What wearable computing is really all about

Wearable computing gadgets aren't toys for lazy geeks or harbingers of a dystopian future. Here's why you're going to love it

Most of the criticism about wearable computing technology is about social acceptability. "Nobody wears a watch anymore." "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing Google Glass."

The rest is about utility. "Smartwatches and Google Glass can't do anything that a smartphone can't do."

These arguments are based on a misunderstanding of what the wearable computing revolution is all about.

It's not about devices. And it's not about the convenience of leaving your phone in your pocket.

Wearable computing is nothing less than a fundamental shift in our relationship to computers and the Internet.

Meet your WPAN

A "personal area network," or PAN, is a network centered around an individual person. And, of course, a wireless PAN, or "WPAN" is such a network that uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or NFC (near-field communication).

In the past, the PAN concept involved a central connected laptop. It was portable (movable from place to place) as opposed to mobile (usable while moving). The wireless computing revolution will give every user his or her own mobile WPAN.

The WPAN model is comparable to a LAN, or local area network, which emerged as a normal way to connect in the '80s and '90s. Under the simplest version of that model, devices were connected to a nearby server via Ethernet, mostly -- PCs, printers -- and that server was connected to the Internet.

The future of personal computing, if you will, can be compared to the LAN. The smartphone is the Internet-connected server. Wearable devices are the primary user devices where most input and output occurs.

Just as the adoption of LAN was driven in part by the evolution and standards formation around Ethernet technologies, the wearable movement's WPAN adoption will be driven by the new Bluetooth Low Energy standard (the wireless specification formerly known as Bluetooth 4.0). The new Bluetooth, first adopted by iOS and recently integrated into Android, will enable power-sipping devices with very small batteries to function, wake each other up and exchange rich data.

That means wearable devices will be able to receive not only words, pictures and sound, but video.

The wearable WPAN market will get huge fast

Prognosticating pundits say the wearables market will get huge fast. The UK research company Visiongain says wearables are a $4.6 billion market this year with " explosive growth and high adoption rates" over the next five years.

Juniper Research predicts that nearly 70 million wearable devices will ship in the year 2017 (up from 15 million this year).

ABI Research disagrees, and projects that the sports and health wearables market alone will see 170 million devices in 2017.

Here comes a world of new gadgets

The wearable movement will be dominated in early days by health, fitness and " quantified self" applications. The reason is simple: It's less complicated.

Health monitoring involves measuring things like heart rate and activity level from a wristwatch or chest strap and uploading that data to a central place where changes can be tracked over time. Fitness fans, doctors and patients are all highly motivated to embrace this kind of self-monitoring, and are therefore already willing to spend big for new devices.

Over time, however, fitness and health will take a backseat to personal information management and interaction with everything on the Internet through a voice-based virtual assistant.

Right now, people associate wearable computing with smartwatches, fitness bands and Google Glass. But wearable devices will be worn all over.

We'll see a wide variety of wearable devices that clip onto clothing. Sony, as an early example, will soon ship its Sony Smart Bluetooth Handset SBH52, a clip-on device that relays audio to and from any Bluetooth device. You can use it like a phone (as in hold it up to your ear and talk). It also has an FM radio. Think of this device as a halfway technology between a Bluetooth headset and a clip-on wearable device.

Some wearable devices will be built into clothing, including shirts, shoes, socks and hats. Under Armour even has a vision video showing what it looks like when clothes are wearable touch computers.

Under Armour's vision video on wearable devices.

Wearable devices will hang around the neck like necklaces.

Some wearable devices will wrap around various body parts, including the neck, arm or chest. One leading chest-wrapping fitness wearable is called the Armour39 from Under Armour. The device measures athletic performance, which you can view and use in the product's mobile app.

The Misfit Shine wearable fitness gadget is interesting because the device itself is a quarter-size disk. You pick the accessory that enables you to wear it on your wrist, around your neck or clipped to your clothing.

