The wave of wearable computers

New wearable devices could define the next generation of computing

Story highlights

  • Wearable gadgets in clothing and accessories are now ready for the mass market
  • But the computers unlock new data about the body, raising concerns about privacy
  • Manufacturing problems must first be solved to make devices more durable for all-day use

On a brisk evening at an avant-garde art gallery in downtown San Francisco, the crowd looked as hip and healthy as you would expect at a show dedicated to the convergence of fashion, industrial design and technology. But this group of technorati had not come to admire exhibits hanging on the gallery walls. Instead, the discussion was about what was hanging from many of their own wrists.

Among them were entrepreneurs catering to the Bay Area's many health and fitness fanatics, who were packed in for a debate on new wearable tech trends.

"Does anyone here know what a GSR -- a galvanic skin response -- is?" asks Adam Gazzaley, director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. "Wow, that's a lot of people," he says, surveying a sea of upraised arms adorned with health bands and smart watches.

Dr Gazzaley was not there chiefly to explain health vitals -- GSR is a helpful measure for assessing physical activity -- to devotees of Quantified Self, a movement promoting self-tracking of health statistics.

Instead, he warned of the wave of data soon to be unleashed by wearable computers -- the wristbands, watches, glasses and other smart devices being dreamt up just a few miles away. Among the dangers are ever more distracted brains and technology companies with ever more personal information about users.

But Dr Gazzaley's concerns are likely to be lost in the wave of hype about wearable computing projects by Google, Apple and other tech companies that could define the next generation of computing.

Google has developed glasses that incorporate a computer screen and camera, enabling users to call up information with voice commands and capture their surroundings. Apple's watch is expected to link up with an iPhone to alert you to incoming calls, as well as tell you how many steps you have walked today.

And there are many other smartwatches, pendants, clip-ons, bracelets and patches embedded with sensors being developed by start-ups.

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Taken together, these moves represent the logical next step in the evolution of computing. The large, complex and expensive mainframes of the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the personal computer in the 1980s. This century has seen the rise of smartphones and tablets, driven by ever smaller and cheaper components. Wearable computers represent a new era of the ultimate personal technology: gadgets attached to, and in some cases interacting with, the body itself.

It has taken 50 years for wearable computing to be ready for the mass market. The first wearable computer was used in a Las Vegas casino in 1961 by Claude Shannon and Ed Thorp, mathematicians and gamblers from MIT. They hid a primitive computer in their shoes that could predict where a ball would land on a roulette wheel. Operating it with their big toes, it would send musical tones as signals to a concealed earpiece but the wire connecting shoe and ear would often break.

The signals being sent out by today's wearable gadgets will offer far wider insights, says Sarah Rotman Epps, analyst with Forrester Research. "They unlock a domain of data that was previously inaccessible: data about the body. And that has unlimited potential," she says.

"If you think about other domains and what we've been able to do -- such as shopping or maps data -- once something is mapped, you can create products and services around it, and so we're only just scratching the surface with body-generated data that's captured by these wearable devices."

Imagine your smartphone knows through your wearable device that you had a poor night's sleep. It can show you an offer from a local coffee bar for a pick-me-up. Or it knows you are a compulsive shopper: it can flash a warning on your credit card balance as you consider another purchase.

This has the potential to be more intrusive than any previous technology, triggering privacy concerns that researchers are already addressing.

"As we sense in real time more and more about the individual, such as moods and behaviour, we need to provide near absolute guarantees that the information will not be subject to theft or attack, down to the silicon melting and still not giving up its data," says Justin Rattner, chief technology officer at Intel, the world's biggest chipmaker.

If this is not done, the potential for a backlash from users is very high, he says. This kind of personal information cannot suffer the security breaches we see with credit card information today.

Apart from providing more jobs for security experts, wearable computing could create new industries and hybrid professions: data scientists who understand physiology and ethnography, for example.

To begin with, though, the industry needs to get past first base by proving there is a market for such devices. It also needs to solve problems of manufacturing computers that don't just sit on a desk but can stand up to being worn all day, every day.

Jawbone, best known for its wireless Bluetooth headsets, brought out its UP health band in 2011, a fashion-able bracelet that monitors sleep and daytime activity, with its data uploadable to a smartphone app. But it had to halt production within weeks after users complained the bands were losing their charge.

