Unless you have been living under a rock for the last year or so, most likely you have heard about wearable technology. If you have been living under a rock, then thank you for making this one of your first stops...
When the topic of wearable tech comes up, most people immediately get an image in their head of a wristwatch but the range of devices is much greater than that. Defining the category, wearable technology is either clothing or accessories you can wear which incorporate computer or other electronic capabilities. The intent is to incorporate practical functions and features designed to make some facet of life easier. More often than not, the tech is also intended to make some sort of fashion statement. For the remainder of our time today, let's abbreviate wearable tech as WT.
You'd think with the amount of press WT has been enjoying in the last year or so that it is a relatively new idea. Truth is, the concept has been around in both real and imagined varieties for a long time. Whether it is Steve Mann's interesting mission in the early 80's to make a truly portable and personal computer, Casio's attempt to make nerds recognizable with the calculator watch, or lusting after Borg implants, WT has been a part of our collective conscious for a long time. One of the first documented instances of WT may actually surprise you - China in the 17th century. While not electrical in nature, the Chinese developed an abacus in a ring that could be used while worn, making financial transactions smoother and faster.
Back to wristwatches. In the early 19th century, a German Naval artillery officer took a common pocket watch (itself an example of WT) and strapped it to his wrist to assist in timing bombardments. His superiors saw the benefit in the idea and asked a French company to manufacture what they called "wristlets", the predecessor of the wrist watch. Like all innovative tech, however, the concept of the wristwatch was met with skepticism and disdain. Most men considered them as a fad best left to women and not a serious timepiece. It took a change in men's fashion - losing topcoats and waistcoats - for the wristwatch to catch on.
For the last year there has been a swirl of conversation about Google Glass. In a nutshell, Glass is an optical display and computer which looks like an unfinished pair of glasses. Using a combination of voice, touch, camera, and location and motion sensors, Glass can present information in its small display which augments reality by overlaying information about your surroundings, presents useful data like identifying people nearby or provides instructions such as directions to a given location. And this is where the trouble began. Because Glass has a front-mounted camera which can be used to surreptitiously take still images or capture video, the device came under immediate fire over privacy concerns, with some businesses even going so far as to ban the device from their establishment - a bold act for a device which had only been released to a handful of developers and was (and in fact still is) a long way from being an actual commercial product.
Glass may or may not ever become a mass-market consumer product, but that is hardly the point. The very thing which troubles most detractors of Glass - the ability to be identified and recorded by a device worn by another person - is the strength and promise of the device. Without trying to trivialize concerns over privacy, I would argue that in the proper setting the ability for Glass to do what it does makes it an invaluable tool. Let's take the most obvious example - your doctor. These days, most healthcare practitioners see many hundreds of patients each month if not more. By using Glass a provider could leverage facial recognition to identify a patient, pull up patient data and provide faster and more accurate care. The interaction between the doctor and patient could be recorded much the same way phone calls with (for example) your credit card company are recorded, giving both the doctor and patient a way to ensure quality care.
Glass is not the only WT out there, however. A few months ago Beth (Mrs. Techno-Man for the uninitiated) got a Jawbone Up band. This little strip of rubber worn around the wrist looks a lot like a part of a tire. The sensors in the device paint an interesting story about her daily activity, though. By connecting with an app on her smart phone, the Up band can tell her how far she has walked in a given day, what the quality of her sleep was like last night and how well she is performing against goals she sets for herself. It even vibrates when she has been sedentary for longer than a time she established. Being on the cutting edge of WT comes at a price, though - the Up is less than the perfect device. It requires the device to be plugged in to her phone daily to transfer data, and we have already been through 2 bands in about 4 months because the charging mechanism is wonky. Still, the idea is sound, so last week I bought the Fitbit Flex band, a competing product which uses Bluetooth to transfer data. So far it has proven to be rather interesting. It is causing me to think daily about my activities because I am essentially competing against myself every day to walk more, eat less, sleep better or whatever health goals I choose to set. So far I love what it is helping me accomplish, and soon Beth may also migrate to this device.
