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Wearable computing steps out of fantasy

o Jonny Evans
19.03.2013 kl 15:14 | Macworld U.K.

Will Apple's next products be wearable devices, what might they be? What is wearable computing anyway?

 

It seems amazing that the computational power nestled inside your iPhone is greater than that packed inside the original iMac. Today's powerful yet mobile families of connected devices give you many of the great features of a computer - without the computer.

Think about it: You can surf the Web, check messages, play a game. Add any of the tens of thousands of available apps and your phone's a guitar, a spirit level, a language translator, even a bodyguard. In future it surely seems inevitable you might use online software-as-service services to help you conduct tasks it's not possible to transact on your device due to hardware and system limitations. Meanwhile the capabilities of Apple's mobile devices improve with each release.

So, what more can we expect from the wearable technology evolution of the Post-PC age? Will an Apple iWatch one day be the only computer we need? What else can we look forward to from "wearable computing"?

Vision of the future

The machines are waking up! We already have smart fridges, intelligent home control systems such as the Nest thermostat, and intelligent monitoring and control systems across thousands of farms along the Asia-Pacific.

"Inanimate things are coming to life," wrote MIT professor Alex Pentland in 2000: "The simple objects that surround us are gaining sensors, computational powers, and actuators. Consequently, desks and doors, TVs and telephones, cars and trains, eyeglasses and shoes, and even the shirts on our backs are changing from static, inanimate objects into adaptive, reactive systems that can be more friendly, useful, and efficient."

The evolution of fast Wi-Fi and fast mobile data networks (4G, Femtocell, Metrocell et al) has spawned an IP-enabled infrastructure to for connected devices. Much is expected: The UK move to deploy 'smart' meters nationally by 2019 aims to cut energy consumption by offering granular insight into how it is used.

These visions of smart objects easily feed wearable computing dreams. Such dreams aren't new: the colour-changing clothes of Tron; Geordie LaForge's glasses in Star Trek; Dick Tracy's watch. What's new is that these fantasies are being realised, for example:

The UK military is investing in development of smart fabrics for uniforms through the Centre for Defence Enterprise.Google is developing intelligent glasses, Google Glass.Firms such as Pebble are creating intelligent watches.Numerous firms are developing self-driving cars.

While the functionality of the built-in processor in some smart systems may be limited, cloud-based systems can supplement that intelligence, gathering data on what you do in order to make your smart devices as responsive as possible to your needs. Your devices will learn what you want, and get it for you: walk into a hotel room and you'll find it set to your ideal temperature, for example.

"The stars of tomorrow are going to be the ones that carry computers into better understanding of humans. Eventually these machines are going to be like human friends. It's absolutely going to happen," said Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak at an industry event.

Apple already has a stake in this evolution with the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. These express the important contribution mobile technologies have to make within the future emergence of the Internet of things.

We have no proof Apple's looking at these emerging markets, but it's hard to imagine it isn't. After all, company CEO, Tim Cook, told shareholders at the recent annual meeting: "Obviously we're looking at new categories; we don't talk about them, but we're looking at them." Apple has also filed numerous patent applications that could prove relevant to wearable devices.

How did we get here?

Aguably the first wearable computer might have been an abacus worn around the neck. It is only recently humans have had access to the electronic components to put processors on your wrist, in your pocket or in your wallet.

University of Toronto professor, Steve Mann, is regarded as the father of the wearable computer. He built several general-purpose wearable systems in the '70's and early '80's, including personal sensing, biofeedback and multimedia devices. In 1981 he designed and built a backpack-based multimedia computer system with a head-mounted display visible to one eye. Mann has worn some form of wearable computer every day ever since.

In the mid-90's Mann developed a system that streamed live video captured by his display to and from the Web. Visitors to his website could see what he was seeing and annotate the view, ("scribble on his retina," he said). Mann is now General Chair of the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS).

Steven K Roberts, also made a significant contribution to the sector, building a computerized recumbent bicycle in the late '80's. His work helped underpin an enthusiastic circle of inventors who explored a range of technologies, culminating in an augmented reality system developed by MIT's Thad Starner. These pioneers all owe a debt to Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the chorded keyboard used in many early wearable computers, and author of the highly influential paper, Augmenting Human Intellect, which conceptualized how computers might help make humans smarter.

