What’s the Deal with Wear­ables?

Wear­ables Might End Up be­ing the Next Big Thing, Just Not Yet

Arabnet - The Quarterly - - Content -

Dis­cover the evo­lu­tion of wear­able com­put­ing and how we are mov­ing to­wards a wear­able fu­ture

It’s been an in­ter­est­ing decade for wear­ables. Mi­crosoft re­leased the first smart­watch in 2004, the SPOT, which was termed as “smart,” “sexy,” and “rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” only to stop its pro­duc­tion two years later. Then, Fit­bit hogged the head­lines af­ter it gave the au­di­ence at Techcrunch50 a glimpse of its fit­ness gad­get in­no­va­tion, and kept technophile geeks on their edge for al­most a year un­til it fi­nally launched the prod­uct in 2009. A few months later, Nike re­leased its Sports­band, and Jaw­bone launched UP. By Jan­uary 2012, man­u­fac­tur­ers have be­come so en­grossed with smart fit­ness gad­gets that the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show (CES) 2012 was crowded with hun­dreds of fit­ness com­pa­nies dis­play­ing their wear­able gad­gets. But it wasn’t un­til Google emerged from its mys­te­ri­ous X Lab in April 2012 to in­tro­duce Project Glass that the tech mar­ket went berserk. And so be­gins, as many think, the era of wear­ables. Only, that is not true.

The real his­tory of wear­ables goes back a lot fur­ther—well be­fore the first wrist­watch, let alone the first smart­watch. The re­cent spur of in­ter­est in wear­ables came with the growth of low-power sen­sor tech­nol­ogy, which made de­vices more af­ford­able and the con­sumer propo­si­tion more ap­peal­ing. Cou­ple that with the high pen­e­tra­tion of smartphones world­wide—the de­vice that will power the new wave of wear­ables—and we are on the cusp of a new tech revo­lu­tion. Here is a brief over­view of the lat­est and the great­est in wear­ables.

SMART­WATCHES

The most suc­cess­ful smart­watch so far is Pebble. It got off the launch­pad af­ter its un­prece­dented $10.3 mil­lion Kick­starter cam­paign two years ago. Pebble func­tions as a fit­ness com­puter, a me­dia player, and of course, a watch. It also serves as the smart­phone’s sec­ondary screen by pro­vid­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tions and re­mote con­trol ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Pebble’s most re­cent ver­sion, the Pebble Steel, has an up­lifted de­sign but is still far from be­ing called fash­ion­able to wear. The same goes for the Sam­sung Galaxy Gear which, although is more user friendly with its big screen, still lacks many of the smart func­tions ex­pected from a smart­watch.

The I’m Watch, re­leased in 2011, was one of the first smart­watches to be re­leased af­ter the in­dus­try laid dor­mant for a decade. De­spite be­ing in the mar­ket for more than 4 years, I’m Watch still hasn’t reached mass mar­ket ap­peal, prob­a­bly be­cause it is over­priced for its limited fea­ture set.

There has been much spec­u­la­tion that Ap­ple is gear­ing up to de­liver a smart­watch, the iwatch. It is prob­a­bly the most an­tic­i­pated smart­watch, and even though Ap­ple hasn’t con­firmed the ru­mors, its re­cent re­ported ac­qui­si­tion of Luxvue, a de­vel­oper of mi­cro-led dis­plays, could mean there is truth to th­ese ru­mors.

SMART­GLASSES

The video that caused mass me­dia hype about wear­able tech­nol­ogy was the “One Day” video re­leased by Google, in which it un­veiled Project Glass. The video did not show the de­vice, but rather what the user sees while wear­ing it: from re­minders to di­rec­tions to in­stant mes­sag­ing and video call­ing, all ap­pear­ing in the wearer’s field of vi­sion. Google ad­mit­ted that the video showed a lot more than the pro­to­types are ca­pa­ble of, but strongly be­lieves that we will see th­ese fea­tures in the near fu­ture. A year later af­ter the re­lease of the video, Google an­nounced that the high-tech Glass would be avail­able for con­sumers for only 24 hours—that hap­pened on April 15, 2014.

Google is not the only com­pany work­ing on smart­glasses. Vuzix’s M100 is an An­droid-based wear­able com­puter that made its de­but at CES 2013, and is now al­ready avail­able in the mar­ket for $1000. It has also re­leased the M2000 AR which, at al­most $6000, is de­signed to pro­vide hands-free in­for­ma­tion and aug­mented re­al­ity in industrial us­age.

Over 16 other com­pa­nies are ex­pected to re­lease smart glasses in 2014. Among them is Soulaiman Itani’s Moun­tain View-based Atheer Labs, which is busy work­ing on Atheer One, a de­vice that not only lets in­for­ma­tion float in the user’s field of vi­sion, but also lets the user phys­i­cally ma­nip­u­late it. It has al­ready launched a suc­cess­ful cam­paign on Indiegogo ear­lier this year, rais­ing al­most $214,000, more than twice its fundrais­ing goal.

