wearable technology - rahul neel maniby Rahul Neel Mani

This is a fascinating topic – at least for reading, if not writing. Recently, I read an engaging perspective in MIT Technology Review on what’s next in wearable technology? While the first set of wearable gadgets is yet to see the early adopters, researchers in various parts of the world are already on course to their next destination: Embedding technology inside humans, and/or a wearable computer designed for dogs.

Though not fresh out of research labs, this newfound fascination called “Wearable Technology” has suddenly replaced the newest topics of tech discussions. At a glance, these technologies look promisingly disruptive and give us an idea of the extent of human imagination, creativity, scientific temper and quest for evolution. There is certainly a market for these geeky gadgets, may be small but growing. In a press release issued by Juniper Research, this January, it said that there will be as many as 70 million smart wearable devices sold in 2017. These will include smart glasses, watches, health devices and some enterprise wearable. This will be a quantum jump from today’s 15 million.

Imagine the extent of human imagination! From a bulky, sluggish, sleazy mass-computing device to a sleek, intuitive, proactive wearable computer – how much has our imagination stretched so far. Modern computing devices no longer require huge space. They can either be pocketed, or be worn – at best. While I hate talking about market figures in any or all of my writings but even Credit Suisse is calling it “the next big thing.” It has forecasted the market to ramp from about $3B – $5B today to $50B over the next 3-5 years. Interestingly, wearable tech/computing (whatever you may want to call it) has far reaching implications and opportunities beyond just personal use. Think of clinical healthcare (different from wellness) and see the fitment of wearable tech. To me, as this unfolds, it is possible that the Credit Suisse forecast is overly conservative.

What is Wearable Computing?

These are electronic, special-purpose technology devices that are worn by humans. They are also known as body-borne computers.

As mentioned in Wikipedia, one of the key features of wearable computer is ‘consistency’. There is a constant interaction between the computer and user, i.e. it doesn’t require turning the device on or off. Another feature is the ability to multi-task. It is not necessary to stop what you are doing to use the device; it is augmented into all other actions.

These devices won’t just be wearable. They will have motion sensors, which can take pictures and can sync with the other mobile devices.

It is quite an intriguing shape and size of technology. And the fascination increases manifold when we see these technologies coming out in the shape of watches, glasses, jewelry, backpack or even shoes and jackets.

What In, Already?

Most wearable technologies/gadgets though in their development stage, are seeing early signs of adoption.

When we talk of wearable tech, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is Google Glasses. It is a perfect wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display. Google aims to mass market it as a ubiquitous technology – the one, which has the ability to displace (or at least provide an alternative to) a smart phone in hands-free format. Although augmented reality (the head worn tech) is not a new idea but Google made it exciting for a few reasons. Unlike the research prototypes of other similar devices, it appears to be a slimmer, lighter and fashionable device and therefore caught the attention of masses. It will certainly be a costlier product but shall certainly be available by the end of this year or maximum by the beginning of 2014.

If any technology company that can make aesthetically superior wearable gadgets it cannot be other than Apple. And yes, it is in the last stages of developing a wearable technology in the form of a watch – an iWatch probably? If we believe Bloomberg, a team of 100 people in Apple is busy developing and designing a wristwatch like gadget, which, apart from showing accurate time, will have many features of an iPhone or an iPad. This rumor gets stronger with the statement made by Apple’s chief Tim Cook promising something exciting, new and breathtaking in the end of 2013. The iWatch (or whatever Apple names it later) will be made of curved glass, which can curve around the human body. It seems to have a 1.5-inch display with Bluetooth enablement. The gadget is also rumored to feature Siri, Maps and Health Monitoring functionalities. It may be true that Apple is not the first and only player making these types of gadgets but coming from Apple makes it exclusive and special. And among the major players, Sony took an early lead in introducing the world’s first smartwatch. Apart from being a wristwatch,it pairs with a smartphone to offer numerous things like getting social media feeds, reading text messages, receiving notifications, and serving as a remote control for a smartphone.

Like the other communication and computing devices, this place will also see the war of Operating Systems – Android, iOS, Windows and others – all will try to influence this emerging space.

There is yet another fascinating gadget being developed as wearable tech and caters to fitness freaks. It is called Jawbone Up. It is a system that takes the approach to a healthy lifestyle to a very different level. This device worn around the wristband tracks your movement and sleep. The app displays your data, lets you add things like meals and mood, and delivers insights that keep you moving forward.

Beyond the Obvious

While this space is hotting up and promising tech companies are lining up mass products to be launched in near and mid-term, the research is going beyond the obvious. As I read in MIT Technology Review, an organization named Atheer Labs, located next to Google’s California HQ, is preparing to build a software that would allow one to manipulate 3-D objects with the use of computerized glasses. “While Google Glass is currently limited to Google’s special eyewear, Atheer wants its software to be loaded onto lots of wearable devices,” says the MIT Tech Review.

We thought that wearable technology would indeed be for humans. But hey, there’s more to our imagination. There are many variations of wearable tech filtering down to animals. A wearable canine computer is being developed by Thad Starner, the first tech lead of Google Glass, and is called FIDO – Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations. It will allow dogs to send messages to their handlers. We need to watch this space for more such developments.

The Implications on Humans!

While the technology is created to ease out humans in their work and life, we seem to be addicted to these gadgets. Does this addiction alter or change the human behavior? Is this the flip side of technology? It is already showing in our behavior. If I take my own example, my hands are never empty. There has to be a gadget in my hands – be it a smart phone, an iPad or an iPod. I check my phone at least twice at night. This is sure an alteration in behavior. We are surely moving in the direction of being enslaved by tech gadgets that connect us to the Internet, games or social media. In a way, we are bypassing the real world to get a digital quick fix.

Will the wearable technology go beyond the damage already done? At the moment it is surely fascinating and exciting to talk and use the wearable technology, but are we not being ignorant of the frightening and negative aspect of this? Are we purposely ignoring the obvious questions like how these wearable technologies will change who we are as humans?

Having said that, this is social engineering in its most literal sense. With the advent of wearable tech, on one hand we are closer to realize the decades old dream of using augmented reality but at the same time we are knocking the doors of an epoch where human behavior becomes a design problem. We need to be full of wisdom to right size the extent of technology usage and dependency on it.

(Rahul Neel Mani is co-founder and Editor of Grey Head Media. With over 17 years experience in B2B media, and is widely known and respected in the CIO community in India)