Agencies begin smartwatch tech countdown

Agencies begin smartwatch tech countdown

Say you're an astronaut. (IT managers can dream, can't they?) Keeping to a tight schedule is imperative, but carrying a calendar or stopping to check a posted to-do list takes precious minutes away from productivity. So what if that information wasn't at your fingertips but on your wrist?

That's what NASA was after when it proposed the International Tournament Lab's Astronaut Smartwatch App Interface Design challenge in October. The crowdsourced tournament, held in conjunction with Freelancer.com, asked participants to design the user interface for apps that could be used on Samsung's Gear 2 smartwatch. The envisioned apps would let astronauts to see an agenda view of their mission’s timeline -- including a way to move to past or future days -- as well as color-coded cautions and warnings and communication status. It would also let them set timers for procedures or until the next activity, according to Freelancer.com.

The winning design, called B, was created by Jocelyn Richard and Ignacio Calvo, UX designers in Montreal. The design is “meant to provide quick access to the astronauts’ schedule, to keep them updated on important station notifications and to support time tracking activities, the winners wrote in an email. "It provides a quick and convenient outlet for this information that currently lives as various programs on tablets and laptops."

"The smartwatch is great for this case since it lets astronauts receive information through a consistent method and it allows them to keep their mobility in zero-G," the designers told GCN. "The app provides a way for astronauts to have access to information about what their day is and what is going on…. We can have all this information in a small device, and they don't need to go to other bigger systems and are rather free to go on with the task at hand."

Smartwatches can be business enablers on earth too, according to a NASA paper on their feasibility in the enterprise environment. They can enable a more agile workforce by allowing users to more easily check and respond to messages while on the road. Vibrations from the smartwatch could notify workers of upcoming meetings or incoming emails or messages, keeping them in closer contact with their daily schedule. Finally, the paper suggests enterprises could save money by allowing wearables and reducing the cost of device upgrades.

Still, the paper cautions, integrating wearables into the enterprise “will only work with a sound BYOD policy and management plan in conjunction with the infrastructure to support a mobile workforce.”

Sound BYOD policies are hardly universal in government, but agencies are nevertheless experimenting with wearable technology -- albeit primarily on the citizen-facing side. The FBI's Child ID APK app, for example, lets smartwatch wearers see photos and profiles of missing children and get alerts when new information comes in.

At the state and local levels, Bob Sanders, general manager of the Arkansas Information Consortium, says government officials are trying to anticipate the public's embrace of smartwatches. For example, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers AccessDNR, which lets users find boat ramps or hiking paths. But smartwatch apps can't be mini versions of phone apps, he said. The trick is to find features that work on the smaller screen.

"The thinking in design circles for wearables is that they’re never going to provide the full range of functionality that a laptop or a smartphone or a tablet is going to provide, and attempts to do that have really failed in the wearable space,” he said. “The way things are looking for the foreseeable future is bite-size pieces of information that add some additional level of convenience."

That's why the Arkansas consortium, a subsidiary of e-government provider NIC, created a smartwatch app called Gov2Go that lets residents keep track of government deadlines through a personalized calendar that sends reminders. Additionally, the group took some features of an Arkansas hunting and fishing smartphone app and adapted those for smartwatch wearers. On a phone, the app lets users buy licenses, check game and look at fishing reports for nearby lakes.

“On your watch, you’re not going to check game” because it’s a multiple-step process, Sanders said. But on the watch, users can check the sunrise and sunset time – which determines when it’s legal to hunt and which varies based on the wearer’s location. “One nice thing about the wearable application is you can just pull up your wrist while you’re hunting and check to see how much time you have left before the sun sets or how much time you have left before the sun rises without having to pull up for your phone."

So far, all the smartwatch apps Sanders has seen are in the early stages. Because wearable technology has yet to truly take off, governments are proceeding with caution, creating citizen-facing apps first before making ones that help government workers.

Some companies, however, already are turning an eye toward government workers. Salesforce Authenticator, for instance, lets users access a verification code for two-factor authentication from their smartwatches instead of sending the codes via email or text message.

Down the line, smartwatches might also have a role in implementing the derived credentials that the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on for authentication. NIST defines a derived credential as "an alternative token, which can be implemented and deployed directly on mobile devices (such as smartphones and tablets)."

Sanders likens wearable technology to the early Apple iPhone -- when it was bulky and had a short battery life. He expects to see the wearables market, which he said reaches only about 1 percent of the U.S. population now, explode in the next few years as the technology improves.

People expect “increasing levels of convenience and ease of use, and the smartphone has really gone a long way to promote that," Sanders said. "Wearables, I think, are still very early in the cycle, [but] that’s where government’s focus is: where’s the technology going, how can we prepare for it so that we can provide new levels of convenience to people using these new levels of technology.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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