apple did for the smartphone and the tablet. Glass is not the first or only wearable computer, nor is it the only heads-up display (HUD) model on the market. But Google, with its beta Glass Explorer Program, hopes to shape the future for wearable computer and displays, and to expedite adoption.

The possibilities of a wearable computer like Google Glass are exciting not only as entertainment and social connectivity tools, but also as business and productivity enhancers. Glass beta testers, also referred to as Explorers, are testing the capabilities of the hardware in a variety of industries and applications. Simultaneously, developers are working to identify needs that Glass could fill and creating applications to solve those problems.

Wearables are worn on the body or clothing for an extended period of time. They provide an enhanced user experience through advanced circuitry, wireless connectivity and built-in processing capabilities. Wearable computers might be portable industrial human-machine interfaces (HMIs) embedded in wristbands or in clothing, smart watches worn on the wrist or a product like Google Glass.

Heads-up display refers to a wearable that visually displays information using a device worn near or over the eyes. Many wearables and HUD devices already are on the commercial market, but industrial applications are in the early stages of adoption, with expectations for rapid growth in the near future. One report lists no fewer than 13 different companies creating and manufacturing HUD devices including Google, Motorola, Samsung, Epson and Sony.

These manufacturers are chasing a market consisting of more than two dozen product types with five main families of applications: healthcare and medical, fitness and wellness, infotainment, industrial and military. Combined, the wearable tech market passed $10 billion in global original equipment manufacturer revenue in 2013, and is expected to pass $30 billion during 2018, according to research from IHS.

Google Glass in particular is being tested in a variety of applications. The product comes standard with applications such as navigation, Google Now (an information organizer), a QR and barcode scanner and the capability to take hands-free pictures and video. Developers are working on expanding the capabilities of Glass still further. Industrial applications are anticipated to be among those benefiting from hands-free operation of a viewing device. In sterile or harsh manufacturing environments, a tool like Google Glass can bring information into a setting where it would be difficult to use a smartphone or other mobile device safely.

Technicians calibrating an instrument, adjusting a valve or reading amps on a motor often need both hands and would likely welcome a hands-free device. Industrial applications for wearables may include troubleshooting to determine root cause and provide a fix; process monitoring, production status and historical production data graphics, both visual and audible; controlling buttons, switches, sliders, numeric entry and thumbwheels; data entry via operator verbal commands; request for data via operator verbal commands; reading barcodes and pattern recognition of product types; and monitoring system alarm and status messages.

When troubleshooting, plant personnel often must view drawings and documents when trying to determine the root cause of a problem while simultaneously working with the devices and equipment being repaired.

Plant maintenance technicians frequently need to calibrate instruments, a procedure requiring manual manipulation of tools and instruments. Calibration must be made to match certain desired settings. This information could be displayed on a HUD like Google Glass.

In each of these cases, plant personnel often simply don’t have enough hands to view information and do the required work, making a HUD a good fit to increase productivity and reduce mistakes.

In addition to the hands-free aspect, HUDs make it easy to share visual information. Allowing a maintenance technician to see what a machine operator sees or to quickly access machine information in a visual display could reduce the need for on-site maintenance personnel. Vision systems in a HUD might make it possible to quickly perform quality assurance checks on a production line while operators manually control machines.

Wearables and HUDs have a place in industrial applications, but it remains to be seen how these devices will be utilized. Currently, the industrial portion of the wearable market is small, but is expected to grow to 6% of the wearable’s market annual revenue over the next five years. Suppliers and manufacturers alike should plan for industrial wearables such as hand-worn terminals, HUDs, imaging products, smart clothing and smart glasses. As with smartphones and tablets, extensive future use of wearable computers in industry will require commercial development, widespread acceptance and lower prices for wearables.

When hardware technology evolves to a point where low cost, reliable and easy-to-use platforms are available, industrial automation suppliers will develop applications to improve productivity, efficiency and safety.

Join Engineering360 on October 22 at noon Eastern time for a one-hour webinar on industrial mobility and communications. Tom Moore, research analyst with IHS’s Technology Group, will present initial results from a newly completed IHS study analyzing end-user perspectives on mobile device use and networking technologies in industrial automation.

Additional Resources:

Spurred by Google Glass, IHS Forecasts Nearly 10 Million Smart Glasses to Ship from 2012 to 2016

Adjacent Wearable Technology to have Impact on Future Smartphone Designs