Testing Wearable Technology in Factory Environments

While consumers view wearables as simply a hot new technology trend primarily geared toward activity tracking and exercise, Intel is piloting a smart watch program to test its viability within its factory work environments.

With initial test criteria of reducing or eliminating the incidences of “missed” alerts and minimizing the number of steps to view alarm notifications, the 3-month pilot program at multiple Intel campuses produced relatively positive results as well as a few new ideas.

According to Azriel Klein, an Intel technician based in Israel who led the pilot, steps to view an alert or page triggered by a failing machine or system notification were reduced from nine to one using a Pebble smart watch versus a traditional smartphone.

After evaluating a few of the smart watches available, Intel chose the original Pebble because it was inexpensive and integrated with a variety of Android and iOS smartphones being used in the factory today. Intel purchased a handful of Pebble watches that employees were allowed to retain after the pilot. Since the pilot began, Intel has also acquired Basis, a company that makes a fitness watch.

The pilot was targeted primarily at technicians who service infrastructure and equipment in a factory environment — areas with loud noise or where it is difficult to physically remove a smartphone from a pocket.

“If you are using latex gloves, you need to pull them off, take your phone from the pocket, unlock it, and read the text,” Klein said. “It’s annoying!”

There were other advantages. Vibrating alerts on the wrist were also less likely to be missed than a vibrating smartphone in a pocket, minimizing the possibility of “phantom pocket vibration syndrome.”

“[The smart watch] works great in noisy environments and offers better reliability,” said Klein. “It’s very hard to miss an alarm when it vibrates on your wrist.”

Response time in reading alerts also increased. According to Klein, the average time to view an alert traditionally on a smartphone was 23 seconds which involved hearing the alert or feeling the vibration, removing the smartphone from a pocket, removing a glove, typing in the security code, opening the messaging application, reading the message and putting the smartphone back. With the smart watch, the time was reduced to less than 4 seconds which simply involved feeling the vibration on the wrist and lifting the arm to view the message.

And there is the politeness factor.

“If you are in a meeting or training, you can have your smartphone in your pocket and you don’t have to reach in to get a notification,” says Julio Sanchez, an Intel technician at one of Intel’s campuses in Santa Clara, California. “It is low profile…you don’t make a big scene and interrupt or be disrespectful.”

A few complaints

The program was not without complaints, however. Sanchez said he didn’t like having to charge the smart watch every 4-5 days (smartphones, however need to be charged daily). Also, the Pebble currently cannot display all of the notifications on its display, requiring the technician to still review longer-length alerts on the smartphone.

“You can miss a long text because [the Pebble] is not capable of receiving all of that data,” says Sanchez. “Sometimes it is too much data coming in.”

Other complaints by participating pilot members included: the lack of a repeating alert option, the Pebble itself was too bulky, not being able to store all of the data for a longer period, and software and firmware issues when the Pebble was updated causing notifications to be missed.

The next generation of work wearable

For Sanchez, Klein and other pilot members, the pilot was an introduction on how wearables in the workplace can create efficiencies, but the team already wants the next generation.

“We should wait for more capabilities,” said Sanchez. “Like being a phone and smart watch…kind of like Dick Tracy.”

Others in the pilot group echoed this with some wishing the smart watch would replace the phone altogether.

“I think it will be great to use [a smart watch] as a ‘second phone.’ I don’t want to give up my smartphone, I need it, I want it,” says Klein. “But, I want the [smart watch] to be individual and independent…and that way, I will be able to get messages, emails, notifications, etc. without having my phone on me.”