What are wearables?

‘Wearables’ are a type of technology that the user wears like a necklace, wrist band or pair of glasses that can track and monitor activity, location, vital statistics and, in the future, much more. With wearables there is a constant interaction between the user and the technology giving an uninterrupted flow of data about the user. The application for wearable technology is runs the gamut from health enthusiasts tracking their daily run to monitoring the vitals of a soldier on deployment in a war zone to the surgeon who needs access to a patient’s information.

So what, we’ve had devices like that for ages!?

Well, in that instance you’re correct. The first ever wearable was a ladies pocket watch on a bracelet chain in 1810, but one of the first wearable devices that had a designated patient purpose was a camera-to-tactile vest for the blind, designed in 1977 by C.C. Collins. It converted images into a tactile 10-inch square grid so the user could feel what the camera was seeing.

In the 80s there was a boom of wearable technology and with that came the weird applications like the Winnebiko-II, a bike which allowed the user to type and ride, known as ‘nomadic computing’; not quite wearable, but it certainly acknowledged the need/want to be able to use/access technology while on the move.

In 1989 we saw the first foray into the wearable eye tech market, Reflective Technology’s Private Eye head-mounted display allowed the user to display records, maps and product information on a virtual floating screen. The virtual (floating) screen was only 2 inches wide but it had the ability to display an image like a 12” monitor at a distance of 24”. The user could hold it in the palm of his hand or wear it on a band strapped to his head (think 80s sci-fi clunky).

Up next came Doug Platt’s Hip-PC in 1991—not named because of how cool it was, but because the user wore the processor on his hip—a shoebox-sized device that was used with the Private Eye visual display.

1994 brought the first ‘wrist computer‘ from Edgar Matias and Mike Ruicci of the University of Toronto. Strapping the keyboard to one wrist and the monitor to the other, the user would have had to learn a different way to touch type to access all the letters on the keyboard and clearly, as we all still type ‘as usual,’ this didn’t really take off.

Flashforward to the late 2000’s and Chinese developers released wrist watch computers into the market (still available to buy on eBay), like the ZGPAX s5 running on Android.

The future

The future is bright, the future is wearable?  The wearables market in 2014 is growing at an exponential rate with hundreds of products either hitting the market or testing its mettle on kickstarter every week.  And it’s not just eye wear or wrist wear that is gaining interest, a new craze called life logging is growing in popularity where the user wears (either clipped, held by magnets or on a string around their neck) a camera that can live stream video or take multiple shots a minute, essentially logging their day-to-day life.

And forgetting the basics of wearables (e.g. the ones you attach to yourself) Google has also moved into the medical contact lens market, developing a lens that can monitor blood glucose levels by the second.  It’s nowhere near ready yet, but it’s gaining a fast enough pace that it should be ready in about three years time. Finally, moving into the infant care market, Sensible Baby have developed a device that parents put into the baby’s night clothes to monitor their temperature, orientation and movement and send an alarm to a connected smart phone if there is a problem.  So you can even track your child’s vitals before their old enough to start pestering you for a smart phone.

A study of consumers in January this year showed that ’52 percent of consumers say they’ve heard of wearable technology devices such as smart glasses, smart watches, and wearable fitness tracking devices. Among those aware of the devices, one in three say they are likely to buy one of them.’  So the market is clearly out there, and gaining pace. It will still probably be a number of years before we see the majority of people with a wearable device, but it’s coming.