Wearable Technology: An Overview

You may have read about them or have seen them up close.  Google Glass is now being sold while Microsoft Kinect has a head mounted display for your gaming pleasure.  Jawbone helps you keep track of your fitness activities while people are checking their Pebble Smart Watch to see if they have missed an SMS message or call.  Samsung, Sony and Qualcomm have all announced that they will be launching smart watches.

All of these are prime examples of wearable technology that are getting widespread media mileage and consumer attention.

What is wearable technology used for?

Wearable devices right now are mostly used as a remote screen for a primary device.  For example, smartwatches can notify you if you receive a calendar alarm, an SMS message or even calls.  All this while your smartphone, the primary device, stays kept in your pocket or bag.

Another prevalent use of wearable technology nowadays is to measure fitness and store workout data.  There are also applications that give you navigation and location information.  On a more personal level, there’s wearable technology now that actively records your well-being, upload vital signs and diagnostic data and gives out alerts for emergency situations such as when a patient falls or becomes sick.

And although not generally available to the public, there are now wearable technology that receive and send military and industrial data, as well as data geared towards information and entertainment, such as weather reports and traffic updates, and other data that can enhance the user’s lifestyle.

How is wearable technology possible?

Technology wise, wearable technology is available today because of microprocessors and micro-controllers that deliver a high level of performance.  You now have smaller chips that can fit into a watch, a wrist band, or even eyeglasses.  But these chips are powerful enough to deliver the functionality of a personal desktop computer, or at least a smartphone, so that it could do what you want it to do.

The Future of Wearable Technology

Is wearable technology merely a fad like all other technologies that came before it?  Like those cute Tamagotchi virtual pets, Virtual Boy, QR codes and GoWalla?  Will it be good for the novelty and then die a quiet death?

Not really.  According to TechNavio’s September 2013 report on the global wearable medical technology market for the years 2012 to 2016, this segment is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 49.94%.  That means that in three years’ time the market for healthcare-related wearable technology will triple.  This is due to the fact that vendors are now discussing strategy with one another and allying themselves with another vendor in the process.

If that is not enough, Shane Walker, at the HIS, paints a pretty bright picture for the future of wearable technology.  Walker is the medical devices and healthcare IT associate director at IHS.

Walker predicts that for fitness monitors alone, revenue would be at $2.3 billion by the year 2017, and more than 250 wearable techs would be shipped in the five years between 2012 and 2017.  That means that the whole wearable tech market will be $30 billion industry by 2018.

Walker also adds another key element to the success of wearable technology: low power sensors, and lower power connectivity solutions.

An area of technology that is seen to grow can never be considered as a fad.  But then again, how many smartwatches and Google Glass could one person wear?  So that means that newer players in the market would need to have killer features and functionalities that people would need and that would set them apart from the other wearable technology products that are currently available.  Take for instance a wearable technology that helps you control your smart home.  A smartwatch that not only notifies you of your received SMS messages but also turns on the air conditioning at home once you are only 30 minutes away, ensuring that you can save on energy costs and still be very comfortable.

And the advances could mean other form factors as well.  The next generation of wearable technology might be smart fingernails and eyelashes that could play music or unlock your front doors.

In any case, we heard that Microsoft is tinkering with smart bras that help stop you from eating a full tub of ice cream because you are sad.

Wearable Technology: The Challenges

The future of wearable tech would rely on how fast manufacturers could come up with a great idea that would give consumers new functionality, or at least an added feature, using a form factor that is different from what we are seeing now.  As such, wearable technology would slowly stop being simple.  However, simple wearable tech is the order of the day for now and this will not change within the next few years.  CIO.com writes that wearable tech right now is largely a companion technology to tablets, smartphones, and other main devices.  As such, current wearable tech can make use of the main device’s features and functionality such as GPS, to work.  This will not change any time soon, but in the future, wearable tech would need to be able to work and function alone apart from other devices.

On top of these, we will see a lot of wearable tech product that are poorly designed and executed.  The perfectly designed wearable technology nowadays follows these principles:

  1. Light on your battery.
  2. Small in size.
  3. Can connect wirelessly via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or other connectivity options.
  4. Has a system for receiving, sending, interpreting and storing data.
  5. Has a simple, intuitive and easy to use user interface.

For sure, we are going to see wearable tech fails in the next few months and even years as me-too copycats try to stake their shares in this growing market.  Smartwatches that drain your battery life in an hour? Smart clothes that are a pain to use?  Expect them all soon.

However, the biggest challenge for wearable tech is security.  In September 2013, Trend Micro says that wearable tech can open doors for more cyber attacks to happen.   This is because everything will be connected from your running shoes to your watches to your car keys and yes, your bra.  This means that every device, clothing and accessory you have will be directly accessible, making it easier for hackers to get in.

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