The wild world of wearable computers

Welcome to a budding technology that's rising quickly above the horizon

Imagine wearing shoes that reveal your precise weight distribution when standing, walking, or running (Moticon); a tattoo that vibrates when you have incoming calls and messages (Nokia); or an armband that tracks how many calories you've burned in a day (Nike+ FuelBand).

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Or, imagine wearing a stylish ring that converts to a Bluetooth earphone (O.R.B. 'Orbital Ring Bluetooth'); a silver lapis lazuli Bluetooth necklace (Novero); or a pair of video eyewear goggles that includes a handheld media player so you can watch movies up close.

Welcome to the world of wearable computers, a budding technology that's rising quickly above the horizon and "should be a priority for product strategists in the industries with the most potential for disruption and innovation," says consumer product strategist Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forester Research.

According to Epps, in three years, wearables will be everywhere. "Wearables are proving their utility in numerous industries," says Epps. "In the past year, consumer wearables such as the BodyMedia Armband and Nike+ FuelBand have proliferated in the health and fitness industries.

This year, we'll see wearables begin to break out of communication, health, and fitness to other verticals such as navigation, social networking, gaming, and commerce."

The Sentient World

Altimeter Group's analysts are calling this phenomenon the 'sentient world,' "because we believe it has something to do with machines thinking and communicating with us vs. just taking our instructions," says analyst Chris Silva. "Our research around this sentient world has more to do with the fact that machines and environments will begin to learn over time instead of simply anticipating our commands or making our commands easier to input."

"We believe that during the next 18 months, we'll see more and more mass-market applications for multiple sensors on and around us that will take advantage of our omnipresent connected computers (mobile) to gather and communicate data and, in later phases, begin to proactively serve us," notes Silva.

"Wearable computers are certainly getting more hype," says Gartner analyst Adib Ghubril, "But the stumbling block is form, fit, function, AND fashion. Wearable computers are as much about what they can do, as they are about self-expression, so they must not be obstructive, they must feel natural (that is, fit lightly and comfortably), and they must be stylish. In other words, I expect most of the effort to go into miniaturizing existing hardware circuitry like the built-in headset and cameras; simultaneous displays on both eyes that still allow visible light to come through and, finally, network connectivity."

So What's Hot and What's Not

"By far, the hottest new wearable computer is Google's project Glass," says Ghubril. "Imagine that you're window shopping in the afternoon and, suddenly, the address of the nearest Starbucks appears on your glasses' mounted display because, based on your purchasing trends using your smartphone as a credit card, your smartphone knows that around this time of day, you like to have an espresso. So, it transmits the contact info of the nearest store," says Ghubril.

Furthermore, according to Ghubril, augmented-reality, as opposed to virtual reality, is very much on the front burner. Imagine sightseeing around the city of Kiev just hours before the team you support is due to compete at the Olympic stadium for a place in the semi-finals. You come across a historical building and, suddenly, the information about that building appears on your glasses in encyclopedic detail. "That's because the on-board cameras linked a photo of that building to a repository of information (available on-line through the web) and then displayed that information, in anticipation, based on the calculated context," adds Ghubril.

"The eyeglasses are really cool, but they're just too far out there for a lot of people to grab any time soon," says Forrester analyst Frank Gillette. "It's a less familiar technology, plus the news on Google Glass today was $1,500, but only for developers. I think the wrist gadgets are most likely to grow soon, especially the watches that link to phones MetaWatch and Sony Smartwatch in addition to the Pebble and the WiMM, and also including the fitness monitor gadgets. But, these devices have to be more than just jogger's strapping on their smartphones to use with running apps such as MapMyRun or Runkeeper."

"The watches, headbands, armbands/bracelets, and shoe items are the most likely devices we'll see for the next couple of years. We've seen less of the jewelry and clothing ideas, but I think more of these will come as the low power radios get figured out," adds Gillette.

"Novero's video goggles are better than squinting in front of a seven-inch display on a plane (or whatever size it is), but it doesn't really add the kind of value augmented reality brings," says Ghubril. "And the WiMM, well, it just doesn't meet any of the above criteria (unobstructive, natural feeling, or stylish), it doesn't enable anything more, and its looks are underwhelming so just because there can be an Android watch, it doesn't mean one should have one."

"However, the Motorola wearable PC is an interesting proposition in that it enables field-workers," says Ghubril. "So, not really a consumer device, but it does begin to address an unmet need because, right now, field technicians and operatives have a whole slew of devices hanging off them whenever they're trying to get anything done. Motorola's hands-free solution is a step in the right direction," says Ghubril.

Hands Free Options

According to Darren Koffer, director of warehousing product solutions at Motorola Solutions, its hands-free portfolio provides a flexible product line that supports text-only, voice-only, and combination voice and text-based applications, which empower workers who are scanning, picking, and sorting in high volumes to achieve new levels of efficiency and accuracy.

"In applications that demand the constant use of hands, wearable systems give workers the hands-free convenience to handle more tasks, while keeping the technology needed to further improve productivity and accuracy right at their fingertips including bar code scanning and mobile computing," adds Koffer. "But to realize the full potential of wearable computing, companies need to consider the ergonomics, performance, reliability, flexibility, and manageability of the overall solution."

So, What's Next?

"Wearable computers are about the individual, any communal affair would entail networking a few of these devices via WiFi, for example, and users would simply use the display in front of their eyes and the headset in their ears to collaborate. Holograms are useful when a projection can be made for a score of collaborators who could then literally walk around the 3D display and study it. If a wearable computer were in the form of a bracelet, a holographic projection would be a great way to view content. And, come to think of it, I'd rather put on a bracelet-type of wearable than a pair of glasses it's less obstructive," concludes Ghubril.

"I think the concept of ubiquitous computing and connected environments, using tools like the wildly popular Twine Kickstarter project, will start replacing wearables or, at a minimum, making wearables more lightweight, as data and triggers move from the wearable to the environment," says Silva.

"As far as new form factors for items such as keyboards and monitors, and our interaction with these devices, the `minority report'-effect is still a ways off," adds Silva. "I think the biggest barrier to-date has been systems and computers that are as smart or as novel as those interaction systems. Now that we have systems that track and understand our gestures and can parse speech, we may very well find that those new form-factor displays and input devices are the next shoe to drop."

Future World

In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo that the human body generates 25,000 BTUs of heat; that is more bioelectricity than a 120-volt battery (or 100 to 120 watts of energy). Unfortunately, our current technology has yet to achieve anything more than a few milliwatts, but that's about to change. Last March at CeBit, Vladimir Leonov (from the Belgian Nano Electronics Research Center IMEC), introduced an energy-harvesting technology that uses thermoelectric elements integrated into textiles (or skin) to produce energy; enough energy, they say, to power body sensors such as a heart rate monitor, a pulse oxymeter, a blood oxygen sensor, or even a watch.

Silva speculates that it's not far off to imagine a smartphone or tablet device or some other home-automation system connecting with users' televisions or connecting to other projectable surfaces in their homes, so that our computing environment is pervasive. "It will follow us wherever we are, it will allow us to interact with it however we need to depending on what we're doing, and it will be something that knows who we are based on our habits and our social graph making it a bit smarter. I think our next TVs will be more than just TVs, I think they'll be a lot more like display front ends for ethereal computing power and remote storage. The wearable aspect will simply be more, low-cost devices that extend our interaction."

Sartain is a freelance writer. She can be reached at juliesd@comcast.net.

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