Wearable technology – future or fad?

Wearable tech - future or fad

Developers are creating new ways for us to wear our hearts on our sleeves. Wearable technology now brings the smartphones and tablets we usually store in pockets or bags out into the open and is pushing the boundaries of technology further than before. And with the Galaxy Gear Smartwatch officially launching in April of 2014, it seems like this is one fad that is definitely not going away soon.

The question is: is wearable technology (such as smart watches and smart clothing) something that can bring value and utility to our everyday lives or is it merely a fad that will only please serious gadget enthusiasts?

The idea of wearable technology (specifically smartwatches) is not as new as many people think. It is simply more advanced, recognizable and accessible now than it was before. In the 1980s there were calculator watches (like the Casio Databank) on which you could both check the time and do complex calculations. Nelsonic Industries developed a popular line of fun game watches (for young and old) that combined time-keeping functionalities with simplistic gaming. Some of the games that had their own watch included Donkey Kong, Ghostbusters and Tetris. Even the virtual pet Tamagotchi, that so many 90s kids wanted and played with, might count as wearable tech since it could be attached to backpacks and keychains so that you could access it at any time.

Companies like Seiko (famous watchmakers) and IBM also developed watches that had more functionality than the game watches mentioned above. These actually connected to a PC through a cable – a feature more closely related to what we are seeing emerge today. These watches had many of the things we expect to see nowadays (like touch screens) but were severely limited in terms of battery power, maneuverability and storage space (to be more specific – storage was limited to KB and not GB). Their main functions were the things businesspeople related to as important – memos, scheduling, alarms, world time and four-function calculators.

Even though these watches may not have been cutting edge by today’s standards (in the 80s they were), they definitely planted the seed for the smartwatch prototypes we see being developed today. One of the most popular smartwatches and probably the one that got the most recognition quickly is the Pebble Smartwatch. It is made with stainless steel, has customizable watchfaces and colours, is made of damage-resistant Gorilla glass and has 5 – 7 days of battery life. It features voice-activated navigation, remote music control for your smartphone, alarms, fitness tracking and, call and message notifcations without the need to take out your phone.

The Pebble Smartwatch is not the only smartwatch on the market with all of these features (take the recently commercially-released Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch) but it has set the standard for other smartwatches and has been getting great reviews all around. Smartwatches are, however, not the only item to take up the wearable tech market. The fashion world has also got in on the action. One of the latest products is a LED mood sweater. A company by the name of Sensoree has developed a sweater that reflects the wearer’s mood by displaying different colours on the outside (like blue for a calm mood or red when in love). This type of technology has even spawned a new term by the name of “extimacy” which is the act of revealing inward sensory actions and emotions to the outside world.

Not all wearable technology is subtle like a watch or a softly glowing sweater. A creepy item called a robotic spider dress has six arms growing out of the shoulder pads. The robotic arms serve to protect the user’s personal space (might be useful in supermarket queues) by having the arms stretch out and twitch as soon as someone gets too close. Social media has also caught up with the trend and Instaglasses is where it’s at. The lenses of this product have built-in Instagram filters so that you can capture life’s moments as it happens without the need for editing afterwards. Unfortunately it will still be a while before they officially launch as they are waiting for demand to increase.

Wearable tech is not only for frivolous uses though. Medical and research communities are now starting to use technology to monitor their patients while they are busy with everyday activities. Items like the Lifeshirt can remotely monitor a doctor’s patient. It picks up on changes in blood pressure, respiration, heart rate and more. It also keeps an electronic diary through built-in video and microphone technology. The Lifeshirt was the first commercially available item of its kind.

Another one of the wearable technologies linked to medical and research is the Equivital brand has been developing mobile human data where people are monitored in real environments. The technology involves mostly the use of clothing sensors is for medical research purposes, sports research and even military training. Equivital’s Black Ghost system provides real-time situational awareness including geo-fencing, geo-location, safety alerts and alarms for soldiers in a harmful environment.

Of course, we haven’t forgotten about Google Glass, the wearable technology that launched many copycats and put the trend on the map. For those who don’t know, Google has been developing a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display (or OHMD). It basically resembles a pair of spectacles where the lenses are replaced by a transparent display. The features are all voice-activated even though a touchpad to the side can be used to swipe through a timeline of events such as notifications and news. It has the ability to take pictures and record 720p HD video (the screen lights up as this is happening). Many of the applications linked to Glass are related to Google services like Gmail, Google+, Google Maps and Google Now (the company’s answer to Siri). Other apps that have been developed for Glass include those for news, facial recognition, photo manipulation, translation and social sharing.

Google Glass was first only made available to testers and Google I/O developers but a consumer version will be made available for a much lower price (it costs $1,500.00 for developers involved with the Explorer Edition). Google Glass has opened up the debate regarding wearable tech and its implications. Some believe that if Google Glass were to land up in the wrong hands, people could use it to record and photograph others without their permission. The main issue is thus with privacy. Another issue (that Google has also been known to make fun of) is the fact that people will become too absorbed by Glass. The term created for this is “Glasshole” (we’ll leave it up to you to figure out the origin) and it refers to a person who only interacts with Glass and ignores the outside world, thus seen as socially inept and rude.

Some might argue that things like smartwatches and smart glasses are only for the elite because of high prices. Yet if you dig a little deeper and check the facts, you will see that these gadgets are often lower in price than many of the smartphones we buy so easily without thinking twice about the price. Of course, wearable tech often needs other gadgets to function which will increase how much you pay at the end of the day. Hopefully, as technology develops even further, one would be able to purchase a smartwatch without needing a smartphone to connect to it as well. This will certainly help mobility as well as clutter.

As with any new technology that appears on the horizon, there will be issues and concerns. However, the pros, in this case, have the potential to outweigh the cons. Since wearable technology’s uses extend beyond the silly things people often use technology for, it can become valuable to all of us in the future when it comes to our health and safety. It can be used to learn more about our bodies and our emotions which could lead to revolutionary conclusions that will enhance the human experience. It can aid people in warring nations to learn about what the causes of certain situations are and where enemies lie in their proximity.

There is certainly a long way to go before wearable tech is something you see people using every day but think about it. When tablets were first presented to the consumer market, many people were sceptical and thought these gadgets would disappear as quickly as they arrived. Yet look at how prevalent tablets are today. Never underestimate new technology and its ability to become mainstream.