What's What in Wearable Tech
From basic Bluetooth headsets to Google Glass and prosthetics for the vision-impaired, this is a hot area of technology
This week I had the chance to attend the Wearable Tech Expo at NYU's Kimmel Center in New York, and came away with a much deeper appreciation of what's potentially on the horizon in terms of next-gen wireless peripherals and the challenges involved in getting there. Clearly everyone is banking on delivering the "next big thing" (NBT), but they are still trying to determine what that NBT might be.
For 2012, ABI Research valued the smartphone accessories market at $20 billion, with most of that going to things like Bluetooth headsets, chargers and cases. The number being bandied around at the conference for the "wearables" portion of that market was around $750 million but expected to grow to $50 billion by 2016.
Frankly I was amazed by the variety of wearables being built or considered, and they fell into a number of broad categories:
* Basic Bluetooth headsets are currently the biggest element and close to a billion-dollar market
* Smartwatches like the Pebble and the rumored iWatch
* Activity monitors like Nike's Fuelband, Jawbone's UP, Fibit, Basis, and the list goes on
* Viewers like Google Glass or Vuzix's M100
* Telemedicine devices (e.g. heart rate monitors, blood pressure monitors, glucose meters, pill reminders, etc.)
* Wearables like the Under Armour E39 shirt that can measure heart rate, respiration, skin temperature and acceleration, or the Adidas miCoach and miCoach Elite system.
* Implantables like the Argus Retinal II Prosthesis from Second Sight
Right off the bat, all of these devices face a major challenge with regard to the size and required weight, which makes batteries a problem and limits the range of radio options available. Most wearables seem to depend on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), but some are using Wi-Fi or developing their own proprietary interfaces. Beyond that, we find unique challenges in each of the various segments.
For the moment, everyone seems to agree that the smartwatch has the best chance for success, particularly when you consider that the mechanical wristwatch was probably the first "wearable technology." In the meantime, my son rarely wears the watch we bought him and instead gets the time off his smartphone. Having a peripheral display on my wrist sounds a lot more convenient than yanking out my smartphone every time it buzzes, and despite some rough edges, the Pebble smartwatch has generally gotten good reviews.
I think there will be a much more limited market for activity monitors that track how much you run, walk, exercise, and even sleep throughout the day; some allow you to input what you consume and let you set goals and the like. The trouble is that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 80% of adults don't get their recommended exercise--I'm not so sure they want to be reminded of that. However, given the fit, attractive models these companies use in their ads, these things could become a fashion statement. And at least people will think you exercise.
Adidas showed off the most high-end monitoring system in its miCoach Elite. Qaizar Hassonjee, Adidas VP of Innovation for Wearable Sports Electronics, described it as a full training monitoring system that is first being tried by professional soccer teams. The system is based on shirts with built-in sensors and a small rechargeable GPS-enabled transmitter that fits in a pocket between the player's shoulders. While the player goes through his workout, the package can measure speed, distance, position, heart rate, and acceleration/deceleration; all of that information is sent to a battery-powered base station on the sidelines. With an iPad, coaches can view the raw data, composite measures called "Cardio" and "Power" generated by a special algorithm Adidas developed. Nice gadget, but a full system runs about $100,000 to $150,000, and Adidas is looking to expand into other sports.
I'm still undecided about the prospects for Google Glass, though I did get to try a pair if only for a few moments. The unique, futuristic look of the product does make a statement, but I'm not sure I'd want this thing stuck on my face all day. And there's the question of whether forcing a user to look up to see the screen is a good design choice. In any event, the SNL skit on it that ran during a Weekend Update segment will have you rolling on the floor.
Beyond a doubt, the most mind-blowing device I saw was the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis from Second Sight (shown at right). This is an implantable medical device that actually gives limited sight to people who are blind--no, I'm not kidding. According to Jim Little, Second Sight's VP of Implant R&D, it doesn't address all causes of blindness, but it can help people afflicted with macular degeneration (which affects about 2 million Americans) and retinitis pigmentosa (about 100,000 Americans). A device is implanted in the eye and connected to the optic nerve; there are about a dozen medical centers certified to do this surgery. The user then wears a pair of glasses with a camera that wirelessly transmits data to the implanted device that electrically stimulates the optic nerve.
The result is not full "sight", but it will allow people who were totally blind to see light, shapes, and movement. Mr. Little showed a series of videos of patients, all of whom were still visually impaired, but they were able to see things moving around them, recognize when they came to a curb, and things like that. There was even a grandma who could shoot baskets!
As I mentioned, the question everyone was most interested in was, what's going to be the "next big thing"? Keynoter Jennifer Darmour of wearable design firm Electricfoxy identified three key characteristics to watch for: beauty, meaning, and "periphery", or the ability to "use the body as interface." There's a big gap between articulating those characteristics and actually developing a product that incorporates them and grabs the imagination of a mass audience. I don't know what that product is going to be, but I'm pretty sure we're going to see it!