I was recently asked to speak at a tech conference, ITEN Wired, in Pensacola. One of the “tracks” for the daily sessions was on “Wearables,” and I was asked to give a talk about the current state of wearables today. As an all-around tech-geek who loves this kind of stuff, I jumped at the chance to talk about it. I had a great time at the conference, and after my session I thought it might be a good idea to write up my notes into a blog post with my thoughts.
A Brief History of Wearables
As humans, we're a very curious species… We like data! The most important piece of data we can measure is the passage of time. Early astronomers watched the sun come up, go across the sky, and go down on the other side. They got tired of doing that, so they called it a day. (Ba-dum PSH!) Soon we invented a way to keep track of time; the sundial. Unfortunately, sundials aren’t very portable, so next we invented clocks. Clocks were big, cumbersome things, but over time they got smaller and smaller until we were able to fit them in our pockets, long before there were hipsters doing it ironically. Then, in World War 1, soldiers figured out it was a pain to fish a pocket watch out of a jacket to coordinate attacks, so some bright spark in a muddy trench decided to lash the watch to his wrist. This became very popular, and spilled over to civilian life, and the wearables revolution was born. Not long after that, digital watches were invented, and then we even crammed a calculator into the watch, and Marty McFly flew back to 1955 with one. Now, these wearables are doing more and more, and feeding us much more data than just how long it’s going to be before the sun falls off the edge of the earth. Current wearables fall into three categories; Fitness/Activity Trackers, Smart Watches and everything else.
Fitness trackers have one great advantage: they’re cheap! Maybe not as cheap as a regular digital watch, but you may be surprised at what a great deal you can get. For instance, the Xiaomi Mi Band is only $13, and it has a battery that lasts for 30 days on a single charge, and it tracks your steps and sleep, and has smart alarms the wake you by gently vibrating on your wrist. In fact, those seem to be the basic features of Fitness Trackers; track the steps you take in a day and track your sleep habits. These data are important, because they help us lead healthier lives. It’s been said that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, and I think many of us would be surprised at how little we move around throughout the day, and at how little sleep we’re actually getting on average. Generally, the common consensus is that you should shoot to walk at least 10,000 steps per day, and get about 8 hours of sleep per night. If you work at a desk and have a Netflix subscription, there’s a good chance you’re not hitting either of these goals.
Fitness trackers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but most of them either clip to your clothing or wrap around your wrist. They’re not very smart, they’re just an accelerometer with a Bluetooth connection to your phone. And most of them don’t even have a display on them, although some do, and show you the time as well as your step count. Of course, like most things, the more you're willing to pay, the more features you'll get, and some of them even track various sporting activities you might engage in. The biggest name in the Fitness Tracker market is Fitbit (of course), and their devices range from under $100 to around $150, depending on the features you get. Also, Garmin makes a number of Fitness Tracker devices. They have a long history of making the industry-standard GPS watches for runners, cyclists and swimmers, so this is a natural move for Garmin. And last, but not least, Jawbone progressed from making Bluetooth headphones and speakers to Fitness Trackers, namely the Up, which is now in its fourth generation and can even test your hydration levels by the salinity of your sweat!
There is a large selection of Smart Watches on the market, and it’s growing all the time! In fact, the current trend of Smart Watches is bringing wristwatch-wearing back into fashion. Smart Watches can be thought of as the next evolution of Fitness Trackers. Prices range from $100 to $17,000, and the difference is usually the features they offer, and the materials they’re made of. All Smart Watches measure step and sleep tracking, but they also add apps and notifications to their repertoire. Additionally, they usually have other sensors and radios built in, e.g. integrated heart rate monitors, GPS, Wi-Fi, UV sensors, NFC payments, etc. It’s important to remember that in the current state of wearables, even Smart Watches are really just an extension of your Smart Phone, and can’t do too much by themselves.
So how do you choose a Smart Watch? The best thing to do is to match it to your phone. If you use a Windows Phone, the Microsoft Band is a great choice. It has Cortana integration, built-in heart rate monitoring, GPS and it looks nice. If you are an Android user, it’s best to stick with an Android Wear watch. There are many to choose from; Samsung offer several models, LG and Asus both have popular offerings, but the Moto360 is probably the most popular Android Wear watch on the market. You might also consider a Pebble Steel. While not an Android smart watch, per se, it does integrate well with both Android and iOS, and because of its e-ink screen, a single charge can last up to a week, as opposed to the usual day-long battery of most Smart Watches. And if you have an iPhone, then the Apple Watch is probably the best choice for you, because it integrates with the entire Apple ecosystem so well.
Currently, most wearables are relegated to your wrist. This is probably because it’s a convenient location to quickly access data. But both Google and Microsoft have tried their hand at putting wearables on your face with the Google Glass
and the upcoming Microsoft HoloLens
, respectively. I’m not sure whether this will take off, or how long it will take us a society to get used to people walking around with computers on their faces, but it’s definitely an interesting category! Smart fabric also belongs in this space, where we can get biometric feedback from our movements just from the clothes we’re wearing. There are even Bluetooth earbuds that not only play music wirelessly, but they also monitor your heart rate in your ears and feed that information back to your phone, which is super handy for training for that 5K!
Where Is This Going?
I think wearables are here to stay, and not just a fad. The reason I believe this is because they’re so convenient! I can’t tell you how handy it is to be able to glance at my wrist and instantly see what time and date it is, how long it’s been since I got up and moved around last, and the current weather outside. It’s so nice that I can go to my office after-hours and disarm the alarm system using nothing but my Apple Watch. It’s so convenient to pick up a few items at Walgreens and just wave my wrist in front of the cash register to pay. And it’s really nice to see incoming texts and calls on my watch without having to reach for my phone all day. Also, the “gamification” aspect of fitness tracking is very motivating for me to work out. I’m currently on a 63-day streak of working out at least 30 minutes every day. I don’t want to break that streak!
As excited as I am about my Apple Watch, Garmin Vívofit and Xiaomi Mi Band (I have a problem, I know), there are several challenges for wearables going forward:
- Battery life. Battery technology is simply not progressing as fast as chip and sensor technology. Because of that, the biggest limiting factor is battery life. A large portion of a smart watch is dedicated just to the battery. As technology improves in this field, wearables will become smaller, lighter and more ubiquitous.
- Social acceptability. We’re still figuring out how we should treat technology in our society, and so wearables make that even more of a challenge to define. When someone glances at their watch in the middle of a conversation, it indicates they’re bored and are ready to leave. Now, it might simply mean they’ve gotten a text notification. It’s also concerning when someone has a video camera attached to their glasses because we won’t know if we’re being recorded. These are issues we’ll have to figure out.
- Security. All of these devices are wirelessly connected, gathering large amounts of data, and pushing those data to the internet for analysis. We definitely need to figure out security systems and protocols for these Internet of Things devices now while the technology is still young.
We don't know all the ramifications of wearable tech, however you can bet it's here to stay and I think it's pretty exciting!