Wearable gadgets: Seamless transition of technology

Wearable devices that can monitor everything from heart rates to emotions are set to become an everyday aspect of day to day life. The falling cost of sensors that measure degrees of movement is one reason why this brave new world will soon be the norm.

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Our days are becoming more digitised as technology seeps its way further into our lives.

Wearable technology is shaping up to be one of the major trends at this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona and it is not just the smug-faced Google Glass enthusiasts who are taking note or, rather, screenshots.

Samsung and Sony have already showcased their updated smartwatches while HTC and Huawei have made their foray into wearables with their own watches at this year's largest mobile show, which opened yesterday and runs until Thursday in the Spanish city. As the smartphone market continues to mature, manufacturers will look to wearables for growth and drive down prices.

The US-based consultancy Deloitte predicts sales of wearables should reach 10 million units this year, generating US$3 billion. Of these, smart glasses and digital fitness bands are set to sell 4 million units each with smartwatches expected to sell 2 million units.

But it is not just in these three categories that technology has permeated. Sensors are being embedded into pretty much everything, from headphones and jewellery to shoes and even a bra to monitor emotions to help to prevent overeating.

These sensors have been around since the 1960s, initially in printers and scanners. The majority are micro-electro-mechanical sensors (Mems), which convert a mechanical motion into an electrical signal. Over the years they were introduced into mobile phones and other smart gadgets and are now playing a crucial role in wearables.

“The accelerometer and gyroscope [that enables image tilting], more specifically, came to completely redefine the functionality of our smart devices, enabling us to change the screen orientation, have more fun playing games and access greatly enhanced location services. We don’t need GPS signals, we can navigate with anywhere with gyro functionality,” says Rakesh Kumar, the senior director of the Mems programme at GlobalFoundries. “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what these sensors can do.”

Right now most smart devices monitor between two and 10 axes of motion and given the high cost of sensors, manufacturers are spending about $15 on them per device. As the cost of sensors begins to decrease, manufacturers will be more inclined to increase the range of motion to enable gadgets to monitor a wider variety of activities.

Over the next few years, as consumers become more comfortable interacting with technology in a highly personal manner and as sensors become more sophisticated and accurate, sales of such devices are likely to soar.

The main area where analysts believe consumers will be most accepting of wearables is in the health and fitness sector. Companies such as fitbit, Strava and digifit make use of chips that track motion and heart rate during exercise to log user activity and aid fitness regimes.

“There are a tremendous number of health-related applications where wearable sensors can play a role. From heart disease to cancer to Parkinson’s, there are dozens of illnesses where sensing and intelligent analysis can play a key role in treatment and prevention,” says Mr Kumar.

This year Google unveiled contact lenses that monitor the glucose levels for diabetics. Intel unveiled Edison, a mini computer that can communicate via bluetooth and Wi Fi and can be connected to a whole host of sensors. The company demonstrated it in Las Vegas at the International Consumer Electronics Show by embedding it in a Wi Fi-enabled device that monitored a baby’s heart rate, temperature and respiration. The information was relayed back to a mug, which changed colour depending on the baby’s condition.

But there are other uses. Wearables are intended to become a seamless part of everyday life. Some will try to enhance non-verbal and non-textual communication by simulating human touch. Soon you will be able to send a hug from your phone to a loved one’s jacket that will simulate the action by activating embedded air pockets. Couples will be able to “tickle” or “touch” one another through the use of bracelets and wristbands.

Other wearables, however, simply act as another gadget or tool to help users organise their lives and gain a better understanding of themselves.

“We are starting to capture, in a digital way, the information that was already there, so now we can work with it and make decisions quicker,” says Shawn du Bravac, the chief economist and senior director of research at the Consumer Electronics Association. “We can start to converge this data and allow machines to make decisions and recommendations on our behalf.”

Sony is pushing its own sensor, Core, which hooks up to a smartphone to track your life, from your comings and goings, calendar, photos, music you have listened to and videos you have watched and your heart rate and emotions to create a visual and informative database of your life through its LifeLogger mobile app.

With this information, Sony can suggest what content to consume, bringing other aspects of its business to the user’s attention. If it detects that the user is feeling unhappy or depressed, it may recommend a comedy from its film catalogue.

The viability of wearable technology will come down to the security of the cloud management and ensuring that user data cannot be intercepted or breached.

“You’ll see younger consumers that are more likely to use wearables and be more open to sharing their information on the cloud. Realistically, it is likely to be a barrier to some consumers,” says Calum MacDougall, the head of Xperia marketing at Sony Mobile.

But it is not just privacy concerns that prompts criticism. Google Glass and other such devices that can capture photos and videos and record audio can be invasive and intrusive. Society will have to adapt and set new rules and social norms for wearables and, as Google recently laid out in its glass etiquette guide, it is best to ask permission.


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