Wearable technology, as the name suggests, is something that you wear or carry about your person – and you’ve probably been wearing it for years in the form of your watch, and more recently as a smart watch or fitness band.
Human endeavours to wear technology are not new. The abacus ring which made an appearance in the press in 2014 is reported to have been made in the Qing Dynasty during the 1600s, and is acclaimed as possibly being the first ever example of wearable technology – that’s a long time ago! In 1975 Pulsar launched its landmark calculator watch. The mid-1980s saw the release of Casio ‘data bank’ watches, and in April 2015 we saw the launch of the Apple Watch. Amidst all this and since then, a whole array of smart watches and wristbands has surfaced – and the evolution has yielded devices that go far beyond simple timepieces to ones that are multi-functional computationally-complete devices with processing power once unimaginable in such small devices.
The days of the watch, as we have known it, are perhaps over. A perturbing thought, maybe, for the purists amongst us – those that relish in the calmness, clarity and pure simplicity of classic roman numerals and analogue faces – perhaps something that the smartest of smart watches can’t truly replicate.
Wearable technology includes more than just smart watches and wristbands. There are headsets that can be worn – demonstrated by endeavours such as Google Glass, medical devices that can be worn to monitor patient conditions and which provide immediate feedback or connect patients (or at least their data) directly to clinicians, and virtual reality headsets, albeit some rather intrusive ones, that can be worn for an immersive experience of various sorts – serious or otherwise. On the other end of the Wearable artefact spectrum there is technology that can be literally woven into the thread of the fabric we wear – smart clothing and intelligent fabrics that can be used in a range of use-case scenarios from paediatric care to sports and fitness training.
Wearable technology is not science fiction – it’s something that is very real and it’s really happening now. At the time of writing the Wearable Technology Show is about to be held at ExCeL London 15-16 March, with an expected 6000 delegates (it’s a shame I can’t be there!). The SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas held a session on Wearables in Health today – 14 March (and one of my colleagues was fortunate to be there!) and other Wearable Technology conferences and exhibitions are scheduled to take place throughout the year in a range of locations – maybe I’ll get to see Hong Kong or San Francisco! Industry forecasts include Wearables high on the agenda – in terms of investment, revenue, and sector & market opportunities. Beyond and behind the immediacy of the tangible devices that we see, hold and wear there is a huge mobile ecosystem comprising infrastructure, mobile operators, device manufacturers, distribution, content, apps & service that can help support the further development and diffusion of Wearables – an ecosystem which, according to the ‘GSMA The Mobile Economy 2016’ report, added $3.1 trillion in economic value to the world economy. Couple all this with the fashion industry and its associated ecosystem and you have something immense. So, the springboard for Wearables is already in situ and more than ready.
Closer to home (but with the thought of exotic locations in mind) and aside from the industry forecasts and their stats, Wearable tech is also a real area of work and interest in the School of Computing and other Faculties at Staffordshire University.
Wearing technology in whatever form – whether it’s apparel or in fabric form might have seemed like a crazy idea in the past, but in many ways it makes sense. We are digital natives living in a connected society on the dawn of a next-step digital revolution. High-tech beings in a high-tech society using high-tech devices. On the other hand, we exhibit our true and very basic native nature, and cloak ourselves according to the norms of societies in which we live. Wearables are thus a natural but innovative fusion – and an evolution with a potential revolutionary impact.
So – will we see a boom in wearable tech? It’s highly likely. There are cynics, and I understand their perspectives. Some people argue that Wearables are a solution looking for a problem, others see a clear fit with their technology estate – this aspect is an engaging one that I discuss with my students in lectures. My view is that it’s about innovation, digital creativity, and charting & pioneering the next generation of devices and interactions.
In keeping with the tune of Wearables, I’ll end with a quote and apt terminology from Mark Weiser’s paper, ‘The Computer for the 21st Century’ published in 1991 in which he states, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” Mark Weiser, Xerox PARC, 1991.