Xybernaut Corporation was founded in 1990. Now defunct, the first dedicated wearable computing company sold solutions to specific markets, such as the military. Tim Shea, a senior analyst at Venture Development Corporation, said of Xybernaut in 2007: "They've been sowing the seeds pretty well, but part of the problem is that they have this line of wearable products that were a little on the big and bulky side and had battery problems."

Shea's statement confirms that until relatively recently those developing wearable technologies faced major technical challenges. Pioneers weren't just attempting to invent something new, but also grappling with display, processor and motherboard miniaturization challenges while attempting to ensure good battery life using already available components.

The debut of smart devices from Palm and, later, Apple changed this environment. These devices emerged as ARM, Intel and others began aggressive development of low-energy processors for mobile devices. Intense competition within today's smartphone sector means rapid advances are being made in processor, connectivity, component, display and associated technologies. The availability of such tiny parts would have transformed the achievements of wearable computing's pioneers.

What's here now?

If you define wearable technology as being anything with some form of processor, we're already using it: the Nike + system, Pebble iPhone-friendly watch, even some sports bras are part of today's ecosystem.

It's important to make a distinction between the devices that you use and what they do for you. An iPhone may be a computer in your pocket, but what is it doing? An iPad may be the tablet of choice for today's Post-PC children, but what is it doing? Can the functions of these technologies exist independently of the device? If so, how?

The Pebble watch team's response is to work with what's already around. They've worked out how to present some of the useful functions of the phone through the watch face without requiring users to take their iPhone out of their pocket. The Pebble takes most of its data via Bluetooth from your iPhone or Android device. It also supports some apps, including GPS, bike computer, music control, golf rangefinder and more. This arrangement means the watch doesn't need a powerful processor, huge amounts of memory or a powerful battery subject to frequent recharging to work.

Google's Glass eyeglasses also use your iPhone or compatible Android device to augment the information you see with data sourced online. Google isn't the first, of course. Other smart glasses include the Lorex Vue sunglasses (which record sound and video); the Vuzix Wrap 520AR augmented reality specs and the Lumus range of video-viewing glasses which display a seeming 87-inch screen.

Underarmour continues to develop its range of sports gear, including its E39 technology-packed T-shirt, equipped with an accelerator, heart and breathing monitors and more. Underarmour hopes one day to make athlete data directly available to team coaches so they can monitor player performance.

It is perhaps inevitable that medical and healthy living implementations are booming. Sports and activity trackers currently account for most (61 percent) of wearable technologies shipping today. BodyMedia, is making devices that monitor health data while researchers from Orange Medical are deeply involved in exploring the potential of diabetes, heart rate and other medical device monitors in an attempt to help doctors effectively keep an eye on more patients. Another firm, Sorin, offers heart monitoring systems that work with a smartphone to monitor the health of patients equipped with a pacemaker. US firm MC10 meanwhile is developing wearable sensors with the flexibility, water resistance and endurance of sticking plasters.

Wearable technology is also hitting fashion. International Fashion Machines has been developing an intelligent fabric capable of carrying electronic instruction; meanwhile Stamp Shoes offers a pair of GPS-enabled brogues, which should help a few heavy drinkers make it home from the pub. On a serious note, 50 percent of Alzheimer's sufferers who become lost face death or injury if they're not found in 24-hours.

What's coming and when?

The race to stake claims in this new wide consumer frontier has begun. Google has already raised its flag in the sector with Google Glass, set to begin shipping to developers only later this year. Apple's plans remain shrouded in the company's usual mantle of speculation, doubt and uncertainty (more on this below) but the grim rivalry between the two firms suggests it will be making its own plan to bring new products to millions of satisfied iPhone users. Microsoft is also quietly developing its own video glasses, recently published patents suggest.

Apple's speculated product plans are hard to map. Various speculations exist claiming an Apple television integrating Apple TV features; an iPhone nano; new iPhones, iPads and a Mac Pro. Apple has recently seen share prices decline 40 percent as investors question its future product road map.

