Why carry a laptop, tablet, or even a phone for Internet access when you could log on through your glasses or wristwatch? No longer a solely a futurist trope, electronics and software firms are in a race to develop industry-defining models of what is known as wearable tech or wearables. This disruptive trend may one day render the modern day PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphone obsolete, and make Internet connectivity simply a matter of getting dressed.
Wearable technology (wearables) is defined as the integration of computing and wireless technologies with clothing, jewelry and accessories. While more rudimentary forms of wireless tech, such as the calculator wristwatch, have existed since the 1980s, with advances in miniaturizing circuitry and wireless technologies, wearables have significantly increased the existing and potential applications of the concept.
In this article, we will explore the world of wearable tech, specifically: 1) brief history of wearables, 2) trends and development in wearables, 3) benefits of wearables, 4) applications of wearables, 5) notable current example of wearables, 6) challenges presented by wearables, and 7) the future of wearables.
BRIEF HISTORY OF WEARABLES
Wearable tech may seem like a new phenomenon, but its origins actually lie in the 1960s and 1970s, with wearables designed and used to cheat at gambling. In 1961, MIT professor Edward Thorp created a wearable device to cheat at roulette, and in 1972, Kevin Taft created one to cheat at blackjack. In 1975, the calculator wristwatch was marketed and sold to the public. But wearables did not expand further until 1987, with the advent of the digital hearing aid. As Internet technologies took proliferated throughout the next decade, 1994 saw the invention of the first wireless wearable webcam, 2000 saw the sale of the first Bluetooth headset, and 2006 saw the release of the Nike iPod, which synced iPod user to their movements.
TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS IN WEARABLES
The largest categories of wearables currently on the consumer market are fitness and healthcare monitors. Most new developments center around the type of clothing or accessory, as well as the level of functionality. And fashion designers are beginning to get in on the act, with recent fashion shows incorporating stylish and functional clothing. Wearables research often deals with new materials that may be used to create wearables, such as graphene, a pliable and efficient electricity conductor. Miniaturization plays heavily into wearables, as well for obvious reasons.
Experts believe that the market is young and growing. Transparency Market Research, a marketing research firm, predicts that the market will grow to $5.8 billion in 2018 from $750 million in 2012. Juniper Research, another marketing research firm, predicts that the market will grow to 419 billion by 2018.
However, other experts are concerned about how disruptive wearables will be, as one-third of Americans who own a wearable device, stops wearing it within six months. Some counter this is because the market is still relatively new. Others wonder how devices with less functionality than a smartphone will compete with a smartphone.
BENEFITS OF WEARABLES
Despite the legitimate concerns, wearables provide users with a number of benefits including:
- Physical activity and fitness monitoring;
- Enhanced social networking: through unique wearables user communities, like Google’s “Glass Explorers”, or Fitbit’s active online community;
- Personal safety: through communications interfaces for emergency usage featured on some wearables;
- Healthcare monitoring: through monitoring of patient vital signs either in hospital or remotely by specially designed wearables; and
- General increased wireless connectivity.
APPLICATIONS OF WEARABLES
Wearables have broader applications then just fitness and health. And while consumer applications drive the market, many of the design, usability, manufacturing, and production are adaptable to commercial, military, and medicinal applications as well.
The Future Of Wearable Technology
Wearable tech has many enterprise-level applications for businesses. An April 2014 survey of businesses indicated that the majority did not plan to implement wearables on an enterprise level, but that even of those that did not, they expected that, if they did, the benefits would include “improved communication, enhanced productivity, and better customer relations.” A recent University of London study confirmed this, concluding, after a month-long experiment, that wearables can boost productivity and job satisfaction in the workplace.
Enterprise-level applications include enhancing resource access to, and tracking the whereabouts of, remote workers; enhanced communication (through wireless headsets and wristbands, for moving employees such as retail workers); augmented vision (through smart glasses, used for example, in the construction industry, to “see” inside walls); and increased payment options (through a wristwatch, for example). Further wearables have considerable industry-specific applications for uniformed professions, such as law enforcement and emergency medical technicians.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of wearables for business is the data that wearables collect. Such consumer information could be invaluable to marketing and sales departments. This application of wearable tech has doubtlessly influenced the entry of large firms, such as Google, Intel, Qualcomm, and Samsung.