The flexible, rubberised band was meant to be showerproof but Jawbone discovered it was being overflexed by users, causing cracks in the circuit boards and allowing water to enter.

It had passed industry standard tests but the company found it had needed its own more rigorous testing as it explored the unknown territory of wearables. "The newness of this entire category meant consumers didn't understand it and even us, as the industry leaders, we realised that we didn't understand it yet," says Travis Bogard, head of product management. Jawbone took almost a year perfecting a stronger band before launching it at a price 30 per cent higher than the original.

Most of the current wearable devices confine themselves to health and fitness uses and contain basic technology, such as a motion-sensing pedometer that may offer less than precise readings.

"We had been facing six new competitors and two or three dropped out because their product wasn't credible in terms of their sensors. People caught on to that pretty quickly," says Christine Robins, chief executive of Bodymedia, whose armband sensors measure sweat, skin temperature, heat dissipation and motion.

"It's taking some time but the uptick will come when the data are factually right, and the analytics and algorithms turn that data into something meaningful. Nobody wants 5,000 data points back but if you can start to turn it into insights that can effect behavioural change, that's the next phase."

While much of the analysis can take place in the cloud data centres of the internet, the smartphone is the intermediary that is making the new wearable movement possible, as the devices connect to apps over Bluetooth wireless technology or other tethering methods.

Smartphone adoption has reached critical mass: 41 per cent of US mobile phone users had one at the end of 2012, says Forrester Research. "[Wearable tech companies] can piggyback off a display, the processor, the radio, the developer community -- there's this whole infrastructure that's in place," says Ms Rotman Epps.

The key to mass consumer acceptance is to add social and "gamification" elements, according to Dave Wang, chief executive of Striiv. His company's clip-on device relays steps taken or climbed to a smartphone app that rewards the user for completing challenges with points. They can then be exchanged for virtual goods in a game within the app, while friends' progress can also be tracked.

Just as photos on camera phones needed Instagram's filters for their distribution to grow, and GPS chips went from preventing you from getting lost to Foursquare's social check-ins, so the physiological signals that are currently generating charts, graphs and analysis will eventually be moulded into more social experiences, he argues. He also sees more aggregation and "mash-ups" of data in the near future. A lack of developed and open standards is an inhibitor to progress but companies such as Striiv, Bodymedia, and the Runkeeper and MyFitnessPal apps are agreeing to share data to allow users a more complete picture of their health and fitness.

Adoption of the devices should also increase as costs of the hardware falls. "We do see hardware becoming rapidly commoditised," says Mr Wang. "It's going to get to a price point where you can start slipping multiple sensors into your shoes, into your pants or into clothing that makes this literally wearable. When it gets to under $10 to make these, they are just going to be everywhere."

Facebook appears well placed as a future aggregator of data from wearables. "It's folded in location and photos to its service. Your physical activity is another signal it could pull in," says Mr Wang.

Apple's entry with a smart watch could also jump-start the market, although Sonny Vu, chief executive of Misfit Wearables, says positioning a device on a wrist could be too restrictive for many people.

Buyers of Misfit's Shine wearable activity monitor, which borrows Apple's minimalist approach to design, have wanted to put this small disc, the size of a quarter, on their wrist, on a chain, around their ankles or even use it as a hairpin.

"As we looked at the wearable space we thought it was a misnomer because the devices were not that wearable. They kind of stuck out," he says. "We made some bold design decisions: there's no buttons, no wires, no docking stations, no charging and no display other than some lights that show your progress."

Devices as non-intrusive and intimate as Shine show how machines are learning how to work with us in the age of wearables, rather than the other way round, says Olof Schybergson, chief executive of Fjord, a design consultancy. He says the look of the products will be crucial to their successful adoption. "Tablets and smartphones say something about you but not nearly as much in terms of style and fashion as something that you wear as part of your outfit."

But wearables are superficial by nature and cannot provide the level of in-depth data of embedded sensors being developed for the body.

Silicon Valley's Proteus Digital Health has won regulatory approval for ingestible sensors -- pills with chips inside that communicate with a smartphone app as they pass through the body.

Internalising sensors may be the inevitable next step after wearables. But to a public that has yet to embrace health bracelets, this may ultimately prove too hard to swallow.

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