Wear computers are going: an overview of wearable technology

While wearables feels like a recent addition to our collective vocabulary, in reality the concept has been a long time coming. As long ago as the mid-1970s, digital quartz watches were widely available, and in 1979, the Sony Walkman introduced much of the world to wearable entertainment. While those devices delivered information and media, the latest wave of wearables take a quantum step forward in how they interact with—or collect information about— the wearer.

The evolution of wearable technology has been fueled by the convergence of a variety of enabling technologies. Miniaturization and portability of processors, sensors, and displays make components small and light enough to carry. Wireless networking advances allow devices to receive and share data. And efficient computing and batteries enable devices to be sufficiently powerful while also being affordable. 

Sizing the opportunity

For those who are familiar with Geoffrey Moore’s technology adoption life cycle model, you could say wearables are just now ‘crossing the chasm’. In other words, the category is moving from the Visionaries phase, where only early adopters purchase, to the Pragmatists phase where an early majority of mainstream consumers are willing to buy. Google Glass, which sold perhaps 100,000 units in beta release during 2013 and 2014, serves as an example of an over-hyped wearable technology that never made it out of the experimental stage. Meanwhile, Fitbit sold 13.2m devices in the first nine months of 2015, proving a mainstream consumer market for wearable devices does exist.

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Figure 1. Google Glass

Analysts at PwC estimate roughly 20 per cent of American adults already own some type of wearable computing device. That’s similar to the penetration rate of tablet computers in 2012, which has since doubled. The opportunity is staggering in terms of dollars. Grand View Research forecasts the wearable technology market will grow at a global CAGR of 34.2 per cent from $18.9bn in 2014 to over $196.5bn by 2022.

According to comScore research, more than 80 per cent of mobile subscribers in the U.S. now have smartphones. In some cases, wearable devices could be perceived as an alternative to smartphones. However, for the foreseeable future, wearables are more often going to function as a companion device, like the Apple Watch which depends on the iPhone to be a connective hub. When PwC surveyed consumers to ask if they’d need a wearable to replace an existing device (such as a smartphone) to justify its purchase, 76 per cent replied ‘no’.

Wearables take many forms

Wearables can be broadly defined as an electronic device that is attached to the body for the purpose of collecting and/or presenting data. Many of the popular consumer applications fall under the category of ‘quantified self’ (a.k.a., lifelogging), the use of technology to measure and track parameters from your daily life. The data could relate to your environment, like the temperature, or your body, like tracking exercise or sleep.

Wearable devices like fitness bands and smart watches are mostly evolutionary because they employ conventional electronics to function as peripherals to other devices. There’s another type of wearable that has a more disruptive and revolutionary nature: apparel (‘smart clothing’) made of fabrics (‘e-textiles’) that embed or integrate new technologies to enhance performance aesthetics. For example, the $295 Ralph Lauren PoloTech Shirt contains conductive silver-coated fibers that send the wearer’s heart rate, breathing depth and balance to an iPhone or iPod. Although the variety of smart clothes already available includes shirts, shorts, socks, shoes, and more, a recent report from Juniper Research is skeptical that smart garments will gain much traction beyond use by professional athletes.  

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Figure 2. Ralph Lauren Polo Tech Shirt

Wearables may be good for your health

In the near term, the dominant sector for wearables is likely going to be the healthcare sector, which includes fitness, wellness, and medical applications. Fitness bands have been getting strong traction in the consumer market. Examples include the Nike+ FuelBand, Fitbit wristbands, and the Jawbone UP, which track biometrics like calories burned, steps taken, and sleep quantity and efficiency. By transferring data from these devices to a computer or smartphone, users benefit from a greater understanding of their training regimen and often find the insights motivational for reaching daily exercise goals. 

Wearables also offer the potential to revolutionise human factors data collection in non-consumer applications such as healthcare, industrial and defense or security fields. Wearable devices can capture continuous data on patient vital signs, such as blood pressure, stress levels, and heart rate, which otherwise go unrecorded. Wearables will be donned by the healthcare professionals as well. Examples of existing uses include surgeons wearing glasses that provide augmented reality views or wearing tiny cameras for filming operations from a first-person view.

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Figure 3. Fitbit ChargeHR (includes heart rate monitor) 

Although healthcare is the leading non-consumer segment for wearables, enterprise and industrial applications that increase worker safety and productivity will be high growth areas over the next few years. Heads-up wearable displays, gloves with tag readers, and body-worn cameras will be commonplace among workers in warehouses, manufacturing plants, and oil platforms. It’s also worth mentioning the important role military and law enforcement applications play in the development of wearable technologies. It’s commonplace for soldiers to use night vision goggles, heads-up map displays, body cameras and vital signs sensors, to augment and track their effectiveness on the battlefield.

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Figure 4. The Future Soldier

Slip into the ‘internet of things’

Wearables are a great example of the maxim ‘hardware is the new software’. For the past few decades, the software industry delivered more creativity and differentiation than computer hardware manufacturers. Now wearable device makers are proving that software doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. 

According to the PwC research report, The Wearable Future, ‘there is a wearable future around the corner, it’s more immediate than we think—and it can dramatically reshape the way we live and do business.’ If you’re not already wearing a computing device, there’s a good chance you will be soon.

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