What’s the Deal with Wearables?
Wearables Might End Up being the Next Big Thing, Just Not Yet
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.
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.
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.
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.