Welcome to the Era of Wearable Computing

February 5, 2013

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From augmented reality glasses that project information across your sightline to emergency monitoring vests that can save you from a heart attack, wearable computers are poised to revolutionize the technology market and change the way we live our daily lives.

If you’re a bit of a futurist (and still waiting for your jetpack), you’re probably more than a little excited about wearable computer technology—and if you’re in the device production industry, you might already be eyeing the many opportunities for entering this new market.

There’s good reason for the excitement. A new report from IMS Research on the world market for wearable technology found that 14 million wearable high-tech devices were shipped in 2011; by 2016, the market will present a minimum revenue opportunity of $6 billion. In addition, Juniper Research estimates that there will be nearly 70 million smart wearable devices sold in 2017.

Google’s new “augmented reality” head-mounted display is one of the most prominent examples of wearable technology. Nicknamed “Project Glass,” it is a prototype pair of computerized glasses that displays information in smartphone-like format before the user’s eyes, allowing for voice command navigation of mobile apps and the Internet.

The glasses could help you navigate the streets, display your messages, check the weather, identify stars in the night sky, manage your music and videos, and many other tasks. While the glasses aren’t yet available to the public, rumors abound that they may appear in the first half of 2013 and become available for public purchase by the end of the year.

Yet “Project Glass” isn’t the only wearable technology causing a stir. While personal health monitoring devices have been available for a long time, they generally rely on manual user input, which makes them prone to user error. The market is already flooded with wearable devices such as wristbands and watches that help measure fitness levels, but newer devices are far more body-integrated.

Sensors on the body in the form of clothing or patches (or even implants inside the body) allow wearable computing devices to act as advanced biomonitors that keep track of a variety of metrics: pulse and respiration, blood flow, oxygen saturation, blood sugar, disease markers, brain wave activity, and many other indicators that can help patients and health care professionals monitor and treat chronic disease.

These health care devices can do more than just monitor, however. The Zoll LifeVest is a wearable defibrillator that monitors patients at risk for sudden cardiac arrest. If a dangerous arrhythmia is detected, the device can deliver a shock to restore normal heart rhythm.

GENTAG has a portfolio of patents for "smart" disposable wireless skin patches that can test blood sugar or deliver critical drugs. They work in conjunction with smartphones with near field communication (NFC) technology.

California-based Pancreum sells a wearable artificial pancreas that monitors blood glucose levels and acts as an insulin pump to maintain proper sugar levels for severely diabetic patients.

Given the market potential for wearable technology in the medical device industry, it’s safe to say that nearly every major health care company already has plans for harnessing this new product category.

The less practical (and one might say more exciting) aspect of wearable technology is in the augmented reality market. In addition to Google, eyewear manufacturer Oakley is reportedly working on a heads-up display (HUD) technology that would project data onto lenses. Oakley already produces ski goggles that visually deliver information about speed, “jump time,” height, and airtime, thanks to built-in GPS technology. The goggles, priced at $600, come with a companion Apple iOS app.

A little farther afield is wearable technology integrated into textiles to make “smart cloth.” The challenge is in finding a way to combine electronics into soft interfaces, and these efforts are still largely in the research phase. While a major application for smart clothing would be health and fitness monitoring, there is also the potential for fun: being able to turn down the volume on a music player by brushing a sleeve, changing the color of a garment while wearing it, or even displaying changeable text and images on a shirt.

There are already a few smart clothing items on the market. The Locked ON Proximity Sensing T-Shirt, available at ThinkGeek, features a "radar screen" that scans the area for other Locked ON shirts. ThinkGeek also offers a WiFi-sensing t-shirt that will let the wearer know when he or she is in a WiFi hotspot.

In the near future, we can also expect to see a smart glove, something that Google is already reportedly working on, according to a recently filed patent. The prototype includes cameras on the fingertips, a compass, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and other motion detectors along with a processor, memory storage, and wireless communication capabilities.

The potential for apps for such a glove are nearly endless: computer interface navigation, enhanced visuals, GPS-based directions, magnification, remote physical examination by health care workers, virtual keyboarding just by moving the fingers, and much more.

As new gadgets (and apps that make them useful) begin to crowd the marketplace, many analysts wonder how the wearable computing economy will develop and mature. The future of wearable technology will be heavily influenced by the platform developers, and be guided by investments from giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Developers of new wearable devices and applications will need to “pick a platform,” or consider producing their solutions on multiple operating systems. As was the case with smartphone apps, developers will need to hedge their bets and decide which platforms have the most potential.

 

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