Wearing and sharing

Wearable technology offers a unique opportunity to connect with both employees and customers, says F&TRC director Ian McKenna

With so much change going on within our industry, it is easy to lose track of the extent of transformation in wider society – and nowhere is that more evident than in the context of technology.

It is still less than eight years since the first iPhone was released and just over five since the first iPad. Both devices have transformed consumers’ day-to-day behaviour.

We now have an Apple watch too, so who would bet against wearable technology soon making the transition from the geeky to the must-have?

Few industries are likely to be more affected by wearable technology than insurance and employee benefits because it provides a vehicle through which vast amounts of biometric and other data can be collected. This has enormous potential to be used to deliver services that can improve the effectiveness of benefits spend and the overall wellbeing of staff.

What distinguished both earlier Apple devices was the total transformation in useability that they delivered relative to previous phones and laptops. As a result, billions of people now do a vast array of things every day that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

Wearables will deliver a similar transformation. Unlike smartphones, they can blend more subtly into our lives, enabling discrete assimilation without having to constantly look at one’s device.

Recent reports suggest that Google has recognised that the natural environment for its much-misunderstood Glass technology is the workplace. Sony recently launched an augmented-reality glasswear product and, by the time of the 2020 Olympics, it is predicted that such devices will provide real-time line-of-sight translation to multiple languages.

Some of the most interesting developments in this area come from VSP Global, the specialist visioncare insurer that launched in the UK last year and is already offering benefits to tens of thousands of employees of UK companies. In addition to its insurance and benefits business, the company has a special projects division known as The Shop, which I wrote about in the June 2014 issue of Corporate Adviser.

The latest innovation from The Shop is Project Genesis, a prototype glasswear device that looks like an ordinary pair of glasses. The arms of the glasses, however, contain an accelerometer, a gyrometer and a magnetometer, which between them can record a wide range of activity information.

Jay Sales, co-lead at The Shop, is clear that the device is a prototype but says Genesis focuses on how data can be collected and used to add value by providing information that is actionable and can make a difference in individuals’ daily lives.

Recognising the concerns about privacy issues, Sales is quick to point out that considerable work is going on around the psychology of presenting the data. He envisages a world where consumers are empowered so that they control their own data, predicting that a person’s data generally – and their health information in particular – will become an asset category in its own right.

VSP points out that glasses have been a successful form of wearable technology for 600 years, which is an interesting way to look at it. The algorithms that the firm is currently developing are for activity tracking but, in future, they could measure gait, which would open the door to understanding much more about posture, speed of recovery from injuries and operations, stress, breathing and, in the longer term, blood sugar.

The link between employee wellness – both physical and financial – and productivity is well proven and increasing numbers of employers are regarding wearable devices as a great way to help their employees improve their fitness.

VSP faces the challenge of implementing Genesis in ways that can be adopted by staff who either do not need or do not choose to use eyewear, but the potential of this technology is plain to see.

One of the biggest challenges for long-term savings organisations, both advisers and providers, is building day-to-day contact with customers in a way that will maintain a lifelong relationship. Providing valuable health data and insight could be a major opportunity to achieve this.

More information on Project Genesis can be found at: