Personal Informatics, Wearables

Thoughts on Wearable Devices

Wearable Technology is perhaps the most sought out trend in the tech industry today. With products ranging from fitness trackers like Fitbit to Augmented Reality(AR) headsets like the Google Glass and Oculus Rift, many of the big players of the the computer industry are entering the domain of wearable devices, which denotes that the main focus of consumer technology will soon shift from smartphones, which have been predominant in the last decade to wearable technology. To discuss on this further, let’s take a look at the history of wearable devices(wearables). Since the dawn of time, human beings have augmented their bodies using tattoos, body piercings, and jewelry which have been found dating back to hundreds of years. It’s only comparatively recently that we’ve been using what would have been decorative trinkets – bracelets, headdresses, and necklaces – to actually do something. It’s interesting how humans have integrated these artifacts in their lifestyle. The quote by Levy justly describes the seamless amalgamation of these artifacts into our lives:

“We humans how found a way to delegate the ability to speak to inanimate objects, and have become deeply dependent on them for an endless array of services.”1

The history of the first wearable device could be dated back to 1268 which was the, now ubiquitous, eyeglasses. The devices that followed suite were the Abacus Ring (1644-1911) which was used as by Chinese traders to make basic arithmetic calculations 2 (perhaps the first wearable computer) and the Wristwatch (1868) 3. The first truly wearable computer didn’t appear until the invention of the “Roulette Shoe”, 1961 – which was created by a pair of mathematicians to cheat at the game of roulette[2]4. Edward O. Thorpe and Claude Shannon concealed a timing device in a shoe which could fairly accurately predict where the ball would land on a roulette table. The number was communicated via radio waves to the gambler with a great deal of success – Thorpe reported a 44 per cent increase of winning bets. Further on, Mark Schulze, a mountain bike fanatic, created the first helmet camera in 1987 by rigging a video camera to a portable video recorder. The next big wave of innovation erupted in the 2000s with the advent of Bluetooth headsets, Smart watches, activity trackers and head mounted displays. The first Bluetooth headset was shipped in 2000 5 allowing users to attend calls hands-free. The first activity trackers came into the market as early as 2006 6. The Pebble smartwatch raised a whopping $10.2 million in 2012 on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter 7 which signified the growing consumer interest in Wearable devices. Google Glass and Oculus Rift released in 2013 started a new trend of implementation of augmented and virtual reality in wearable devices.

There has been a tremendous increase in the number of wearable products in the industry in the last 10 years. Activity trackers and smart watches are predominant in the market. To narrow our focus, we’ll discuss in detail about activity trackers. Introduced in the market as a means to track body performance, Activity Trackers have made their way into the lives of the mainstream consumer because of their decreasing size and cost. Consumers not only get a visual idea of their health and fitness using this, they help them to work towards maintaining their fitness. Activity trackers are evolving day by day providing us with more ways to quantify ourselves, whether it be steps taken, time spent sitting or even hours slept. This has also helped manufacturers to expand their target audience by focusing their products on general health rather than active fitness.

The implications and uses of wearable technology are far-reaching and have the potential to enhance the fields of health and medicine, fitness, aging, disabilities, education, transportation, enterprise, finance, gaming, and music. The goal of wearable technologies in each of these fields will be to smoothly incorporate functional, portable electronics and computers into individuals’ daily lives. Prior to their presence in the consumer market, wearable devices were primarily used in the field of military technology and had the biggest implications for healthcare and medicine.

In the coming years, activity trackers will not only be focused towards athletes or active fitness but towards a more generic view of health. This will include monitoring sleep cycles, nutrition, vital body stats and perhaps, maybe even mental conditions. All these together bring in the complexity of how users would be able to use such devices with diversely varying functionalities and this responsibility will have to be shouldered by user experience designers. The reason for this is that there has been a lot of innovation into the hardware for these products but the software is yet to catch up with it. In fact, this is not only applicable to activity trackers but wearable devices in general.

The infiltration of these wearables devices in our daily lives gives us a very wide scope of creativity and problem-solving skills in the aspect of human-computer interaction. It brings in new challenges by the vast amount of data collected across different types of sensors. With the sizes of sensors getting smaller, wearables are moving towards more intuitive feedback systems of sounds and tactical feedback. A lot of research has been done on displays as a means for interaction compared to non-traditional aural and touch feedback systems. The main challenge lies in designing a hybrid interaction using multiple senses at once as a feedback mechanism to provide a richer experience to the user.

As the potential uses in various fields continue to grow, the sociological and cultural impact wearable technology will have in the future should not be minimized. Already, the current hand-held devices available to consumers, such as Smart Phones, iPods, and tablets, have changed the technological and social landscapes on a global scale, such that, walking out in public and seeing an individual engaging with a hand-held device is commonplace. Such an image was nonexistent only 20 years ago. With that in mind, developers and analysts predict that wearable technology will very quickly change the technological and cultural landscapes once again, and may even change the nature of mobile phones and other hand-held devices entirely.

 

References:

1    David Levy, “Scrolling Forward: making sense of documents in the digital age”, What are Documents?, by David M. Levy, Arcade Publishing New York, 2001.

2    Ellie Zolfagharifard, “Is this the first wearable computer? 300-year-old Chinese abacus ring was used during the Qing Dynasty to help traders”, Daily Mail, published 19 March 2014.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2584437/Is-wearable-computer-300-year-old-Chinese-abacus-ring-used-Qing-Dynasty-help-traders.html

3 “First wristwatch | Guinness World Records”, Guinness World Records. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-wristwatch/

4     Thorp, E.O.; Edward O. Thorpe & Associates, USA. “The invention of the first wearable computer.” Digest of Papers. Second International Symposium on Wearable Computers. Accessed on Sept 29, 2015, DOI: 10.1109/ISWC.1998.729523

5    “Our History | Bluetooth Technology Website”, Blurtooth.com, http://www.bluetooth.com/Pages/History-of-Bluetooth.aspx

6     Dave Phillips, “Polar RS800 not just another heart rate monitor”, CNET News, Accessed February 25, 2014, DOI: October 3, 2007.

7     “Pebble Time – Awesome Smartwatch, No Compromises”, Kickstarter, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/597507018/pebble-time-awesome-smartwatch-no-compromises

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