With many business apps in development for Google Glass, and microchips in watches, earphones and clothes, the era of hands-free computing is about to become an integral part of our daily lives
Google Glass prototype supplied by buildAR
From left: TomTom Runner supplied by H+K Strategies, Sony SmartWatch supplied by Hausmann, Samsung Galaxy Gear watch supplied by Edelman
Upstairs in a hotel room in Sydney a group of early adopters are having a “meet-up” to check out the latest in wearable technology. Organisers Rob Manson, founder of buildAR, and partner Alex Young watch as watch as people try on Google Classs for the first time.
"They find it strange at first but then they get used to to tapping the side of the Glass to do the tracking and they begin to see what it can do,” Young says.
Manson and Young, who specialise in developing products using augmented reality, are among a handful of people in Australia who have Google Glasses. They have been running regular wearable technology meet-ups to cater for interest from early adopters and companies keen to see first-hand where wearable technology is going, although Google is yet to confirm when it might release its product in Australia.
Wearable technology has been part of our popular culture since Dick Tracy began talking into his wristwatch radio in the 1940s. Then there was Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, who tapped the Communicator on his chest and spoke the iconic phrase “Beam me up, Scotty”. But it has been news of Google Glass that has led to increasing predictions that this will be the year wearable technology hits the mainstream. The product may well be one of the most overhyped inventions before it has even been released. But today, practically every company that makes any sort of consumer electronics is working on a gadget that falls into the space of “wearable technology”. Watches, bracelets, earphones, clothing, glasses, shoes — you name it, and soon it will have a microchip in it and be communicating with the Internet of Everything.
Given fashion trends, practical usage and medical necessity, in the next few years there will be few people without some kind of wearable technology. Google Glass is going to change the world, not because of what it can do — it isn’t really that amazing from a functional perspective; it doesn’t (yet) do anything that a computer or smartphone can’t already do. But it will change the world in the way we interact with technology on a daily basis.
The start of the most recent phase of consumer wearable technology dates back to May 2006 with the release of the $30 Nike+iPod Sports Kit. It was a joint arrangement between Nike and Apple, with Apple making the announcement. As Apple’s iPod Nano got smaller and smaller, it was able to be integrated with other products. Nike designed a pair of shoes with a space in the insole for a sensor that could transmit information to an iPhone. This device would send information about your exercise times, pace, distance and calories burnt and you could even program a power song to play when you needed a burst of motivation.
The technology was great, but the gamechanger was that it represented a smart tie-up between two leading brands. As with Microsoft’s announcement of tablet computers, though, it took some time for momentum to build. It was not until 2012 that the Apple+Nike initiative was followed by other major consumer product announcements. The current producers of wearable technology that are making noise are:
SAMSUNG: Last year it released the Galaxy Gear smartwatch. This was a great first-efford device that ran a full Android operating system
but had to be tethered to a Samsung smartphone, and only a couple of models at that. This year, however, it has hit the ground running with the Galaxy Gear 2, Neo and Gear Fit sportsband — things everyone is already talking about.
FITBIT: While it has been around since 2009, the Fitbit Flex released last year was the company's first wrist "wearable"devise. It is still the market leader with more than a million of the Fitbit Force sold this year in the US alone. But Fitbit is learning what happens when something goes wrong. After more than 10,000 complaints of skin irritation resulting from the new Fitbit Force band, it has sent out an official product recall and has stopped selling it for the moment. At $US130 (about $140) each, that is an expensive mistake.
NIKE: The Nike FuelBand is a top seller in the "activity tracker" product space, with a new perspective on motivation. This device remainds you to get up and move around and communicates with your friends, who can do the same.
JAWBONE: The UP range from Jawbone is minimalistic and stylish, proving that good looks over functionality can drive sales.
PEBBLE: A Kickstarter project with a massive following, Pebble started with a goal of raising $100,000 and ended up reaching $10.2 million in funding with 68,929 backers, and it is one to watch. At the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas in January, Pebble announced the Steel, which brings classical watch styling in steel and leather to the smartwatch revolution.
OCULUS RIFT: While not day-to-day wearable tech, the new Crystal Cove prototypes were rated by many reviewers as the best product of CES 2014. These virtual reality goggles will change the face of gaming and virtual reality experiences. With more than 50,000 developer kits in circulation, content and application creators are rapidly creating a mass market for these devices. The consumer version is expected to be priced from $200 to $400.
GOOGLE GLASS: Announced in 2012, Glass was released to so- called Explorers last year so that they could report back their experiences to Google. Glass is the most talked-about product that you can't buy yet, Google 'hopes' to maybe" release Glass this year. Several significant announcements have already been made this year including colours, prescription models, four titanium styles and tinted lenses. Glass will cost about $US1500 with another $US220 for prescription lenses. Whenever the launch is, it is likely to be staggered, as with the release of an iPhone, to allow suppliers to meet the demand.
ANDROID WEAR: The most recent entrant to the watch market is Google Android Wear, which allows devices to be heavily integrated with the Google Now functionality available on smartphones. The teaser trailer for the Moto360 has people dancing around, talking to the watch and getting updates on relevant information as they live their lives. It looks great too. Sumsung and and Pebble had better watch out.
