Wearable technology is pretty hot these days. There are gadgets that promise to keep track of how much you run, tie into your cell phone and alert you when you receive a text, and even one app that lets you control your car using the Apple Watch, itself essentially a small computer that fits on your wrist. Pretty neat stuff – but what sort of trajectory are we looking at here?
Already there is discussion in the tech industry of how the Apple Watch “will be a flop“. Granted, early speculation on the launch of a major consumer product is a dime a dozen, and no one will really know what happens until the rubber meets the road, so to speak, as this article so plainly spells out. However, I think the former article probably has the most relevant quote;
“Wearable devices haven’t taken off for that reason: The functionality doesn’t justify their price.”
It’s just difficult to try and convince someone to drop an additional $350 on what is essentially a stripped-down smartphone; especially when they already own said smart phone. There’s just not a lot of value for the consumer besides it being a neat tech idea; a dream that people have been chasing for years and, when it finally gets here, the result is less than what we imagined.
But I really don’t mean to be disparaging; this category is definitely still in its infancy, and there is a lot of change that we’re going to be seeing over the years as people figure out what these things are good for – and what they’re not. Plus, while the wrist form factor is definitely one of the most popular wearables we’ve seen out there; it’s certainly not the only one. We can take a look at products like the Google Glass or even VR headsets like the Occulus Rift. While I would hesitate to refer to the former as a failure, it is not unfair to say it was not a resounding success. However it does pioneer the idea of seamless augmented reality; having a computer overlay over every part of your daily life. Microsoft’s new device takes this and runs with it, and while it smells faintly of hype mountain, it’s nevertheless going to be interesting to see what another industry titan is able to do with these sorts of capabilities.*
*As a side note, stealth startup “Magic Leap” is rumored to be developing an AR contact lens, amongst other things. No one knows what they’re doing, but with the amount of money sunk into it by major companies so far, whatever it is will be exciting.
But this article is titled “The Future of Wearables”, so let’s take a step back from analyzing current products and look further into the future. The concept of wearable technology is, I believe, the first step along a path towards human augmentation. As technology has progressed, we have taken computers from the size of a room to the size of our desk, then we took that to something that fit in our laps, and from there we made them fit in our pockets. Now, we’re trying to make them so ubiquitous that we can carry it with us wherever we go; but the stumbling block that we’re hitting right now is that for the first several years, we are expending about 80% of our effort for 20% of the total gain – there is really not that much extra friction between wearing something on your wrist and carrying something in your pocket, and in many ways the pocket-style computer is more convenient, being blessed with a larger screen.
I don’t think we will truly see the rise of wearable technology, at least in terms of computer screens, until we hit the point where augmented reality displays are small and light enough to fit on and/or look like an average pair of sunglasses – though the idea of people wearing HUD visors is still pretty cool. Until that point, it’s kind of pointless to wear something on your wrist with a tiny screen when you can have double the capability and a larger screen in your pocket.
With most wearables, they represent the in-between step, those awkward teenage years, when the ideas and concepts are there but the practicality is not. Consumers out in the “real world” aren’t really driven to buy wearable technology – there is little to no impact on their daily lives. Not to belabor the point with Apple too long, but the first iPod represented a quantum leap in convenience – it offered something that everyone could benefit from (mass amounts of music in a relatively cheap, small formfactor) from the guy in the projects who’s got his own mix tape to the guy in the penthouse who wants to listen to the Beatles, everyone stood to benefit from having more music with them in a more convenient package. What do smart watches offer, besides data tracking? It’s a smaller cell phone screen, with less power, and if you already have a phone (whose price is subsidized by your plan), then why would anyone except a tech geek want one of these things?
It won’t be until we start seeing wearable devices that actually provide a useful benefit to everyone that we’ll start seeing mass adoption. Medical tracking is a big one – but that sort of tracking will have to be able to be used by doctors. The other big benefit would be a wearable device that augments your abilities somehow, either physically or virtually using augmented reality.