SMART FIT­NESS GAD­GETS

Smart fit­ness gad­gets are the most com­monly avail­able sub­set of wear­able tech­nol­ogy. How­ever, be­ing par­tially or en­tirely de­pen­dent on ex­ter­nal de­vices— like the smart­phone—they of­fer only a small per­cent­age of the func­tion­al­i­ties

The re­cent spur of in­ter­est in wear­ables came with the growth of low­power sen­sor tech­nol­ogy, which made de­vices more af­ford­able and the con­sumer propo­si­tion more ap­peal­ing.

promised by the wear­ables of the fu­ture. Th­ese de­vices also come in less ob­tru­sive and more fash­ion­able de­signs than other wear­ables, and most have just the right price for their limited fea­tures, re­sult­ing in a broader con­sumer ap­peal.

Take the Fit­bit Zip, for ex­am­ple. Be­ing wa­ter re­sis­tant and able to pro­vide use­ful data and anal­y­sis about a per­son’s life­style (such as steps taken, calo­ries burnt, etc.), the de­vice is ar­guably the best fit­ness tracker you can buy for un­der $60. How­ever, it is un­able to mea­sure sleep, a func­tion­al­ity cov­ered by the Jaw­bone Up.

De­spite their con­sumer ac­cep­tance, smart fit­ness gad­gets are still in the process of be­ing fine-tuned in terms of both de­sign and func­tion­al­ity. In their aim to make wear­ables more com­fort­able, Mas­sachusetts-based mc10 has de­vel­oped what it calls “con­for­mal elec­tron­ics,” which are thin, flex­i­ble, in­te­grated cir­cuits that can be em­bed­ded in fab­ric or flex­i­ble plas­tic. Mc10’s first flex­i­ble com­put­ing pro­to­type is the Biostamp—a col­lec­tion of sen­sors that can be ap­plied on the skin like a sticker or Band-aid. The sen­sors col­lect data such as body tem­per­a­ture, heart rate, sleep, and ex­po­sure to UV ra­di­a­tion.

SMART CLOTH­ING

Tech man­u­fac­tur­ers con­cur that the key to un­lock­ing the full po­ten­tial of wear­ables is to move the de­vices be­yond ac­ces­sories and onto the rest of our bod­ies—that is, mak­ing cloth­ing smarter. Af­ter Mi­crosoft’s re­search-de­signed dress that dis­plays tweets and North Face’s jack­ets with in­built PMP con­trols and sports ap­parel laden with sen­sors, smart cloth­ing has con­sid­er­ably be­come a broad field of wear­able tech. But with bet­ter ac­cu­racy and con­ve­nience comes higher prices. There is also the chal­lenge of wash­ing the tech gar­ments.

Athos, a Us-based startup that launched late 2013, is among many work­ing on em­bed­ding tech­nol­ogy within our cloth­ing. The wear­able tech ap­parel they have been designing mea­sures the ac­tiv­ity of 14 dif­fer­ent mus­cles. It also mon­i­tors heart rate and breath­ing and trans­mits the info over Blue­tooth to iphones and ipads. Athos is ex­pected to be re­leased by mid-2014 for a price of $298.

Heap­sy­lon’s Sen­so­ria Sock is an­other smart gar­ment; it is a pres­sure sens­ing tex­tile sock that coaches users on their run­ning tech­niques in real time. Heap­sy­lon is also work­ing on a new T-shirt ver­sion which uses sim­i­lar tex­tile to mon­i­tor the wearer’s heart rate. Heap­sy­lon part­nered with de­vel­op­ers of Google Glass app Race Your­self to bring heads-up vis­ual feed­back to run­ners.

TO­WARDS A WEAR­ABLE FU­TURE

Wear­ables may end up be­ing the next big thing, just not yet. The func­tion­al­i­ties

of­fered by wear­able tech are ap­peal­ing to users. They want to own the data and be in bet­ter con­trol of their life­style. But the play­ers in the wear­able arena still need to mas­ter the fash­ion el­e­ment for the tech­nol­ogy to be widely ac­cepted and reach the same suc­cess as smartphones or tablets. In fact, even smartphones didn’t reach their cur­rent near­lyu­biq­ui­tous adop­tion un­til the ad­vent of the iphone, a de­vice that made aes­thetic de­sign a cor­po­rate ne­ces­sity and a core com­pe­tency as vi­tal as the abil­ity to make a sta­ble OS or a faster chip. Wear­able tech­nol­ogy sim­ply needs to be­come less in­tru­sive and more com­fort­able, and pro­vide users with valu­able data in easy-to-un­der­stand ways. Ap­ple seems to have taken the lead to ad­dress the is­sue of the fash­ion el­e­ment; oth­er­wise, why would it hire Yves Saint Lau­rent CEO, Paul Den­eve, and al­lo­cate him to spe­cial projects un­der Tim Cook, and ap­point Burberry’s An­gela Ahrendts as Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent of re­tail and on­line stores?

Putting de­sign and fash­ion aside, the wear­able revo­lu­tion might well be on our doorstep, with sen­sors and chip sets be­ing cheaper than ever, and smart­phone tech­nolo­gies pro­vid­ing wear­able man­u­fac­tur­ers with de­pend­able mo­bile In­ter­net and Blue­tooth ser­vices. With th­ese “pre-baked” hard­ware and wire­less con­nec­tiv­ity, and huge pre­orders from crowd­fund­ing plat­forms such as Kick­starter and Indiegogo, small com­pa­nies might be able to put their wear­able in­no­va­tions on the ta­ble fac­ing gi­ant tech com­pa­nies, com­pete, and pos­si­bly win.

The play­ers in the wear­able arena still need to mas­ter the fash­ion el­e­ment for the tech­nol­ogy to be widely ac­cepted.

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