What’s all this fuss about wearable devices? Ranging from crazily expensive, and very nerdy Google Glass to the simple and relatively discreet Pebble (semi-)smart watch or pocketable Fitbit One, these are typically small, wireless devices that are designed to fade into the background of your life until you need them.
Why does my watch need to be smart? And what does that mean? Depending on which watch you’re looking at, it could mean different things. At one end of the scale there are devices like Samsung’s Gear watch or the I’M watch which are running full blown operating systems and have colour displays. In the case of the Samsung device there is even a camera. At this end of the range, expect the watch to run all kinds of apps. On the down side, these high end devices are relatively bulky and have limited battery life. I’ve heard comments that some of these don’t even make it through an entire day if used heavily.
The other end of the scale are devices like the Pebble which don’t come with the colour screens, and have less sophisticated apps. The advantages are much better battery life and generally smaller size. My Pebble lasts over 3 days between charges, even with my relatively heavy use of SMS messaging (which causes the watch to vibrate). The size was also important to me as I had not worn a watch on a regular base for a long time, in large part because I found it was getting in the way of my laptop use, but also because I just didn’t need to know the time that often (and when I did, I could usually check my phone).
For me, the key features that I wanted on a smart watch were selective message notifications, calendar reminders and call management. Additional apps might be interesting, but certainly not essential for me. And, battery life and size were important too. When I saw the Pebble on Kickstarter it seemed to be an interesting mix of features and form, so I backed the project. I’ve had the watch for a number of months now, and I am loving it. Pebble’s recent announcement of new mainstream apps, like Yelp and Foursquare, coming soon is interesting, and even more exciting was the new SDK that enables Internet connectivity for apps through the attached smartphone.
Although not as integral to everyday life perhaps as a watch or something like Google’s Glass, there are many wearable health monitoring devices out there. Some record just your walking (essentially smart pedometers), others add extra stats like stairs climbed or sleep tracking. And there are even some newer additions that monitor vital signs like heart rate, body temperature etc.
Almost all, including the Fitbit One that I carry to keep track of how far I walk each day, have social options, and some manual entry capabilities like water consumption and calorie intake if you’re looking for that level of detail.
I imagine we are not too far from a future where these devices can record and monitor vital signs and provide both early warning to the wearer of possible risks, as well as detailed information to paramedics and doctors in case of issues.
A recent discovery of mine was Bionym with their ECG based biometrics device. What is interesting about this device (and I am still waiting for mine to ship, so I haven’t had a chance to play with it at all just yet) is the idea that it beacons out my identity. Think of the verified account status that Twitter has for some users, mostly famous ones, but on your wrist.
With any biometric device the idea is that something physically unique to you can be used to verify your identity. But the typical things used for this, like fingerprints, retina images or even palm prints all need to be stored in the cloud somewhere and matched. So every time you use one of these biometrics you leave a digital copy of it behind (and in the case of things like fingerprints, a physical copy that could be lifted off the scanner and replicated).
The ECG idea could also be implemented the same way, with a device you need to strap on your wrist when necessary. Bionym have done something smarter, in my opinion. They have a device that can match my ECG, and that device beacons an encrypted signal that others can use to confirm my identity without me having to touch or wear anything I don’t own, and without the actual ECG pattern being given away. An ECG pattern is already hard to capture remotely, and with this model you never actually give it to anybody else.
Cameras are another interesting wearable technology that is still nascent. I have “ordered” a wearable camera (the ParaShoot) from IndieGoGo to see what I make of this idea. Still not sure how I want to use it just yet. And, of course, the Samsung Gear and the Google Glass products also incorporate cameras, although only as a feature, not as the sole raison d’être.
There are also two distinct modes for these right now, perhaps limited heavily by battery life. In one form, the camera can be triggered easily to record video clips, but does not run continuously. In the other form, the camera records images on a fixed schedule to provide something akin to a time lapse movie of your day. I am hoping that the ParaShoot has both options so I can experiment with both modes. Even better will be if there is a way to control it remotely.
Saving the best, or perhaps the worst, for last, the final category is wearable “screen” technology like the (in)famous Google Glass project. In these, the wearer can view a screen “projected” into the space in front of them via similar optical tricks to expensive heads up display technology available in military aircraft and high end cars. These devices have access to the internet, typically via a connected smartphone, and also include cameras and a microphone to listen for commands from its wearer. Technically very clever for sure. But socially I am not so sure. Looking at my watch, or even my phone is something that doesn’t give anybody cause for concern (you can see me doing it). Being able to maintain eye contact with somebody you’re talking to, while at the same time reading content from the internet is likely over the line for many. Clearly, there are some great applications for wearable displays though. Imagine being able to look at schematics of something you’re working on. Or being part of a rescue team where you need our glands free but also need to get information real time.
No matter how we feel though, these devices are coming. I have already seen one person getting off of a train in SF wearing a Google Glass.. And there are already places banning them, even before they are generally available.