Other players include Olympus, which is working to develop its own competitor to Google Glass. Smaller firms, such as Jawbone with its recently launched Up wristband, are already introducing products. Silicon Valley start-ups are entering the space, among these is Thalmic Labs, which recently introduced MYO, a wrist cuff that controls computers and other devices through gestures. "In looking at wearable computers, we realized there are problems with input for augmented-reality devices," Thalmic Labs co-founder Stephen Lake told Wired, arguing that voice-controlled solutions would make people uncomfortable on public transport, "No one wants to be sitting on the subway talking to themselves," he said. Various medical devices are already available, from vendors such as Zoll, Gentag, Pancreun and a growing list of other specialized providers.

Activity is fierce. A recent IMS Research report declared that 14 million wearable devices shipped in 2011, but predicts the sector will be worth $6 billion by 2016. A conservative Juniper Research estimate claims there will be nearly 70 million smart wearable devices sold in 2017. The evidence and market opportunity suggests the mass market for wearable devices is already beginning to emerge. When will wearable devices truly become mass market? Forrester analyst, Sarah Rotman puts it this way, telling The Telegraph: "You need a major brand like Apple and Google to get behind the technology."

"The furor about wearable technologies, particularly smart watches and smart glasses is unsurprising," said Josh Flood, senior analyst at ABI Research. "Apple's curved glass-based watch could prove to be a revelation in the wearable technologies market," he said.

What challenges exist?

The big challenges to wearable technologies can be summarised as: hardware limitations; connectivity; and potential socio-political impact.

Hardware problems include power and the processor. The devil in the detail for wearable technology is power, or the lack of it. Where do you put a battery in your shirt? How big do you really want your smart watch to be? Most current implementations (eg. Nike+ or Google Glass) sidestep this by using the smartphone as the connected processor "brain" for the wearable device, with which they communicate via Bluetooth 2.0. Cutting the processor out of the equation is why Pebbles can work for up to seven days on a single charge.

Wearable devices need to be tough enough to handle the rigours of day-to-day wear. Think new metal alloys and flexible displays. Apple already has a license to develop products using the advanced metal alloy process patented by LiquidMetal.

Sharp showed its flexible 3.4-inch OLED display at CES this year. Apple's iPhone glass partner, Corning, (makers of Gorilla Glass) has its own flexible display technology, Willow, though company president, James Clappin recently warned it will take at least "three years" until devices appear that use it.

Connectivity also limits opportunity: mobile networks are being upgraded to fast 4G, but these won't be able to accommodate the sheer weight of IP-enabled devices attempting to pass across all sorts of information on their networks. Not only this, but the IPv4 system which underpins the Internet isn't equipped to handle the 50 billion connected devices expected to be in use by 2020. IPv4's successor, IPv6, is slowly being put in place, but isn't there yet.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is socio-political. As the ISTA observes: "These Wearable Computing technologies and applications have the potential to become controlling applications because they are used to make decisions, generate alerts, log employee movements etc. There are great socio-ethical implications that will stem from these technologies and fresh regulatory and legislative approaches are required to deal with this new environment." These devices and the data they gather will inform city governors and law enforcement with better information on which to make decisions.

Google Glass style devices will be able to record events in the world around them. This raises numerous privacy implications but also has the potential to transform the way populations are policed -- social media and images characterized the Arab Spring, for example. Noting the proliferation of smartphones means people have become cameras, Professor Katina Michael observes: "We have witnessed now in several occasions, such as the Vancouver Riots, the London Riots, and more recently the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the use of social media for distributing this rich multimedia content is a strong force to be reckoned with."

Equipped with constant Internet access and a visceral immediacy in their capacity to use social media, wearable computers could generate unexpected social changes.

What Apple is doing?

Apple's development of the graphical user interface launched the personal computer industry. The iPhone transformed what mobile phones can be; the iPad remains the flagship for a whole new computing category. A series of Apple patent filings suggest it intends maintaining its cutting-edge reputation.

Apple watchers are speculating the company plans to launch an iPhone-compatible device called "iWatch"; while a 2008 Research and Markets report suggested it was thinking about Apple Glasses years before Google's Glass.

iWatch speculation is at fever pitch.

A recently published Apple patent (filed in 2011) described a wrist-worn system equipped with a small flexible OLED display and advanced power sources. The patent described "active communication" between the "accessory" and a portable device, bypassing the need for a powerful on-board processor and enabling use of apps. As well as messaging using a virtual keyboard, suggested uses for the orientation-equipped gadget include access to maps and music playback control.

