Wearable technology: how far is too far?

This Saturday the Pebble Time smartwatch ended its crowd-funding on Kickstarter and smashed the record for the most funded project to ever appear on the site. It raised over $20.3 million from over 78,000 backers all over the world, so it’s fair to say that wearable tech is a hot topic right now – with smartwatches, fitness trackers, smartglasses and VR headsets popping up all over the place.

Wearables are providing some fascinating new possibilities in the world of business. However, it seems that some of the most interesting debates are not around what the technology can do, but rather what the social and privacy implications might be. So, at PA’s annual innovation event we thought we’d find out what people thought – how far is too far for wearables?

Wearables in healthcare

When it comes to healthcare people seem remarkably receptive to technology if it can help them. We asked, “Would you be comfortable having a microchip in your own body for health reasons?”and over 90% of people said they would. But how extreme would people go? We asked, “Would you be comfortable sacrificing a healthy limb for a higher performance artificial equivalent?” and a slightly surprising 30% of people said they would now, or in the future, be comfortable with this. Artificial limbs have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years and the defence sector has been investigating how technology can improve our fragile and weak human frames for some time now. But for 70% of respondents, sacrificing a working limb is a step too far, and I can’t say I blame them.

Wearables at work

When Google announced Project Glass, concerns were immediately raised about privacy, and when the Glass Explorer Program started releasing devices into the wild, there were stories of a backlash. This ranged from being asked to remove them through to physical violence against users of the smartglasses. But what about at work? We asked, “Would you be comfortable being in a business meeting with someone wearing smartglasses?” and almost 60% of respondents said they wouldn’t be comfortable with this yet. As someone who has worn Google Glass extensively, I would say my experience is that people are a little uneasy initially, but it doesn’t take long for people to forget you are wearing them at all, and I expect in a few years this figure will drop significantly.

Interestingly, while people may seem put out by their colleagues wearing smartglasses, people are more accepting of using wearables in general themselves, with almost 70% saying they would currently “be comfortable working for an organisation that mandated the use of wearable devices for certain jobs”, and only 6% saying they would never be comfortable with this.

Wearables and personal data

In this age of information, data privacy is a big issue but one that is not always clear to the consumer especially with companies hiding all kinds of nasty clauses in the T&Cs. This makes it hard to tell what they can actually do with your data. Wearables are loaded with sensors, generating huge amounts of information about your health and lifestyle, so how should this data be used? Our survey revealed that people seem happy for their information to be used so long as they get something back for it. We asked, “Would you be comfortable being offered preferential treatment based on providing continuous health data from a fitness bracelet?” and over 90% said they would, now or in the future, be comfortable with this. However, when the benefit was shifted and we asked, “Would you be comfortable if other people sold observational data of you obtained through their smartglasses?” a whopping 80% said they would never be comfortable with this. It remains to be seen how companies will handle this sort of data, although we are already starting to see life insurance companies offering better rates to customers who are willing to hand over their fitness tracker data. So, is it so much of a stretch to imagine a world where your smartglasses know you looked at an advert on the tube and to pass the information on to marketers for them to follow up? Let’s hope that’s still a little way off!

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