It’s almost impossible to read a magazine or browse the Internet without running into the latest technology darling, wearables. Smart watches, digital eyeglasses and even interactive wedding rings are all given coverage as consumers, and the technology sector, explore this blossoming market trend. But, as with any new gadget trend, the real challenge is seeing through the clutter of fad products to the core of wearable technology trends in 2014.
The Wearable Technology Revolution
Not all that long ago, the idea of wearable technology having a place in mainstream society was relegated to the realm of science fiction. Technological limitations, combined with a negative social stigma, prevented mainstream acceptance of wearable computing devices.
That is until the most popular wearable ever created came along: the smart phone.
A smart phone may not fit the common conception of a wearable (technology that is worn like clothing or an accessory), but at its core the smartphone is a powerful computer/camera/phone that lives in your pocket, purse or attached to your hip. The smartphone got people used to the idea of carrying powerful computing technology everywhere they went. To take that one step further, (for good or ill) people got used to the idea of having a constant stream of input and functionality at their fingertips – you can’t go anywhere without seeing people staring at their mobile devices.
The key here is that smart phones didn’t come into the mainstream until technology intersected with human activity. When cell phones were the size and weight of briefcases and then bricks, they did not fit into peoples’ everyday lives. Early phones were more of an impingement on peoples’ lifestyles than an enhancement. But when cell phones shrank in size and weight—and when they did more than allow someone to simply make a phone call—their popularity took off as did their acceptance in society.
The success of the smartphone has led to a wearable revolution, of sorts, with devices of all kinds entering the consumer marketplace to great fanfare and excitement.
Limitations of Wearable Technology in 2014
Wearable technology today is in approximately the same place as smart phones were ten years ago: available and useful, but not widely accepted. The applications for wearable technology are endless, but too many of them are presently unwelcome in our society because they have yet to fit into our present lifestyles and behavior.
Digital eyeglasses are one of the most noteworthy new sensory integration wearables in the last few years –but the current implementation has problems that have nothing to do with the technology behind them. For example, human beings crave symmetry and anything asymmetrical (especially around the eyes) leads to distraction and awkwardness. Current digital eyeglass implementations are asymmetrical and people get distracted when dealing with someone who is wearing them. Couple this with the privacy concerns caused by an always-on, forward-facing camera, and you have a recipe for a wearable that’s unlikely to find a regular place in day-to-day living.
Digital eyeglasses do have a significant role to play in professions that require a lot of on-demand knowledge and don’t require as much human interaction. The ability to couple sensory integration with readily available data overlays makes them perfect for professions like mechanics, surgeons, and architects.
Where Wearables Succeed
The current wearable technology market is working very well in one area: sensor input. This is most commonly seen in the wealth of available fitness tracking devices. By themselves, these bracelets or durable chips don’t provide much interaction with the user. However, their ability to unobtrusively collect data on movement, environmental conditions and even the wearer’s physical condition makes them powerful tools when combined with a smartphone or other computing engine.
Because they fit into current consumer behaviors, fitness trackers have gone through a number of generations and each new release has more sophisticated sensors. This means that these wearables can now lead to innovations in healthcare monitoring. Devices used in hospitals, or on those recovering from outpatient procedures, will revolutionize the way that patient health is monitored and responded to.
The Future of Wearable Technology
The future of wearable technology is in the continued miniaturization of sensors. Specifically, we see that happening in two areas: electronic textiles and audio. Electronic textiles, integrating the advances in wearable sensor technology into clothing, provide the most direct channel to increasing wearable adoption. In general, people do not want to look like they’re “wired up.” By including wearable computing technology right in the clothing itself, people can stay fashionable and stylish while still remaining connected.
Fashion and wearables will likely meet in more obvious ways too, with colors, designs and trims controlled dynamically while a garment is being worn.
Already emerging as an advanced technology for SWAT teams and the military, bone conduction audio systems will also emerge as a major consumer wearable. These tiny devices allow audio to be gathered and broadcast directly to the wearer without obtrusive earpieces and microphones. While their biggest impact is aesthetics, the ability to embrace truly personal audio can lead to changes in the way we interact with our devices. (Imagine if you could use your personal digital assistant in a crowd without having to find a quiet area or without worrying that someone else will overhear the response).
It’s not a secret that wearables are one of the hottest trends in consumer electronics – but where they’re going is a bit trickier to follow. The key is in understanding how society grows to love a new technology. In the case of wearables, that means finding the sweet spot between functionality and obtrusiveness.