Carrying tech is so last millennium. Now, increasingly, we can simply slip into our devices.
Wristwatch GPS units, glasses that double as cameras and running shoes that track your workout are only the start. From a jacket able to sense airborne pollutants to a headband that can read your state of mind, wearable tech increasingly pushes the boundaries of how we interact with technologies. In fact, advances in apparel are such that soon we could even be talking about an additional category: tech-able wear.
Wearables have enormous potential for uses in health and fitness, navigation, social networking, commerce, and media, says Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst serving consumer product strategy professionals at Forrester Research.
Technologies such as Near-Field Technology, which enables simple, seamless transfer of data between mobile phones – facilitating cashless payments, for instance – could be brought into devices as small as wristwatches or spectacles.
“Wearables will transform our lives in numerous ways, trivial and substantial, that we are just starting to imagine,” Epps says.
Advances in physical technologies and hardware (miniaturisation, battery life and smarter sensors are obvious exam ples) will help accelerate developments in wearable tech. But according to Epps, it will be the software platforms driving the hardware that hold the key to consumer adoption.
“In the same way that Windows took the PC mainstream and iOS and Android are powering the smartphone revolution today, wearables’ success depends on backing from one or more of the big five software platforms: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. These platforms – and their developer communities – hold the key to the consumer connection.”
Apple’s polished marketing, hardware manufacturing and development machine will drive development of “app-cessories”. Google’s open-platform Android provides both the freedom to dabble and the security of a huge developer corps. Its vast search infrastructure and access to information such as location-based data could be the basis for many wearable device features.
Windows Embedded, Microsoft’s operating system and related solutions for “intelligent systems”, powers a wide range of products from Ford’s Sync vehicle information system to Polycom conference phones. Admittedly, these are aimed at big enterprise users; but Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 is gaining traction with developers as an interface and could help drive the company’s offerings towards the consumer mainstream. Amazon’s information on more than 100 million products and their buyers would be an asset in wearables. Similarly, Facebook has access to 800 million people and facial recognition software, to boot.
Epps predicts that in just three years wearables will be a seriously hot topic. The march towards the mainstream will occur in three phases:
- Apple grows the app-cessory market with a deeper investment in wearables, by adding more sensors, connectivity and features such as voice control.
- Google broadens wearable experimentation with its open platform.
While we’re waiting for that to happen, check out some wearables that are already available – and a few that are not far off.
Google Project Glass
Will we soon be viewing the world through Google-tinted spectacles? Google Developers are the only ones who might have an idea, given that the technology is exclusively available to them for pre-ordering (delivery next year) at a cost of $1 500, including a prototype of the glasses and a software development setup. Current prototypes take the form of a pair of glasses incorporating a head-up display; us consumers have been told expect fully functional ones, possibly with a less intrusive look, by 2014.
Project Glass is Google’s augmented reality display project. Run on the company’s Android operating system, it would put smartphone functionality and interconnectivity on to our brows, allowing hands-free operation. It’s also envisaged that the device would use normal spoken voice commands, much like Apple’s Siri voice assistant.
Video> Google Project Glass
It looks like any other headband, but built into the washable sweat-absorbent fabric of the XWave is a brainwave detector. This incorporates a Bluetooth module and a removable medical-grade brainwave detection unit that interfaces with the user via a conductive strip. The point? It provides information about your state of mind. Hey, training is not just about muscles and lung capacity: parameters such as relaxation and focus levels are measured. These can be sent to Bluetooth-compatible devices for storage and analysis.
Positioned over the left eyebrow, the detector in the XWave Sport is able to measure the brain’s electrical impulses. According to the manufacturer, PLX Devices of California, a patent pending magnetic clip that attaches to an ear will ground the device for better reception.
Price: in the USA, about R850.
Fabric energy storage
A concept developed at the University of Southern California has the potential to overcome the serious limiting factor of our inability to make batteries both small and powerful with today’s battery technology. Although the idea is not new, the University of South Carolina take on it is cheaper and more planet-friendly than previous efforts.