There are a number of consumer wearables currently on the market, ranging from smart wristwatches to smart contact lenses to sensor-integrated clothes. Examples include XOEye’s XOne camera glasses; CSR’s smart jewelry, which can be worn around the neck and blinks when the wearer receives a phone call; SafeNecklace, which can monitor kids during field trips; OMSignal’s spandex shirt, which can monitor a wearer’s vital functions Lumo’s posture correcting belt, the Bluetooth LumoBack belt; the Pebble Steel smartwatch, on which the wearer can receive text messages and emails; and Sensoria’s electronic anklet which tracks the wearer’s speed and distance, just to name a few. There are even electronic tattoos under development. However, the consumer market for wearables is extremely fragmented.
One wearables enthusiast is the U.S. military, which sees the technology providing enhanced efficiency for soldiers. Wearables that can monitor the vital signs of soldiers can be the difference between life and death. Other wearables, in the form of helmets, overlay information over a soldier’s eyes to increase their awareness of their surroundings. An example of this is the Aviation Warrior, a wearables system developed by Raytheon, which includes a helmet, wrist display and portable computing device, all designed to provide the soldier with as much information as possible about who is on the battlefield in real-time.
The military is not limited in the scope of its wearables-related thinking to soldiers. Under development is a wearable that can “translate” the actions of military animals. The system is known as FIDO (facilitating interactions for dogs with occupations”), and after training, the dog could activate different sensors to activate different things, for example a tug to issue a beep to indicate the presence of an explosive.
Another early adopter of wearables is the medical community, many members of whom are interested in miniature wearables for healthcare monitoring. One such wearable is MC10’s ultra-thin Biostamp, which, when affixed to the body, can monitor heart rate, temperature and other vital statistics, and can send that information wirelessly back to doctors. Others include a bandaid by medical sensor company Corventis that monitors heart conditions; a muscle contraction sensor by TMG that measures muscle fatigue; and a “smart” insole by Moticon for use in patient analysis, monitoring, and rehabilitation.
Wearables have further applications in clinical practice, such as the 9Solutions IPCS, a device that tracks medical staff and equipment in real-time.
Other applications of wearable tech include, but are not limited to recording car accidents for insurance purposes; law enforcement surveillance; mapping terrain for outdoor activities in real-time; and serving as memory aids.
NOTABLE CURRENT EXAMPLES OF WEARABLES
While there are many, many players in the wearables market, a few standout.
Top 5 Wearable Tech – So Far
Perhaps the most buzzworthy wearable in recent years has been Google Glass, a headset that can be fitted with prescription frames, that provides users with wireless connectivity, apps, and other features available on the android operating system. In 2013, a limited run was manufactured, distributed, and priced at $1,500 a piece. As of August 2014, it is available to anyone who wants one, but Google has indicated to journalists that it is not a fully formed consumer product yet.
During its short life, Google Glass has proven itself to be an object of excitement, curiosity and scorn. Many tech enthusiasts praise the functionality and design, as well as its light weight, but many others who encounter users, are put off by it because of privacy concerns, and the perception of intrusiveness. Technical complaints involve the limited battery life, unreliable voice recognition for anything other than navigation, issues conforming to the vision needs of certain users, and generally underdeveloped software.
A recognized brand in the fitness wearables category, the firm Fitbit sells several models of smart wristbands that tracks your physical activity, and transmits this information, wirelessly, to your smartphone or tablet app. It is compatible with devices running iOS or Android OS, and can send notifications when a wearer have achieved or missed a fitness goal. It has proven to be popular, largely within the fitness enthusiast market. It does have a number of direct competitors in addition to the basic pedometer, a number of smart wristbands by different manufacturers that track physical activity, differentiated by design, metrics, and usability. Fortunately for Fitbit’s competitors, following wearer complaints that the Fitbit Force caused skin rashes, the company recently recalled the product (controversy has continued with delays in the issuance of recall checks). This is illustrative of one of the challenges presented to wearables manufacturers – ensuring that the device works safely on the human body.
