Want to know how much ultraviolet exposure you’ve had on a summer’s day? Next year, a hair slide could tell you.
Need to monitor your heart’s electrical activity? A pair of headphones could do that and feed the data to your smartphone.
Both are just around the corner. For the past year or so, the main application of “wearable” technology has been for very simple tasks – measuring how many steps you’ve taken, guessing how many calories you’ve consumed doing so, and measuring your heart rate as you did so. But in 2015, we’ll be moving past that, experts say, with a panoply of products about to be launched. Apple’s Watch, expected to go on sale in spring, will take the wearable idea beyond eager technology and fitness users, to the general public. “It will probably get more uptake than anything so far, just because it’s Apple,” says Ruth Thomson, campaign manager for consumer product development at Cambridge Consultants, who has been following the wearables space intently. “They seem to have this magic method of getting people to buy things.”
Though its full capabilities aren’t yet known, the watch has already grabbed a tonne of publicity simply by being announced – eclipsing other smartwatches announced earlier this year from companies including Samsung, LG and Motorola. “There isn’t a mainstream smartwatch yet,” says Thomson. But she sees potential for wearables to expand beyond simple counting – steps, calories – into something that truly connects.
The UV hair slide is one idea Cambridge Consultants is working on; another is a suit embedded with technology that communicates with itself, so that the different elements “talk” to each other. “The next step is to make wearables truly wearable,” Thomson says.
Smartwatches, which (generally) connect to your phone to display notifications from apps running there, are likely to be in the forefront to begin with. Research company Futuresource found interest in buying smartwatches more than doubled, and there had been a 50% rise in intention to get a fitness tracker between May and October 2014; the biggest change was among iPhone owners, possibly once they saw Apple unveil its watch in September. Another analysis company, Juniper Research, believes it will take four years before smartwatches overtake fitness trackers in sales volume, simply because trackers are cheaper.
A key focus for 2015 will be health. Microsoft has already shown off its Band, a wrist-mounted fitness and health tracker (that also measures UV exposure). Microsoft, Google and Apple have launched their own “health” platforms, for aggregating data about what we have done, or to measure essential data on people who may have a health condition. (My own GP’s system can hook into Apple’s HealthKit on an iPhone, if the user gives permission.) Doctors are increasingly interested by the uses of wearables to give information about health. And even the finance world is interested: Canadian banks are looking at the potential for a wristband made by a startup called Bionym that measures unique elements of your ECG pattern to authenticate payments.
Most wearables still have to pass the “turn around” test, according to Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit, which makes the Shine activity tracker. That is, would you turn around to go home to get it if you found you’d left it behind in the morning? But as they become more popular, and more flexible (after UV sensing-hair slides, why not pollution-sensing clothing?), they could become essential.
The only drawback might be that really successful wearables could be used to spy on us. A case in Calgary, Canada, could be a first, where data from a Fitbit is being used to try to show that a fitness trainer who suffered an accident had lower activity levels than would be expected for someone in her profession. The case is claimed to be unique – but that’s only so far. Perhaps in the future, our wearables will be used to prove if we really are as active as we claim to be, and really did run (or walk) where and when we said we did.
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