Wearable Technology – Where we are and where we’re going

The way in which we as a society interact and use our technology has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Smart phones have given rise to masses of always-connected users that was previously the limited domain of small groups of Blackberry business types. Now smart phone ownership and mobile data usage is exploding, forvever changing how we create, consume and share information. But this shift will pale in comparison to a tech revolution that has already quietly begun and is gaining momentum. Wearable technology will redefine how we interact with our environment and its explosion into the mainstream seems just around the corner. This article is an introduction to the concept of wearable technologies, its current status and public response. This article can be considered a preface to a three part series I will be writing about the future that wearable technology has in society, particularly in its application in the retail environment.

What is wearable technology?

This is probably the best place to start. The term itself is actually pretty descriptive; it is simply technology you wear. Generally, wearable technology is being developed to be worn on the wrist like a watch or on the face like a pair of glasses. Perhaps the most well known examples of these so far are the Pebble Smart Watch, Sony Smart Watch and Google Glass. We are still fairly early into the emergence of this form of technology and it is possible there will be other forms and iterations but at the moment consider it a way to interact with technology you're familiar with through something you always have on you. I will explore both types separately because I see both forms developing differently in how they will be utilised.

Smart Watches

So what do these revolutionary devices do? Smart watches first. Well, to be honest they currently do what your smartphone does and sometimes less. Smart watches seem to currently be used for showing the time and displaying notifications from your smart phone on your wrist. Both the Pebble and the Sony Smart Watch work by displaying information sent from your phone such as texts, emails and news alerts. If you've ever had your phone vibrate in your pocket and wanted to check the notification without getting your phone out then the smart watch is for you. It isn't a device that works independently and needs a smart phone associated with it to be of any real use. Their current status means for tech lovers and geeks they're pretty cool gadget I can't see them becoming widely adopted just yet. They currently just don't offer real value to the ordinary consumer. However, I do see them having a future. I feel their natural development is for them to be used in conjunction with NFC (Near field Communication) technology to provide contactless payments, tickets and boarding cards. However, this is unlikely to occur any time soon. They need a big player to change what they do and how they're percevied. Rumour has it that Apple is working on the own smart watch but this is still unconfirmed. Todd Ham recently produced some incredible mockups of what the iWatch may look like, however, only time tell if and how Apple choose to approach the smart watch concept. I am genuinely interested to see how the device develops and how society adopts it into their daily lives.

Apple iWatch Concept by Todd Ham

Google Glass

This I find incredible. This is our future. It is the natural evolution in our technology but in a completely new form factor. It provides incredible scope and potential to enhance our lives and how we interact with the world around us. For those of you that don't know Google Glass is a pair of spectacles that provide you with a display of information in the top right corner of your view.

Google Glass - current interface

It is responsive to both voice commands and touch on the temple (the bit that goes to your ear to hold them on your head). Marquees Brownlee posted a brilliant overview of the current state Google glass on YouTube so if you want to fully get to know where it currently is I encourage you to check out that video. Essentially, Google Glass is currently capable of doing 7 things out of the box: Taking a photo, recording a video, giving directions, sending messages, making phone calls, Google Hangouts and Googling (Yeah - it's now a verb in the OED). Developers are able to expand this functionality by developing their own apps in the same way we are used to with Smart Phones.

Google Glass - current form

It is similar to the Pebble Smart Watch in that it must be tethered to your phone to use any of the communication features but again it is a piece of technology very early into its life. I am unable to provide anymore insight that Marquee did in his video because it's not yet been released in the UK (although I look forward to when it is). What really interests me is thinking about where it can be taken in the future. I am unconvinced that it will be a device that will be separated from our smartphones, I see them working in harmony. Smartphones, or at least some form of tablet, will continue to have a use in our lives for things like reading and games that need to be focused on but would be too overwhelming or just impractical on a Glass display. However, I do think we will begin interact with Glass-like-devices more than hand held ones, especially as the technology develops.

Augmented Reality - Extending the Heads Up Display

Iron Man like Augmented Reality - by Jayse Hansen

So where is it heading? Glass is open to developers like any other ecosystem allowing companies and individuals to produce their own solutions and uses for glass. Further, I expect we will see a dramatic change in how the information is displayed to us via Glass or future counterparts. Currently, the display is limited to a small window in the upper right corner of your view but it seems only natural that this overlay will eventually be able to augment your entire vision providing information where it is needed. It's pretty incredible that we live in age that an interface like Tony Stark has in the Iron Man films isn't an alien concept from the distant future but something we can reasonably expect to be using in the next couple of decades. This is exciting. We can get all the information we need overlaid on the world as we look at it; arrive at a bus stop and a popup will tell us exactly how long until your bus will arrive. When looking for an address the display will drop a marker pin on the building to help you identify it. It could even display you the current weather (and forecasts) when you lookup at the sky. The possibilities are nearly limitless in how it could benefit us in our daily lives.

How we adapt to these new technologies

But this is a big step. With the smart phone revolution phones changed slowly over time, merging technologies that we were familiar with into one device. To paraphrase the late Steve Jobs, a phone, a music player, an internet communication device and a camera all rolled into one entity. We were comfortable with that because we were comfortable with those technologies and this change was still encased in a form factor we were comfortable with. The phone still slipped into the pocket and out of the way when we weren't using it. But Glass is different, and that is what scares people. It is visual; it is on my face and in yours. Some places have already banned Google glass and the term #glasshole has been coined to describe those to are engaging with Glass inappropriately. I completely understand peoples' apprehension. They are worried about what that camera pointing at them is doing. It is unlike any sort of traditional camera in that it is always there, regardless of the wearer has any intent of using it. "Is Glass recording me? How about now? Is our conversation being shared?". You can see why people become unnerved when they have little experience of a new and extremely unique piece of technology. And perhaps the fears go further than just an understandable disquiet about what the camera is doing. There is also a public concern that people are losing personal social skills in the face of a wave of new technologies. Google Glass is hardly going sooth those fears. I have my own opinions about how technology has impact social relations but that is a matter for another article. Essentially though, I believe it is our responsibility as a society to dictate what we find acceptable in a technology's use. Just as when the mobile phones became mainstream we concluded that using a phone at the dining table was rude so too should we collectively develop etiquette for Glass. Fears about changes to the social norm are not reasons to halt the advancement of technology that potentially has many other wonderful benefits for society and individuals alike.

In Summary

I love to see the wonderful things that can be created and done as we advance our technological understanding. I am convinced that wearable technology is the next step and will revolutionise our lives and how we interact with the world around us. I am particularly interested in how businesses will embrace and adapt to these new technologies and that is something I will be exploring in my next three articles. I genuinely hope you've learnt something or discovered something new from this article. If you have any questions, thoughts or comment please feel free to get in touch via the usual methods.

This article provides a summary of the current state of wearable technologies with some throughs as to their direction.

2014/02/14

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