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

Financial Times  — 

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.

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 fa