Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The new wave of wearable technology

In many ways, this was inevitable. As devices got smaller and smarter, it was only a matter of time before smart technology snuck into what we wear.

In a current UnderArmour TV commercial, a lady puts on a black jogging suit. Then she steps outside and with the click of a button on her sleeve, magically transforms her suit into a multicolored outfit.

A new wave of devices which allow ubiquitous social networking on many form factors we wear, provide constant health data, have chameleon like abilities to change colors, and even take photos with a wink a la James Bond -  these and more - are no longer the stuff of fantasies from Hollywood. They are about to become our new reality.

Experts now believe that 2014 will be the year when wearable technology finally gets serious and consumers start to pay close attention.

So, what is Wearable Technology?

For the most part, wearable technology encompasses what you wear on your body – a strap, a shirt, glasses or even a band – things that have embedded electronics and are ‘smart’. 

Such devices may be customizable, and connect to the internet and/or to other devices via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or NFC (Near-Field-Communication). The technology which is built into them, has a myriad of new and proposed functionalities, and they can be upgraded and even enhanced - in some cases by third parties (like the application developers in iTunes or Google Play).

Wrist Technology:

Let’s face it. Watches have been boring for a long time. Other than the occasional forays into incorporating new gee whiz features of the day (remember the Casio with a calculator), they have steadfastly done just one thing – tell time.

With the arrival of Smartphones, watches have begun a precipitous decline. Few young people bother to buy a duplicative device which only tells the time; something they can already check on the screens of their smartphones.

2013 has brought on the dawn of the era of smartwatches.

Pebble, selling at $ 150, the biggest crowdsourcing success in Kickstarter history, has had a good Christmas season. And even though the Pebble has some shortfalls (principally the battery life and lack of touchscreen capability), it has succeeded in enabling interesting smart functionalities and even has limited integration with the phone. It has also attracted a small but growing number of developers using the open standard to create additional functionality for the device.

Omate is a far more sophisticated and expensive ($250+) Smartwatch on Kickstarter which should start shipping soon. Unlike the Pebble, Omate has a touchscreen, more power, and the functionality of a small smartphone on your wrist. It has the capability to add a micro-SIM card from T-Mobile or AT&T and function as a true phone. It is built on the Android system and is expected to have applications downloadable from Google Play. Omate is relatively simple to navigate and even has a virtual keyboard - though as you can imagine - space gets limited when one is typing on such a small form factor. Battery life remains a problem although this one charges wirelessly.

The Sony, Qualcomm Toq and Samsung Gear watches have also created a buzz. Most experts acknowledge that these Version 1 devices are a good start, but much more work needs to be done. Indeed, Samsung is rumored hard at work on a Version 2 watch which incorporates curved glass for a better design and fit. Synchronization of the Smartwatch with other smart devices - those of your choice – is also gaining traction as customers shy away from one-size-fits-all methodology.

And then, there are the rumored watches from Apple, Nokia and even Intel, which are likely to provide more functionality, better design, more battery life and access to many more applications. What will this new breed of watches look like? While most such designs are a closely guarded secret, there is no dearth of those who envision how they might look.

The competition for smartwatches is heating up, and watches which just tell time may not be in the majority for very much longer. The times they are a changing…..

Wearable tech has also infiltrated the health fitness craze. Many such gadgets are also worn on the wrists. Most are niche products like the FitBit, Nike Fuelband, and Jawbone – to list just a few. They are really more like a ‘wearable band’ with fitness related functionalities. Other similar devices monitor heart-rate and expand on the wearable health functions. 

You can expect to see intense competition in this niche and these devices are likely to drop in price.

Google Glass:

Google Glass is a very powerful new wearable technology form factor. Having used one for a few days, I can say firsthand the potential is exciting - and in many ways - is already a stunning achievement.

With a tap and a swipe to the side, Google Glass navigates you step by step. It does not have a keyboard, and uses the WiFi and Cellular data connections from your phone to connect to the internet. It incorporates the speech recognition technology which Google has been building into its devices for many years. This past Christmas (which was a Wednesday), I asked Google Glass “What day is it?" and was startled by the video response - the now viral commercial of a camel’s Hump Day office tour! Google Glass has a sense of humor.

Whether voice activated Google searches, taking pictures (a wink can take a picture, or videos - which you can then send to others), reading text into the built in earpiece (also available in stereo) and even instant translations from other languages – all of this already works surprisingly well. You can also listen to music with voice commands as Google Glass pulls the song from Google Play. In fact, if you are a subscriber to the Google’s Streaming Music service, you can jump the queue and get your Google Glasses for $ 1500 now.

The most common thing I hear when I show the Google Glass functionalities is “That is insane!” And yes, it already is.

Administration of Google Glass is via MyGlass, an application downloaded from Google Play on to your smartphone, and then used to install applications via Bluetooth to the Glass. You can use screencasting as a way to mirror what you see on Google Glass and show it directly on your smartphone’s screen. Google Glass will also be iOS compatible so that you can use it with your Apple devices.

