By Bevil Wooding
New Wave of Mobile Gadgets Delivers Future Tech Today
A look at recent start-up and investment trends in the consumer technology market makes it clear that the next wave of innovation is going to be in wearable technology. Major companies such as Google, Samsung, Nike and Sony, along with a raft of boutique manufacturers are all pushing new electronic accessories to market.
Bevil Wooding is the chief knowledge officer of Congress WBN, a values-based, international charity and the executive director of BrightPath Foundation, a technology education non-profit organization. Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via email
Personal computing is getting even more personal as the battle for digital space on your body ramps up. Just as smartphones and tablets displaced the once-dominant PC, so too wearable devices are now poised to radically redefine the boundaries of mobility and connectivity. With this new wearable revolution comes a flood of opportunities as the lines between fashion and technology blur.
Wearable is the New Mobile
Advances in mobile computing technology have allowed screens, sensors and circuitry to become small enough, and portable enough, to enable a broad range of objects to be digitally enabled. These ‘smart’, wearable gadgets take many forms, from Google’s augmented reality glasses to health-focused fitness tracking wristbands from well-known vendors like Nike and Jabra, to rings that act as a secure digital password based on your heartbeat’s unique pulse.
This is the promise of wearable technology. It is also the reason why, after more than two decades years of tinkering by cybernetics enthusiasts and researchers, we are only now seeing an explosion of these devices targeted at the consumer market.
The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, one of the largest annual gatherings of technology vendors in the world, marked a defining moment for wearable tech. There were numerous wearables showcased at the conference, from established manufacturers through to newcomers; from expensive through to budget conscious.
However, Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, says things are still very much in the "exploratory phase," with manufacturers simply throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
Google is pouring millions into a set of eyeglasses, while Samsung is heavily promoting its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, as a complement to its successful Galaxy smartphones. The popularity and broad public interest in smartwatches is a testament to the limitations of mobile phones. For all their portability, the smartphone still has a distracting screen that takes users away from whatever else they may be doing.
One study of smartphone users revealed that on average users unlock their gadgets more than 100 times a day. Wearables, by contrast, offer a gateway to augmented reality. They represent a less intrusive, less distracting interface that provides a constant stream of intelligence about the world around. But wearables aren’t just about smart glasses, watches and wrist bands.
There are many other ways mobile technology can be integrated into everyday accessories. One example is the Sensoria Fitness Socks, which allows users to precisely measure cadence, detect foot landing technique, and even pick-up center of balance information to help improve running form. Sensoria also offers a T-shirt and sports bra to capture heart rate and blood pressure readings. The products come with a companion app that allows users to connect their garments to popular mobile phones and track the data as it is captured. According to Sensoria, “They are comfortable, washable, and yet... smart!”
Functionality, Meet Fashion
Many of these emerging wearable products have a limited, specialized allure, appealing only to early adopters. Still, it is important to recognize the wider trend: Wearable technology is quickly merging with commercial practicality and more important, with fashion sensibility.
Pure functionality is not enough to sustain the wearable revolution. The history of the mobile revolution teaches some important lessons. People could surf the web on their BlackBerrys and download apps on their Palm Treos. However, smartphones did not capture mass appeal until the arrival of iPhone. Apple’s intersection of design aesthetic, usability and functionality sent shock waves across the tech industry that reverberate to this day. Now, product design has moved from an engineering afterthought to a corporate necessity.
With wearables, the bar is raised even higher. After all, wearable devices represent technology that people display on their bodies, for all to see. This is a game changer for industrial designers and for tech companies. A new breed of fashion-conscious technologists must now emerge to conquer the entirely different and often highly fickle realm of fashion. And companies must move quickly to secure these competencies if they are to seize the opportunities now available.
The economic promise of wearables is huge. Juniper Research has predicted that wearables will represent a $19 billion industry over the next four years. Shipments of smart wearable bands - currently a relatively small sector in the technology industry - are set to grow by mammoth proportions this year, according to independent analyst Canalys.
The wearable revolution is expected take shape much faster than the mobile revolution that preceded it. Chris Anderson, WIRED magazine’s former editor-in-chief, calls this the “peace dividend of the smartphone wars.”
Shrunken electronic components and chip sets are now cheaper than ever. This means firms, can now more easily incorporate sophisticated hardware into wearable devices. And whereas in the lead up to the mobile era, smartphone manufacturers had to wrestle with the complexities of accessing dependable mobile broadband Internet service, today’s wearable manufacturers can simply piggyback on those innovations.
Combine more affordable hardware components, wireless connectivity and the emergence of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, and you have, in a word, opportunity! Firms, from anywhere in the world, can now dream up, build, and sell wearable devices in competition with much larger companies.
For the nascent tech sector in emerging markets like Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, wearable technology represents an opportunity to jump to the front of the technology innovation line. There is already a huge global need for software developers, fashion and creative specialists, and industrial design engineers to meet the demand for wearables. Meanwhile, we can expect that researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs will continue to dream up an exciting world of possibilities for wearable technology.