APPLE: With two of the most hyped non-products, the iGlass and iWatch, Apple has been typically silent on the wearable technology market. But if even a small part of the rumours are to be believed, Apple is working on something big. Sadly there isn’t much Apple can release in this space that hasn’t already been tried, but whatever it does, it will work fantastically and look amazing.
OTHERS: LG and Motorola recently announced they would be bringing their Android watches to the market in the next couple of months. Both of these companies have the experience and skills to make a decent solution but, beyond functionality, they need to create something people will want to wear.
Before the launch of the iPhone, most smartphones were in the geek realm. Now, a new device won’t survive unless it is stylish, easy, has a touchscreen and a great eco-system. Pebble, Fitbit, Jawbone, Samsung and Apple have proven that you have to look amazing if you want to survive in the wearable technology market. This
could be an issue for Google Glass, which until the recent announcements was a little nerdy looking. But even with the new looks and materials, it is not certain you will be seeing the fashionistas walking around town with them. But the key issue with any new technology is what it can do for you. The success of each device will depend on what applications are designed for them. Google Explorers and many major companies are studying their potential to connect with customers or to integrate into their workplaces.
How wearable technology will integrate with Australia’s high level of multiculturalism, egalitarian attitudes, informality, irreverent sense of humour, and strong sense of the practical remains to be seen. But expect some negative reactions when the “Glassholes” (creepy or rude people) hit the streets towards the end of this year.
Fitness and health trackers have already proved very popular. There doesn’t even seem to be much fuss about them and they are treated as just another tool. Even sitting at cafes, you can hear people talking about their fitness devices and comparing statistics on their smartphones. Steps, heart rate, active minutes, and sleep effectiveness have become the new language. During a speech to the Lowy Institute in Australia last year, News Corporation executive chairman Rupert Murdoch mentioned he was wearing a Jawbone health tracker. “This is a bracelet which keeps track of how I sleep, move and eat — transmitting that information to the cloud,” he said, holding up his left hand.
Sven Rees, an exercise physiologist with the Australian College of Physical Education and a lecturer at Sydney University, has been using devices such as GPS trackers, watches, pedometers, heart rate monitor and fitness trackers for the past five years. " The best part of
It will be common to see signs telling people to remove their Google Glass in sensitive areas such as hospitals
wearable technology for me is how it helps me exercise and provides feedback about the quality of my exercise,” he says. “I also love knowing about my sleep patterns. I would not exercise or sleep now without some sort of measurement.”
But he is critical of the current quality of smartbands with many giving varied measurements. “At present, the smart wristbands are awful fitness trackers. They seem to have so much error in their measurements of steps taken, distance and energy expenditure that I find them simply frustrating. They are a long way off where they need to be.” He believes more accurate measuring technology is on its way, such as the Blaupunkt Bluetooth Biometric Earphones.
The social impact of wearable technology during these early adopter years will be significant. Privacy concerns, both legitimate and imagined, are sure to cause controversy once these gadgets are available to the mass market. Just as some venues and businesses have signs asking you to not talk on mobile phones, it will be common to see signs telling people to remove their Google Glass in sensitive areas such as hospitals, doctor surgeries, bathrooms, cinemas and banks.
In the US recently, the FBI was called by an AMC cinema manager to arrest a Glass wearer, fearing he was recording the movie. The user had the prescription lenses and was wearing them all the time, but during the movie had the Glass turned off. This didn’t stop two federal agents dragging the user out of the cinema and accusing him of piracy. In February at a San Francisco bar, journalist Sara Slocum was verbally and physically attacked by “Google Glass Haters”, with one snatching the device off her face. Rob Manson, who developed the word-first Augmented Reality Content Management System, has spent significant time working on the potential of Google Glass. Wearing the Glass in Australia, Manson says it is apparent there is concern about privacy among the general public. But he argues that “privacy is largely an industrial age illusion”.
“In villages before the industrial age we didn’t have privacy,” he says. “In the wearables age we won’t either. But on the whole it’s really no worse than a mobile phone camera ... but it does make the capture process a lot easier and more personal.” Manson says he makes a point of putting his Glass on his forehead like sunglasses when entering a bathroom — as a form of “courtesy signalling”.
However, privacy will be a serious consideration for BuildAR in future. The company has launched a Kickstarter project to raise $48,000 to allow it to further develop its “augmenting the web” project. The company’s augmented reality products will provide users of Glass or smartphones with what appears to be 3-D video that will overlay the real world with data.
Products such as these are going to be significant over the next couple of years as new areas of advertising and marketing explode. The revolution of a new technology era is an exciting prospect. While there will be hiccups at the start, our lives over the next few years will be irrevocably changed. In a few years, someone could be sitting at a desk writing an article, wearing their normal glasses with a projection on the lenses of look-ups of synonyms, spelling and background research. There could be meeting rooms full of executives or engineers referencing documents or sharing experiences, all wearing Glass or a similar device. The old projector or plasma screen will be long gone. Paper? Remember how that used to feel?