Other notable wearables on the market include:
- The Martian Notifier, Pebble Watch, and Samsung Gear 2 Neo, three different smartwatches with varying levels of smartphone functionality;
- The Fitbit Zip, Basis Band, Jawbone Up24, and Withings Pulse O2: different smart physical activity trackers for the fitness enthusiast; and
- AiQ’s smart shirts, such as the BioMan t-shirt with smart sleeves that monitor the wearer’s vital signs; the SolarMan vest that can capture and store solar energy and use it to recharge a wearer’s electronic devices; and the ArmorMan pullover that stiffens to protect the wearer.
CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY WEARABLES
Despite the number of players in the wearables markets and the optimism of market analysts, widespread adoption of wearables remains a challenging proposition for a number of reasons including privacy issues, consumer reticence, and both design and standardization issues.
There are severe privacy considerations concerning wearables, which must be addressed within the contexts of various national and local legal frameworks. Fundamentally, what controls exist to ensure that people are not using wearables to surreptitiously record others or copyrighted material?
Notably, a user of Google Glass, who had the device integrated with his prescription glasses, was arrested and detained in January of 2014 by federal law enforcement official on suspicion that he had recorded a movie he had just watched (he had not). As media accounts indicate, agents who repeatedly questioned him and asked him to demonstrate the devices usage, did not fully understand the device and were unprepared to enforce relevant laws.
While this user did not surreptitiously record material, and while Google Glass has restricted its authorized apps from incorporating facial recognition functionality, a determined do-it-yourselfer can incorporate these features into their device. This reality adds to the perception of the intrusiveness of headsets and other wearables that incorporate recording technology, and heightens consumer hesitance to use the product.
Widespread adoption of wearables is further constrained by 1) the limited consumer awareness of the products currently on the market; 2) the limited number of products currently on the market; and 3) hesitation among some consumers to increase their connectivity. Regarding the latter, some people will undoubtedly just want clothes to just be clothes. The aforementioned privacy concern, coupled with public accounts of overzealous law enforcement regarding the Google Glass, adds to consumer reticence.
Further, fashion is an important aspect of wearables adoption: people will not adopt wearables if it aesthetically displeasing or uncomfortable. And many technology firms are struggling with the perfect mix of form and function.
The average consumer may wonder why they should be interested in wearables. After all, they have smartphones, which in many cases, have more functionality than the average wearable. In the first quarter of 2014, 300 million smartphones were shipped, compared to only 2.8 million wearable devices.
As a practical matter, wearables are limited by the size, shape, and form of the wireless technology incorporated into the clothing item, as well as the maximum life of the battery that powers it. Materials must be flexible and pliable enough to conform to a body part or body type. Wearables must also be able to operate safely on the human body, a moving and perspiring environment subject to the elements. Display quality is also in issue in the sunlight; poor visibility will turn off consumers. And batteries should have an appreciable life – a tall order for most wearables.
Many current applications cannot yet be manufactured at a high volume for a low price point, making cost a further challenge. Standardization is another key challenge. While major software firms like Google are players in this space, there are a number of smaller competitors as well, each with their own operating parameters.
Further, security is a challenge that cannot be overstated. A recent study by IT firm Symantec found:
“…’security risks in a large number of self-tracking devices and applications,’ including the finding that ‘all of the wearable activity-tracking devices examined, including those from leading brands, are vulnerable to location tracking.’”
THE FUTURE OF WEARABLES
Beyond the realms of fitness, tech enthusiasts, medical/healthcare and military gear, the future of wearables remains to be seen. The market could very well endure some consolidation, with a few major players emerging. But a compelling consumer wearable model – a reason to connect clothing, a reason to, ostensibly, do away with the smartphone, and a reasonable price point – has not yet emerged. Wearables may yet remain a niche product, albeit a growing one, as new technologies emerge.
The Internet of Things (IoT) – the ever-increasing trend of connecting physical objects to the Internet may drive the growth of wearables. It may be that consumers, buying into the growing smart home trend and living in municipalities that are increasingly interconnected (“smart cities”), may decide they simply want everything connected. And advances in the technology may eliminate safety and aesthetics as concerns. Privacy remains a significant hurdle; how it is addressed by national and local governments will have a significant impact on consumer adoption.
But no matter how widespread consumer wearables become, commercial, medical and military wearables have a bright future. And with both the growing market and the lucrative pot of big data that wearables create, it’s a near-certainty that firms will continue to develop, introduce, and refine consumer wearable products and brands vigorously.