Last week Samsung demoed the new Galaxy Gear smart watch, a companion device to their Galaxy line of phones and tablets. The promise of the device is that independent developers can create applications which can be downloaded to the watch to allow the wearer to automate tasks, monitor communications and perhaps to tie into the onboard sensors to accomplish some of the same metrics as the Up or Fitbit Flex bands. It also tells time. I recently purchased a predecessor device, the Pebble smart watch, which does a lot of the same things as the Galaxy Gear without some of the sophisticated sensors (or color screen or display size - sometimes being an early adopter of new technology sucks). Immediately after the demo there were conversations all over the Internet about the worth of the device, mostly around the question of why we would need something like this when much of what you could do with the device could also be accomplished by simply fishing your phone out of your pocket. Again, as with Glass the point is not the as-is experience but the potential the device brings with it. With the right sensors and application, a device like the Galaxy Gear or Pebble could provide real time monitoring for heart patients, wearable glucose management for diabetics or simply exist to nag you (and me) into better life habits like actually getting up from the desk and taking a walk.
But the application of WT does not end with health monitoring. There is so much more. For example, WT can provide security. The Nymi looks a lot like the Up band, but appearance is where the similarity ends. The band accesses an onboard sensor to take an electrocardiogram (or ECG) snapshot of the wearer. This is a unique signature and is much harder to spoof when compared to facial recognition or even traditional fingerprints. Once the ECG signature is captured, a connected device such as a smart phone or a computer receives an unlock code and becomes accessible to the wearer. Using more traditional sensors, the wearer can direct the device to perform certain actions by movement - like opening a device or transferring data. When the wearer removes the band, the heartbeat is lost and in turn the devices controlled by the band are locked. Practically, the band could be used to verify identity and could provide one leg of a two-factor authentication system - the ECG signature is the "what you have" while a password is the "what you know", and combined they create a much harder to defeat security block than a password alone.
Much like the Nymi, the NFC ring can be used for security as well as basic communications. NFC - or Near-Field Communications - is an established communication protocol that allows a device to perform set actions when it comes into contact with an NFC chip. In other parts of the world NFC is used by credit card companies - your credit card has an NFC chip in it, and when passed in front of an NFC reader at a merchant, it can act like a traditional card swipe. The Samsung Galaxy and Google Nexus devices come equipped with an NFC reader which allows you to "bump" with another device and transfer information like a web link or a video. The NFC Ring is a Kickstarter project which embeds two NFC chips into a ring. One of these chips is called the Public access point and the other the Private access point. Using an app on either the Galaxy or Nexus device, you can embed your "business card" in the public portion of the ring and program your device to perform an action when it encounters the private access point. Imagine being able to transfer your contact information to anyone by simply bumping your ring on the back of their phone, or unlocking your phone by tapping the back of the device with the private portion of the ring.
A little more "Star Trek" in function, the CommBadge is a Bluetooth speaker that can facilitate communication between team members. It isn't much to look at, but paired with a smart device it can provide voice control to people who might not be able to operate the device by itself. Imagine a quadriplegic who can direct devices around the home through something like the CommBadge - while there are similar in function devices available, a fair amount require the operator to blow into a mouthpiece a specific pattern to achieve a goal such as moving a wheelchair forward. The promise of the CommBadge is that it lowers the barrier of adopting such a technology while being easier for the patient to learn. Plus it can also provide two-way communication with the patient, making it easier for a caregiver to manage without constantly being in the presence of the patient.
Wearable technology is in its infancy today, so it tends to be discounted. Often attributed to Thomas Watson (the founder of IBM) and perhaps wrongfully so, it was said of the computer that there was a world-wide market for maybe 5 of these devices. Ken Olsen, the founder of DEC (an early minicomputer company) said "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Yet here we are today, a scant two decades and change later, and not only do we have computers in most homes but we also carry them in our pocket. Comparing your phone to the computers which took man to the moon is almost like comparing alchemy to modern medicine. Establishing a metric of some sort, the first iPhone had 8 times more memory than the guidance computer in the Apollo 11 spacecraft, operated at 4 times the clock speed, could track much larger numbers due to having 16 bit registers compared to the Apollo's 4 bit, and the list goes on. Today, the cell phone is not only ubiquitous, but has become so in a very short time. The adoption of the device went from being a novelty to a necessity in less than a decade, thanks in part to the miniaturization and application of function to the device.
There is no reason to believe that WT does not possess the same adoption arc as the cell phone. As the number of relevant sensors increases, the scope and capability of WT will grow. With growth comes application to purpose and from there WT becomes as ubiquitous as the cell phone. So, today you may scoff at the usefulness of the Galaxy Gear or the Fitbit Flex, but tomorrow you will be complaining that the Apple iWatch is not available in Dayglo Orange. When you do, I will sigh and then go back to training my neural implants to speak telepathically with dolphins. Its lonely on the cutting edge, but hey - someone has to do it.