The Misfit Shine fitness disk is about the size of a quarter and can be worn like a necklace. (Photo: Misfit)

We'll also see "facetop" devices beyond Google Glass. Already glass-type wearables have been announced or shipped by Epiphany Eyewear, GlassUp, Oakley and Recon Instruments.

Of course, there will be wristwatches galore from companies large and small, including Acer, AGENT, Androidly, Apple, Cookoo, Dell, EmoPulse, Foxconn, GEAK, Google, Hyetis, I'm Watch, Intel, Kreyos, LG, Martian Metawatch, Microsoft, Pebble, PHTL Qualcomm Rearden Technology, Samsung, Sonostar, Sony, Toshiba, Vachen and others.

Giving wearable computing a voice

One of the biggest trends driving wearable computing is the rise of voice, and the age of interactive artificial intelligence virtual assistants. Siri and Google Now are early examples of what's possible.

Crunched on remote, Internet-connected computers, and passing through your smartphone to Google Glass or your Apple iWatch, or whispering into your ear through some kind of tiny in-ear Bluetooth headset, your virtual assistant will gently but constantly interrupt you to let you know what's going on. When you have a question about anything, just ask and the answer will be spoken to you. This will increasingly work not just for objective, Wikipedia type information ("What's the population of Los Angeles?"), but also personal information ("When is Steve's birthday?") and combinations of the two ("Where should I take Steve for his birthday?").

This virtual assistant feature will also enable combination queries combined with agency ("Buy Steve that shirt I saw today in his size, gift-wrap it and send it to his house to arrive on his birthday"). In this scenario, you won't have to know offhand the birthday, the shirt size, the mailing address or the credit card information. Your virtual assistant will take care of all that.

This will be great for wearable computers because it will enable them to be very light and small and ubiquitous.

Your smartphone as traffic cop

The biggest challenge yet to be solved before we reach wearable WPAN nirvana is the management of functions, features and data.

Your smartphone will have to act as an air traffic control tower for all the apps and messages and notifications flying around. For example, you say a Google Now command -- who's going to take that? The Google Glasses on your face, the wristwatch on your arm or the smartphone itself? And where does the result come in -- on the watch screen or as a voice answer?

Thousands of apps will each want to take over as the main interface and will demand to be given priority. You don't want to be interrupted 10 times a minute, so your phone will have to decide which notifications are green-lighted and which are stopped.

Ultimately, phone operating systems will have to learn how to learn -- watch what you do, how you respond to notifications -- and figure out how to manage the various devices, multiple apps and notifications coming from every direction.

Why we'll all be wearing wearables

The arguments against wearable computing will fade away over the next year or two, as wearables become socially acceptable and their utility apparent. One big reason is that, unlike now when wearable devices seem like some kind of sci-fi fantasy or geek delusion, wearable computers will be showing up outside the general consumer market in vast numbers.

First, they will be heavily embraced by various professions. Police will wear head-mounted cams. Doctors will embrace Google Glass. Industry will put Google Glass on workers who need Internet connectivity while they use both hands.

Second, they will become instantly widespread among the blind, deaf and disabled.

Third, they will be heavily embraced by pro athletes.

And fourth, technology fans, geeks and others will embrace them fully.

Within a year or two, ordinary consumers will be used to seeing wearable devices everywhere. They'll quickly become status symbols and viewed as tools for personal self-improvement and professional advantage.

The age of wearable computing is upon us. It's going to be very cool to have a smartphone-directed symphony of devices all over us that answer our questions, do things for us, keep track of our bodies and give us powerful abilities to be connected without the need to be sitting at a desk and staring at a screen.

No, it's not about buying more gadgets. And it's not about smartphone features for people too lazy to use a smartphone.

Wearable computing is about augmenting your whole life and taking advantage of fast-improving Internet services without being glued to a screen all day.

This article, What wearable computing is really all about, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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