Wearable Technology

I’ve been meaning to write about wearable technology for a while now, but have resisted because (a) everyone and his dog has written about it, (b) I wasn’t sure on why I was feeling so negative about it, and (c) I couldn’t actually be bothered.

So, what changed? Well, it was a reply tweet I got from Jason Bradbury last week. Jason, if you’re interested, is the face of The Gadget Show here in the UK. It started when Jason shared a tweet about Apple not being able to crack the wearable market with sales of their watch down on expected volume. I replied:

By this I meant that I don’t believe watches are really the right medium for innovation in wearable technology. I’m not surprised that companies like Apple have investigated and tried it out – watches, rings, necklaces, etc. seem the natural choice for ‘wearable’ innovation- but I am surprised and a little disappointed they carried on down this avenue.

I didn’t think anything else about it until Jason replied! I wasn’t expecting that as, let’s face it, with +260k followers I’m sure he gets a lot of tweets aimed his way. But he did reply, which makes him all the more special as Twitter, for me, is about connections like this. So for someone of Jason’s standing in this community to engage with me is a highlight I’ll remember.

As Simon Finch said on Facebook when I said Jason had relied to me: “Fab :-) It’s odd when famous folk do that. I got one from Guy Kawasaki and it was more special than a reply I got from the tooth fairy when I was 5 ;-)”

But, back to Jason’s reply:

Firstly, Jason, thanks for taking the time to reply. You didn’t have to but it shows you understand Twitter and your place on it! Secondly, I agree, the icons just look, um, naff! I don’t have, nor want, an Apple Watch for many reasons. But the point I was trying to make my tweet  was not about the icons, or how the watch looks or works. It was more about the choice these companies made to make a watch, which basically does the same as the smartphone its tethered to, and for the media to concentrate on watches as the future direction for technological development.

I have a watch, it tells the time. I have a smartphone, it does just about everything else I need from a mobile device. If the young are not wearing watches, why put an Internet-enabled watch into the market? Ive read a little about the Apple watch, and most seem moderately positive, but also quite a few saying they like it but are happy sending it back or selling it on. It’s just not ‘there’ yet.

Other aspects of technology that we could be wearing, or in fact already are, are things like identity chips in our pets: why not incorporate something like the Google contact lens project into these chips to monitor health issues present, or identifiable, through contact with blood, bones, nervous systems, etc.? I’m not a vet or a doctor, but surely there are applications for bringing these two technologies together.

What would you like to see ‘wearable’ technology do? Are the big companies who control the direction of development going in the right direction for evolving the technology, or just reacting to market ‘forces’ and chasing the big-bucks?

I really like the way the Mota Smartring looks and works, but this is still just another notification tool, not really doing anything new? At the moment it can show you’ve an email or been mentioned on Facebook and Twitter (coming soon), but that’s really all it does. It’s certainly as stylish and well designed as an Apple watch, perhaps more appropriate as its doing one thing and one thing well – notifications. What else could you do with a ring or similar device – monitor pulse, stress, mood? If you can, what can you do with that information – share it with your GP if you’re already taking medication for high blood pressure, keep records of mood swings if you suffer depression? There are possibilities beyond the predictable route we seem to be fixated in following at the moment?

Moving away from watches, wearable technology that has, for me, truly shown potential are things like Google contact lenses which enable real-time monitoring of blood glucose levels, using “sensors sandwiched between two soft layers to measure the glucose levels in the wearer’s tears, transmitting this information wirelessly to connected smartphones.”

I know I’m concentrating on the health aspects of ‘wearable’ technology, but anything else at this stage doesn’t seem to be fully utilising the creativity in technology development. So many of us have smartphones or mobile computers now, do we really need another device that still tethers us to it? Both the watch and Mota Smartring need a Bluetooth device to work – personally I’d rather just look and use one device to stay connected, the device I already have.

So far I’ve not mentioned Fitbit. I haven’t got one, and probably need one as I should be more active. I think this is a more original view on wearable technology than a watch, and has the most to offer development possibilities for how we can use wearable tech. Saying this, you still need a separate device to know what you’ve done with your Fitbit.

I am really loving it when I read about developments in prosthetics limbs (Lego-friendly arm, so kids can swap its gripping attachment for their own custom creations and artificial leg that stimulates “feeling” for the patient) or eye and ear implants. When veterans return injured from war zones, when civilians are injured in terrorist attacks, or when illness or injury robs someone of a part of their body, wearable technology can help. Remember, wearable technology doesn’t have to be miniature, Internet-connected, a Facebook or Twitter notification centre, or anything like what we’re seeing. It can be something truly unique. Mind you, I’m not sure I like these life-like, interactive babies designed for something, I’m not sure what …. just too spooky for me.

Lastly I want to consider something truly science fiction – could wearable tech go as far as implants? In the film Johnny Mnemonic the main character transports dangerous data which will kill him if he can’t retrieve it in 48 hours. In another Keanu Reeves film, The Matrix, we see the real people ‘plug in’ to the matrix to battle cyber ‘agents’ via some very nasty looking spikes. There are so many books and films depicting a dystopian future based on the misuse or gullibility of the human race in how they/we have let more and more miniature computing devices invade our lives, in deed invade our bodies.

Wired magazine ran an article in February looking at key attributes wearable devices needed and concluded by saying that “never before has computing been small enough to be worn relatively comfortably around the clock on the body, presenting opportunities for breakthrough medical advancements and unfortunately marketing nuisances.” This is the key for me … will we get wearable technology for good, or for profit?

And I didn’t even cover what this kind of technology can do for students, teachers, assessment, copying, plagiarism, learning, geo-located activities, disabled, young, old, vulnerable, etc.

Image source: Cannikin (CC BY-NC 2.0)