This report followed a series of others, none of which were supported by a published patent filing with the exception of one artist's impression of what an iWatch may look like. Artist, Nikolay Lamm, read an earlier published Apple patent describing a "spiral" user interface, in which users dig to the app they seek using rotating gestures and declared as a user interface for iTunes.

Apple veteran, Bruce Tognazzini further fanned this speculation with a blog post in which he described what such a device could achieve, including NFC payment system, health monitor, advanced call display features and apps support among these. This was preceded by a Bloomberg report claiming Apple already has 100 designers working on the project.

Creative Strategies analyst, Tim Bajarin, told Mercury News: "I do believe that Apple could potentially disrupt the watch market if they took their innovative design and tied it to their smartphones and ecosystems," he said. Though he warned, as we do, that it's unwise to completely rely on Apple product speculation.

It's a hot sector:

Pebble's attempt to raise initial funding quickly become the most funded Kickstarter project ever, raising over $10 million.A recent VoucherCodes survey found one-in-five smartphone users would purchase an Apple iWatch.ABI Research predicts wearable computing sales will hit half a billion annual devices by 2018.

Speculation as to Apple's future plans is difficult. Even in the event these iWatch claims were correct, the company won't ship unless it thinks the product is world-class. However it is tempting to think the inventor of the PC intends keeping its grip on the evolution of Post-PC. With this in mind, it's interesting to note that the 1998 iMac boasted a 233MHz CPU, 4GB storage and 32MB of RAM. In 2007, the original iPhone held a c.600MHz CPU, 8GB storage and an estimated 128MB of RAM. As Venture Capitalist Ben Horowiz told The Telegraph: "Imagine somebody said 15 years ago, you will have a very powerful computer in your pocket. People would have thought it was crazy."

The early iMacs carried less computational power than you find inside your iPhone.

Examples of wearable computing

1. Google Glass - In its quest to make the world a searchable commodity, Google Glass is the ads giant's latest attempt to deliver something cutting edge. These smart, connected glasses comprise a wearable computer that is capable of responding to spoken commands. Users can access the full range of Google's services with this gadget: get directions, ask questions, translation services, take pictures with the built-in camera, send messages via a compatible phone, and more. When they ship Google Glass will be compatible with both iOS and Android phones.

2. Adidas MiCoach Bra - This garment's packed with technology. Sensors built-into the sports bra monitor the most vital statistic there is: heart rate. The bra can also figure out how many calories get used during a match. This data is then sent to the Adidas MiCoach app installed on your iPhone where it can be tracked against performance targets. MiCoach also offers a host of help to keep you fit, including training programmes and pace triggered voice coaching.

3. Recon-powered ski goggles - Recon's HUD system captures all manner of real-time performance data as you ski, including speed, distance, jump airtime, altitude and more, instantly displaying the information on your eye display. These systems are appearing in goggles from most major ski equipment manufacturers, including Alpina (illustrated). They offer GPS support and friend and points of interest location. Used with iOS or Android smartphones Recon's system enables on-display access to messages, caller ID and music playback control.

4. Pebble watch - The Pebble smartwatch hosts a 144-x-168 pixel black-&-white ePaper display, a vibrating motor, magnetometer, accelerometer and ambient light sensors. It communicates with your iPhone over Bluetooth and supports a range of apps, including cycling, GPS and others. The watch also controls music playback, including support for track information. It alerts you to incoming calls, emails and messages, including support to display messages or Caller ID information on its display. Battery life is a claimed seven or more days between each charge.

5. Nike + Fuel - Using an accelerometer tested to endure the rigours of sport, the Nike+ Fuel wristband monitors your steps and figures out how many calories you burn, helpfully sending this information to your iPhone app. The app offers attractive screens detailing how many calories you use (measured in Nike Fuel points) and also lets you connect with friends to share progress in how close everyone is to their target for the day. It also doubles up as a watch, telling you the time on its display.

6. BodyMedia Fit Core - The BodyMedia system is also a wearable device that works in conjunction with a smartphone. The Fit Core gathers information with a pair of monitors, watching your sleeping patterns and physical activity. The supporting software offers weight and calorie management tools among other things. In common with most of today's wearable devices, the scientifically developed fitness software is available as an app, which is accessed using an iOS or Android smartphone. This enables the device to work for seven days on a single charge.

Keywords: Consumer Electronics  
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