WITH all the hype around Google Glass, the computer headset currently under development, you’d be forgiven for thinking the geeks were not just changing the world but our wardrobes too. After 20 years of sputtering innovation, wearable technology is set to explode in a vast range of consumer and business products and technologies, driven by entrepreneurial innovations and mainstream applications.
Wearable tech heralds a new era of smart watches, glasses and other accessories, integrated into our daily lives. But we are only just beginning to understand what the full implications could be. And it’s not all fun and games – wearable tech can have potentially life-changing uses. After the kidnap and murder of a human rights worker in Chechnya, for example, the Swedish aid organisation Civil Rights Defenders developed a bracelet that communicates via satellite and pinpoints a distress signal when triggered or removed. Within the year, police could also be wearing augmented reality sunglasses, with facial recognition linked to the terrorist watch list. In the future, scanning the crowd at a public event could flag suspects before disaster strikes.
But as with many digital innovations, there are inevitable concerns. In the consumer market, the heir apparent to Google Glass is contact lenses discreetly capable of filming and recording everything you see on-demand. Hands-free wearable cameras, like the Autographer from Oxford-based OMG, are also under development. Privacy regulators are hiding beneath their beds.
In collaboration with cloud computing provider Rackspace, our research at the Centre for Creative and Social Technologies (CAST) at Goldsmiths is exploring the transition of wearable tech from novelty and entertainment niches in London to everyday impacts on health, wellbeing, education, security, productivity, and lifestyle.
Some wearable technologies have already hit the consumer market. The rise of terms such as “Lifelogging” and “Quantified Self” mark a tipping point in popular culture and society. Lifeloggers have technology on the body for fun, recreation, health and fitness. The Quantified Self is a term used to describe the aggregated sensor data produced by all this self-monitoring.
This may sound exhausting, but it actually involves very little human intervention. Typically sensors in increasingly compact devices wirelessly transmit data from a wearable device to your smartphone in real-time. But even the mighty smartphone is only a staging point in wearable tech. People say the phone killed the cheap watch, but innovations like the Pebble e-paper watch turn the tables by providing less socially intrusive and more convenient access to your apps and data.
Currently, wristbands like the Jawbone Up or Nike Fuelband can measure your daily activity, calorie burn, heartrate, sleep, and diet – promoting what appears to be a “gamification” of lifestyle by allowing users to track daily performance and seek improvements. But wearable tech is increasingly finding more and more practical uses. Wristbands like the UK-based Geneactiv are used by teams in the Premier League to measure their athletes’ smallest movements for weakness or opportunities for performance improvement.
The implications have not been lost on business either. In the insurance sector, PruHealth has partnered with Fitbug so that, every day you take more than 10,000 steps, you earn “vitality points” that contribute to discounts at gyms or private health screenings. The next logical step is users sharing their Quantified Self with insurance company apps to reduce premiums and promote underwriting.
This is one of the reasons why privacy issues are so tricky when it comes to wearable technology. It’s one thing to ask someone if they want to share their private medical data and everyday activities with an insurance company, and another to ask if they’d be willing to do that if it meant securing a more affordable or robust health care plan.
But despite these areas of possible contention, wearable tech is still poised to explode into our personal and professional lives. Google Glass may be getting all the attention, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Chris Brauer is director of CAST and a senior lecturer in the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths College. He will be speaking at the RE.WORK summit in London this September, which will bring together science, technology and entrepreneurism to solve global challenges. To book tickets, or for more information about RE.WORK and what it does, visit www.re-work.co