By Sheila Moorcroft
Wearable technology – smart watches and smart glasses especially, but others too – are being touted as the next big thing. And the race is well and truly on with giants such as Apple and Google entering the field but also smaller companies such as Pebble and mc10. The challenge will be to overcome the geek image much wearable technology has had until now and make us ‘want’ another device. Specialist applications may indicate the way forward at first, especially in sport and health.
What is changing?
Wearable technology is bringing the power of a smart phone, sensors of various kinds and head-up displays up close and personal; on wristbands or smart watches, in smart glasses or jewellery, and clothes – even tattoos and soon contact lenses. We will be able to interact with our surroundings in new ways and be more informed of what is around us, but also keep an eye on ourselves and keep track of our lives. The combination of miniaturisation, new power sources and new materials e.g. which enable flexible sensors and clever displays – among other developments- are all part of the story: we may be approaching a tipping point. Major players such as Google, Apple, Nike, Olympus and Sony are entering the field, but so too are less well-known companies such as Pebble, mc10 and Recon Instruments. Technology research companies are predicting that 2013 will be the year of lift off, that wearable technology is the next platform war: time will tell. Juniper Research predicts that sales of £500 million this year could triple in 2014 with unit sales hitting 70 million by 2017.
The range of wearable technologies is growing and they are emerging from the lab onto the streets, into the gym and out onto the ski slopes. The first generation of Google Glass – smart glasses with a readable overlay screen embedded in them – were on parade in various places last year, perhaps most notably at Diana von Furstenburg’s catwalk show, thus challenging its potentially geeky image. They are said to be testing live on the street mid-2013, and a short video indicates the kinds of ‘mediated’ reality, they see as being the way forward with information about shops, reminders of diary appointments, easy to use cameras and image sharing, warnings about station closures and alternative routes. All designed to make life easier.
Smart ski goggles by the likes of Recon instruments or Oakely incorporate GPS and sensors which will record your speed, height e.g. of a snowboard jump, and head up displays which will allow you to see the map of the trails and track where your friends are. And of course, a USB port so you can store, share and compare.
Smart watches of various kinds can either stand alone or interact and extend a smart phone. Screens, reminders, alerts, monitors – the precise range of capabilities varies. Pebble, with 69,000 backers from Kickstarter is one of many, with Apple rumoured to be launching the iWatch any time soon. Wrist band monitors are already established with Nike and ex Nokia employees providing sport/ health related monitoring devices.
Why is this important?
The sales predictions indicate potentially significant markets; hence the investment and interest. The challenge will be to make wearable technologies more than just niche products for the tech enthusiast. They will need to be invisible, or at the very least unobtrusive; easy to use and useful; robust and reliable; comfortable and stylish. They will also need to address the growing privacy and security concerns.
Health is already emerging as a major potential market – at the moment primarily among those who want to manage peak performance. But, with an ageing population and health care costs rising ever faster, we will need to take responsibility for our own health to a far greater extent. Prevention will become more of an emphasis. Health apps are already hugely popular and the quantified self movement – keeping track of a mass of lifestyle related indicators – is perhaps an early indicator of how we might use wearable technologies to encourage behaviour change, make the consequences of action or inaction and choices more understandable.
Ageing populations will need technologies which can support continued independence. Wearable technologies could provide in-situ, tailored, immediate advice and information – for example in the case of forgetfulness when out and about, but also practical information such as where lavatories are or specific shops or tourist information; reminders about taking medicines and daily activities; they could be programmed to contact either relatives or professionals in case of specific situations. One question will be the extent to which fashion companies, at first high end ones, enter the fray and incorporate wearable tech into accessories and clothing – making it accessible and desirable. Early signs are that they will. Another will be the various tech platforms which are emerging and the extent to which they open up and allow others to develop apps and products. But ultimately, it will be whether consumers see wearable technology as a compelling way of simplifying and streamlining our lives or just technology looking for a home.