Xiaodong Li, above, a professor at USC, sees a future where electronics are part of our wardrobe. To prove his point, he and his team transformed a cheap T-shirt into a source of electrical power. Soaked first in a solution of fluoride, it was dried and baked at high temperature in an oxygen-poor environment to prevent charring or burning. The surfaces of the resulting fibres in the fabric were shown by infrared spectroscopy to have been converted from cellulose to activated carbon. Yet the material retained flexibility.
Connected to an electrical circuit, the material was able to act as a capacitor to store current. Coating individual fibres in the activated carbon textile with “nanoflowers” of manganese oxide, just a nanometre thick, enhanced the effect to create a “supercapacitor” with extremely high storage capacity. Stacking these would allow charging of portable devices such as cellphones. “We will soon see roll-up cellphones and laptop computers on the market,” Li says. “But a flexible energy storage device is needed to make this possible.” Michael Brown, University of Southern California
Mobile Music Touch
What started out as a way of speeding up the process of learning a musical instrument is showing promise as a form of therapy that may improve sensation and motor skills for people with paralysing spinal cord injury (SCI). Georgia Tech researchers have created a wireless, musical glove called Mobile Music Touch (MMT). Looking rather like a workout glove with a small box on the back, MMT is used with a piano keyboard and vibrates a person’s fingers to indicate which keys to play. While learning to play the instrument, several people with SCI experienced improved sensation in their fingers.
Researchers recently completed a study focusing on people with weakness and sensory loss due to SCI. Said PhD graduate Tanya Markow, the project’s leader: “(We) were surprised by how much improvement they made in our study. For example, after using the glove, some participants were able to feel the texture of their bed sheets and clothes for the first time since their injury.”
The MMT system works with a computer, MP3 player or smartphone. A song is programmed into a device, which is wirelessly linked to the glove. As the musical notes are illuminated on the correct keys on the piano keyboard, the gadget sends vibrations to “tap” the corresponding fingers. The participants play along, gradually memorising the keys and learning additional songs.
However, these active learning sessions with MMT were not the primary focus of the study. The participants also wore the glove at home for two hours a day, five days a week, feeling only the vibration (and not playing the piano). Previous studies showed that wearing the MMT system passively in this manner helped participants learn songs faster and retain them better. The researchers hoped that the passive wearing of the device would also have rehabilitative effects. At the end of the study, participants performed a variety of common grasping and sensation tests to measure their improvement. Those who used the MMT system performed significantly better than those who just learned the piano normally.
Markow believes the increased motor abilities could be caused by renewed brain activity that sometimes becomes dormant in persons with SCI. e vibration might be triggering activity in the hand’s sensory cortex, which leads to firing in the brain’s motor cortex.
Video> Mobile Music Touch glove
Sony Entertainment Access Glasses
Special glasses from Sony allow deaf and hard of hearing viewers to see subtitles in their direct line of sight for both 2D and 3D movies, as well as audio for the blind, in suitably equipped cinemas.
The line-of-sight subtitling means there is no need to shift focus between the auditorium screen and a separate display unit. The key ingredient consists of lightweight glasses that are similar in size to many 3D glasses in use today. Weighing around 80 grams, the glasses can be programmed to display bright closed caption text in a choice of six languages. The location of the text can be easily adjusted, allowing moviegoers to follow along without having to avert their gaze from the screen or be irritated by obstructions. A clip-on filter enables 3D viewing while avoiding any blurriness.
With Necomimi, there’s no need to speak your mind: your ears do all the talking for you. Gamers and, lately, active types (see XWave) have experienced brainwave-detecting technology from NeuroSky. Up to now, the company’s brain-computer interface (BCI) technology features in various fairly serious devices, but the latest is a little off the wall.
Necomimi, from Japanese fashion electronics company Neurowear, is a pair of brain-activated fluff y cat ears that reflect your state of mind. An EEG sensor located on the user’s head picks up the brain’s electrical impulses.
According to Neurowear, the device employs research-grade technology used by over 400 universities. From the sublime to the ridiculous: the two sensors (one on the forehead, another on an ear) are able to detect three basic emotional states. A state of alertness pricks up the ears; relaxation causes them to droop; and if you are “in the zone” – relaxed and focused – they wiggle. Presumably your friends respond accordingly.
They’re on sale in the USA at about R850.