The developers, who have created billions of mobile applications for smartphones and have made them so much more useful, are presently restrained by Google’s tightly controlled development phase. But once developers are let loose, one can see a plethora of new applications for all manner of useful functionality – way beyond anything which we have seen or can even contemplate thus far. The potential for Google Glass in telemedicine and learning - to name just a few things - is incredible.

Rochester Optical will begin selling prescription glasses for Google Glass shortly. Warby Parker is rumored to be working with Google on all manner of cool frames and a nice set of sunshades is already available (worked quite well on my Sunday drive).  It is still not clear when Google Glass will be commercially available and what it might cost. Rumors are for a general release sometime in 2014 with a price tag of about $500. Odds are Google Glass may become as common as the smartphone - and that, would be a huge market.

Other types of Retinal Displays

A Virtual Retina Display (VRD) is where one uses a micro-mirror array and an LED to project 3D images onto the retina.

There a many new wearable examples of VRD just around the corner.

Avegant Glyph will launch on Kickstarter in early January 2014. The headphones can be used in a “non-video” mode, or the headband pulls down over the eyes (as in the picture below) and it becomes the equivalent of a giant private screen with images projected directly onto the retina.

Oculus Rift is a new generation of virtual goggles which might change gaming and will also appear on Kickstarter in early 2014.

The Vuzix M100 is described by its manufacturer as “Smart Glasses”. It is built on the Android system and is essentially a wearable monocular display computer. Like Google Glass, its manufacturer heralds it as a device with utility in medical, retail and industrial applications, and leverages the Android App Store on Google Play allowing developers to create custom applications for the hardware.

Swimmers, speed skaters and skiers - to name a few - operate in sports where hundredths of seconds determine the margin of victory. Access to real time data could prove to be a considerable differentiator. Now, companies like Recon Instruments are creating just these kinds of devices with heads-up displays displaying the data athletes need and even integrates with social networking.

Wearable technology clothing

Heapsylon, a new entrant into the wearable technology niche, creates garments paired with other technology to provide health related data to patients and caregivers. Sensoria Fitness is a fully instrumented pair of socks which gathers data as you walk, run and exercise. The washable Sensoria Fitness Bra and T-Shirt­ can transmit heart rate data to your smartphone.

The GER Mood sweater by Sensoree interprets emotions and displays your mood instantly as an interactive light display. Sensors read the body’s excitement levels, and visualizes onto a high collar for instant biofeedback. Wearing your heart on your sleeve (or around your neck) is now a reality.

UnderArmour already has the E39 out which is a high tech band and monitors heart rates for athletes. But clearly they (and others) are working on a new generation of wearable garments with even more “smart” functionality built right into them!

OmSignal is a Canadian company also making bio sensor garments. Stephane Marceau, the founder, says that over time sensors will increasingly be embedded into the fibers of the garments and will transmit physiological data in real time.  

…and then this.

Sony has recently filed a patent for a “SmartWig”. The device would wirelessly communicate with other devices, and among its proposed uses, assist the blind with navigation - and the wigs look cool too.


Who is financing wearable tech?

Foxconn is a Taipei Chinese company where – by some estimates – 400,000 people work to create some of the smartest electronics we use including iPhones, iPads etc. It is the fourth largest technology company in the world by revenue. Bloomberg now reports that Foxconn has setup a seed fund of $ 6.8 million for trials in 2014 for a slate of new wearable technology products. They are also rumored to be working on the Apple’s iWatch.

Other companies in the wearable hardware market have raised close to $570M and include big names like Khosla Ventures run by Vinod Khosla, who among other ventures also founded Sun Microsystems.

Jawbone alone has obtained over $ 93 million in additional funding in 2013.

Crowdfunding on places like Kickstarter raises significant dollars for individual projects and many of them are substantially “oversubscribed” due to their popularity. There seems to be an insatiable amount of support for wearable technology from a core techie group of individuals.

The potential

A Harris Poll in November 2013 surveyed 2,250 adults on their familiarity with wearable technology. One in four Americans indicated they are not familiar with such devices, and another third reported never hearing the term previously.

Among those that do know about wearable technology, price remains a major hurdle. Not surprisingly a vast majority (83%) of Echo Boomers or Millennials are more likely to try wearable technology, and men are similarly more inclined than are women.

Analysts at Credit Suisse suggest the wearable tech market will grow from $1.4bn in annual sales this year to $50bn by 2018. In 2014, shows like CES and others will profile many new wearable technologies. Already media outlets are buzzing with the possibilities.

We can each envision the good, the bad, and even the ugly possibilities such offerings might conjure up; but a new haute tech couture of wearables is clearly upon us. The true test will be when we begin to wear technology and forget that we are in fact wearing it. It will have become second nature, much like the smartphone that most of us now carry, and barely give it a second thought.