We need wearable technology that is intelligent and able to react to its user and augment their abilities. You can see the beginnings of this with devices from companies like Neumitra, who are developing a smart device that, when worn around the wrist, can measure your stress levels, and Jawbone, which can keep track of your steps, sleep, and calories. The former allows for doctors and users to provide useful care for themselves based on real world data, collected in real time. The latter allows users to “augment” themselves in that they can increase their athletic performance by keeping precise track of their workouts. But these are just the tip of the iceberg, and are not anywhere near that sort of critical mass needed to make wearables as ubiquitous as the smart phone – we need devices that offer something that users actually want and can benefit from.
Looking far into the future, here’s an idea for a wearable that would offer large benefits to its users – perhaps enough to make them adopt the device, or parts of it. When you are born, or when you reach about 25 years old, you get a suit. Only, it’s no ordinary suit; this one is made of shape-changing polymers, and it is intelligent, in as much as it is able to track your health and not only record it but react to it. It’s a piece of technology that molds itself entirely to your body, and while it is feasible that it could augment your abilities, I think it would be easier and more beneficial to have it augment your health. Say you get a cut; the suit detects a tear in its fabric, and using skin conductance technology, it can detect the depth and breadth of the said cut, and alert you if you need medical attention and/or possibly even treat your wound. Something like this was explored in the video game Half Life’s HEV suit. In Half Life, it’s a bulky, metal structure that encases the body. In the future, it could be a light, skintight fabric. As you grow older, this suit could track how your body deteriorates; say, if your back starts to go out, the suit could reinforce its own spinal column to keep you upright. Eventually, it would become just as much a part of you as your own skin.
But I promised a sort of immortality. External sensors could track your surroundings and not only give you augmented vision and sensing capabilities, but also record every waking moment of your life – and even the ones where you’re asleep. Over time, this stored database could be a sort of “virtual memory” of your existence; sensors in the suit, tied into other devices you wear such as cameras and HUD displays, could track what you see, what you hear, and what you eat. When the time finally comes for you to pass on, well, there’s three options.
The first of these is your normal, every day death. You die and your suit is destroyed, and you are gone. Pretty simple, no fanfair. Then there’s the second option; you die, and your suit is preserved. The memories it contains or the memories it has uploaded to the Internet are stored, and a profile is built of you to share with your loved ones in the future. It’s like Facebook, except way more intense.
The third option is the “post-singularity”. We learn enough to duplicate the human mind in a computer, either through separate research or by using these suits to track the moment-to-moment firing of your neurons and electronic impulses. This suit (this “wearable”) could build a profile of you as you live, which is then downloaded to a computer, filling in blanks in your memory, and more importantly, providing a moment to moment record of your body’s neurophysiological functions. Your body and mind are rebuilt to spec using acquired data.
Even if such a far-fetched future should never take place, the medical benefits to having some sort of device on your person through most of the day, recording as much data as possible, cannot be understated. The next time you go to a doctor complaining about a pain, they could tell exactly when something started changing in your body.
So, yea, smart watches and most wearables today are kind of an “eh” from me. They are pretty cool, and I wouldn’t mind getting one, but I’d have to be making some pretty extra dough to drop that sort of cash on what is essentially a plaything. Fitness bands and other “light” wearables are definitely intriguing, as they offer a specific benefit at a much lower price point, but I don’t exercise much (aside from cycling on my commute). Augmented and virtual reality displays are really exciting, but until we get around the whole “looking like a cyborg who’s recording your every word”, then there will always be that barrier to adoption.
What I’d like to see is a future where the devices I wear offer something to me other than just another multi-functional computer screen located on some new part of my body. There is a future out there, with someone walking down the catwalk or exploring the surface of another planet, and their computer is so tightly integrated with them as an individual that their identity is partially based within that machine – whether literally, in the scenario I just described, or figuratively. Perhaps, too, we will see fashion items take on actual personalities of their own…could you imagine an ad where a snarky pair of cufflinks debates with its wearer on the best suit to match itself? I would be intrigued to see if computers with personalities could be added to different devices and clothing – not a lot, but just enough to differentiate them from competitors. The clothes I wear could talk to one another, in words and data, and I could become my own walking digital ecosystem. Throw in some AR specs and I could hack into the mainframe and play with data as a new age cyber-jockey.
Or I could just buy a fitness band and track how much I have to run to burn off that McDonalds burger I ate. Either way, wearables are pretty neat, and I’m excited to see where they (and we) go next.
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