Judy Reed Smith

Wear It Well – Inside or Out

I bought myself a 2014 present. My newest bracelet is black plastic and can tell me how many steps I’ve walked (2,551 by noon, without having yet made it to the gym), how many miles (1.6), how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed (three, which I would count as five), how many calories I’ve burned… you get the picture.

I’m a sucker for new technology and the simple truth is my Fit Bit Force is fun. I hoped it would inspire me to exercise more, but instead it just gives me the excuses I need – “Look what I’ve already done!” – to eat more chocolate. It syncs with my smartphone and I hope my additional data connection and transmittal, multiplied by all the other folks who bought out all the Fit Bit Forces in Amazon’s range, means fuller networks, co-location business and storage galore.

My new bracelet also is a harbinger of amazing things to come. The M2M world will see great growth from wearable devices in coming years. Data, resulting from all the gory details companies will know about our insides and activities, can be BIG. They will really be able to market to us when they know which stores we run by and at what time, and with how many calories burned. Who will worry about NSA surveillance when our collection devices are set to “share”?

Even our undergarments are becoming smart devices. With Daedo’s Electronic Foot Sensor Socks – which I think of as “Nagging Socks” – you will know if your stride is shorter than average for your height, if you are pronating a bit, or whatever else your foot isn’t doing right. No excuses! Do that run properly!

Coaches will do less yelling and more interpretation of graphs and statistics, and maybe mothers can avoid thousands of reminders to “pick your feet up!” Every team will need its own data lines and back-up systems. And maybe a statistician.

At a recent conference called Smart Clothes, researchers demonstrated how they copied the external skeleton of a really tough African fish to make armour plating for our soldiers, how others created a walking suit for handicapped people that enables upright mobility, and how the science of colour allowed a stretchable item to shift colors as it stretched: an 80% stretch on tape may turn blue, while 50% renders it green. The imaginations of the graduate students were mind-boggling, as were the accomplishments of the more senior, funded researchers.

Of course, what discussion of “smart” wearables could overlook Google Glass? Some health insurance will already cover the costs of prescription lenses and Google will reportedly lower the $1,500.00 price tag next year. One researcher posited that Google Glass is just one of many next steps in the evolution of communications. And this evolution is moving faster. It’s only a handful of generations back to when distant communications were accomplished via letters on ponies and measurements relied solely upon hand tools. We may not be evolving at the pace of bacteria in a petri dish, but our technology certainly is.

In terms of practicality, medical wearables will bring us perhaps the most life-enhancing changes. Google’s contact lenses that read glucose levels will spare many pricked fingers and daily variations for diabetics, while biomaterial-based drug delivery will eliminate the need to remember to take that noon pill or feeling all the sorts of nausea, dizziness, smothering and whatever other unpleasantries accompany uneven drug delivery.

Just to remind us how much of this technology is ripped straight from yesterday’s science fiction, several versions of the famous Star Trek tricorder are under development, including the Scanadu Scout, which blew through its crowd funding goal of $100,000 to raise $1.7 million and a huge backlog of orders.

Technically, you don’t wear the Scout because you don’t need to. You simply hold a small puck to your temple for a few seconds and it delivers your heart rate, blood pressure, oximetry, ECG and heart rate variability. But you can bet the same tracking will shortly emerge from some other device we’ll be wearing anyway.

While much of this technology is widely available, none of it can be considered mainstream just yet. New technologies always spend their first generations in the hands of those who will pay almost anything for a new device or gadget, and these folks are only a tiny percentage of their markets.

As the item evolves to improve features and/or processes, the user group expands and more of a community dabbles with the new toy or time-saver or whatever, and it penetrates a little deeper into the must-have-it population. Once it is a reasonable price and fairly well admired, that penetration rises like the proverbial hockey stick. For most technologies, that last 20% or so of a population will never bite.

Writers at our annual US Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January appeared to be in general agreement that most of the wearable devices featured at the show were not ready for the mainstream. I believe many will be. Smart manufacturers will absorb feedback and the very smart ones will tune their products for the lead users, then early buyers, then for mass markets. And all of these advances are good for our industry. More and more people will collect, transmit, store and analyse their personal data on a wide variety of public – and what used to be private – activities, and our networked communications systems will become increasingly invaluable over the coming years.

Of course, in today’s marketplace, sustainable demand and relevancy on the other side of the chasm is as much a challenge as crossing into the mainstream to begin with. Most, if not all, of the technology we’re discussing here will be incorporated into the super-gadgets of tomorrow.

Those will eventually be replaced by nanosensors inside our bodies, but that’s a story for another day – though we can expect data transmission and storage to play a central role there, too.

This analysis was originally published at Capacity Magazine.

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