Wearable tech is misunderstood. Some think it’s all about the £300 smartwatches that many struggle to find uses for. Others can’t get beyond the barrage of start-ups pitching wearables more ridiculous-sounding than the last.
Smart underpants? Mind-controlled bunny ears? They’re real, and they’re not going to convince anyone that wearables are serious. But they are. It’s all about stepping back, taking the focus off the Apple Watch for a few moments and seeing where wearables are really headed.
It has a lot to do with the Internet of Things revolution. Yes, the term seems purpose-built by marketeers to ensure that normal people don’t understand it, but it’s important. The Internet of Things refers to all the… things that are currently not smart, but will soon have wireless smarts as standard.
Everything from your washing machine and oven to your doorbell and the light in the upstairs toilet will have a smart element. And it won’t come with the off-putting premium you might be imagining right now. It’ll be standard soon enough.
At present, wearables and the Internet of Things seem quite separate. But they’re destined to be together, one being our way of interfacing with the other.
All the small things
It’ll start with smartwatches, including the Apple Watch. Apple already has the computer language in place to make it happen. It’s called HomeKit. It became part of iOS in early 2015, and while it’s still mostly dormant, it’s ready to weave together your iPhone, Apple Watch and all number of low-powered smart devices that’ll live silently in your home.
Google has its alternative in place, too. Project Brillo and Google Weave are the platform and language that will bring together IoT gadgets/wearables and more familiar Android smartwatches and phones.
That’s right, there will be Internet of Things wearables too. These will be low-power devices that you’ll interact with passively, not actively like with an Apple Watch. Athos already makes sensors that embed into exercise clothing to monitor your heart rate and motion, all without needing you to take a separate smartwatch or fitness gadget out running with you.
And it’s a given that soon every dog collar will have an IoT-style chip embedded into it.
In time, wearable technology won’t be something you opt into; like smartphones, it’ll be everywhere.
This is only one side of it, though, the side for those who don’t want to jump in with both feet. For the techy enthusiast, there’ll be even more to chew on. We’re talking about smart glasses and VR headsets, the sort of technology that seemed pure science fiction until recently. It’s all set to blow up in 2016.We’ll be knee-deep in VR in a year’s time, with giants including Sony, Facebook and Valve all having a stake in headsets like the PS4 Morpheus, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. All offer visuals that dominate your field of view, making your local IMAX look like your grandparents’ TV.
It’s Microsoft’s HoloLens that’s most hooked into wearables, though. Rather than blocking out your view of the world, this headset augments it, interfacing with things in the real world and mapping 3D visuals onto them. Augmented reality, in other words.
No doubt one day it’ll talk to some of your IoT home gadgets, giving them hologram-style visuals of their own. Kitchen surfaces that weather reports and news headlines spring out of in 3D are sure to be with us soon.
Right now, we’re just waiting for Google to release its own take on the HoloLens, with the new edition of the infamous Google Glass. Once among the biggest names in wearable headgear, Google took Glass off sale in early 2015, deciding to drape a curtain over the project to let it make a big splash once more with the v2 model. So far, it’s slipped out a second Google Glass for business. But you can bet that the consumer edition will be thoroughly hooked into Android Wear and the Weave/Brillo standards Google hopes will be the bedrock of future wearables and IoT gadgets.
So, what’s the hold-up? We have the software, and we certainly have brains small enough. ARM’S Cortex- M0+ CPU measures just 2mm by 1.6mm. It’s tiny. However, one thing that holds back Google Glass and virtually every other high-end wearable is stamina.
We don’t have the battery tech we’re after – not quite yet.
But there are an awful lot of people working on a mind-boggling number of potential solutions.
One that’s already confirmed to be a feature of future smartwatches is LG’s chemicals division’s hexagonal battery. It promises a 25 per cent increase over current cells.
Looking further into the murky future, Stanford University researchers are working on an aluminium-ion battery that charges in just a few minutes, not a couple of hours. And home-appliance guru Dyson has invested heavily in solid-state batteries that could get us two or three times the stamina from a unit the same size as today’s lithium-ion batteries.
Whether or not you care about having home appliances you can control from halfway around the globe, or getting a wrist notification when the postie rings your doorbell, this battery tech alone could make one wearable dream a reality: the Apple Watch that lasts a week off a charge, not a day.
There are even smartwatches out there for people who hate the idea of conspicuous wearable tech
Most smartwatches have a bright screen that tells everyone within 50 paces that you’re wearing a flashy gadget. But there are some that take a rather anti-smart approach to design. They’re smartwatches but you’d never guess.
The pick of these that’s already on the high street is the Withings Activité, available in fancy £289 and more affordable £119 ‘Pop’ varieties (the only real differences are the materials used and the fact that the more expensive one is made in Switzerland). It acts as an alarm and tracks your steps and sleep, but needs no screen or eye-catching LEDs. Instead, it uses a little dial to show how close you are to meeting your daily steps goal.
Nevo’s smartwatch has a few little LEDs on its watch face, but is otherwise about as blank an analogue watch as you could find. Little white LEDs around the face tell you how much of your daily steps quota you’ve managed so far, while multi-coloured LEDs at the top enable you to see when you have a certain kind of notification. Texts, calls and emails all light up in different shades.
Aside from a simple look, the best bit about this breed of watch is that the battery invariably lasts for ages. Withings’ Activité lasts eight months using a normal watch battery, while Nevo even makes a solar version of its watch, meaning no charging, ever.
The whole smartwatch explosion has also sparked off a wave of traditional indie watches on crowd-funded platforms. So if you’re just a watch lover, not an insta-smartwatch fanatic, now is a good time to buy a new timepiece. These tend to focus on craftsmanship, and the sort of classic ideals that make people want to spend thousands of pounds on a watch.
“A reinterpretation of a classic World War Two pilot’s watch, crafted from brass, which develops a patina unique to you,” says Ventus about its Caspian Kickstarter watch. That pretty much sums it up.
How your wearable could save your life
Revolutionary new tech will help you monitor your health and help diagnose illness
Wearable tech tends to focus a lot on appearances. It needs to, in order to convince the masses to wear the stuff. However, bubbling away in the background are wearable devices that could truly improve lives.
One of the best examples is Google’s smart contact lens, designed to monitor blood- glucose levels in people dealing with diabetes. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky wearable for the far-off future, either: Google has already signed a manufacturing deal with pharmaceutical giant Novartis to bring it to market. This should enable patients to avoid having to go through the current blood- glucose test, which involves stabbing your finger with a needle multiple times a day.
The Medica trade show in Düsseldorf has an entire area designated for companies showing off wearable tech. It’s not a gimmick, it’s big business. This doesn’t just affect health-centric wearables, either. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles now uses data from Apple’s HealthKit medical platform, which slots in perfectly with the Apple Watch. It automatically records your heart rate every ten minutes.
A friend of T3 was even alerted to what became a diagnosis of Graves disease, simply by registering that his Fitbit read his heart rate as unusually high. Consumer-grade devices can get involved.
It’s no great surprise that Google is behind something altogether more serious, though, its Labs responsible for many alarming innovations.
In June 2015, the search-engine giant announced a dedicated health-monitoring wristband with sensors for pulse, heart rhythm, noise levels, skin temperature and even light exposure. This device is currently going through testing. But maybe before too long, we’ll all end our trip to the GP’s office with a monitor strapped to our wrist for a week or two. Don’t expect it to pick up your emails, too, mind.