What if you could draw a dollar sign in mid-air, followed by any amount, and that would be all you needed to instantly pay your restaurant bill?
A silver ring, only slightly bigger than your average wedding band, is about to hit the market and it promises to do just that, and more. Simply named Ring, the device is filled with motion sensors that detect hand gestures and can wirelessly sync with other smart devices. If you drew a musical note, it would activate your music player, while drawing a light bulb would control your lights. You will also be able to write texts by drawing letters in the air.
I wonder what the Dark Lord Sauron would think of a ring that makes your finger feel like a Bluetooth magic wand.
Gesture technology is something you might expect from the research and development wells of Apple or Samsung, but this is, in fact, the brainchild of Takuro Yoshida, the chief executive of California-based start-up Logbar. To date, the venture has raised over $700,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to mass-produce and market the product.
Yoshida told an audience at a wearable tech expo that Ring is basically a “shortcut to everything”, meaning that in the near future keyboards, mouse devices and even touch screens could seem like relics. Indeed, it is likely that much of the current functionality of a smartphone will be rendered into wearable devices within the next decade. Wearables, typically defined as real-time computing devices easily worn on the body, can be in the form of watches, glasses, rings, bracelets, smart fabrics, contact lenses and smart tattoos. Nokia has been developing vibrating tattoos that alert users when their battery is running low or they have a new message.
What’s powerful about wearable tech is not the gadgetry per se, but how it will transform our behaviour: how we pay, how work gets done, how we manage our health. It’s the technology that controls other technology.
I am pretty sure my children (both under three) will look at what we wore in 2014 and think it was “dumb” in the sense that our clothes, accessories and even our eyelashes didn’t sync with or activate a broader ecosystem of devices. But more importantly, that they were not capable of tracking, adapting and responding to our environments and emotions.
I think the heightened interest in the wearable tech space is not a result of the cool factor of smart watches, bracelets and glasses but because we are at a profound inflection point in reimagining the relationship between the human body and technology; a transition that will open the door to a natural merger between people and computers.
Google’s unveiling of Project Glass eyewear, which enables you to access a stream of real-time information by connecting with your smartphone, brought a lot of attention to the category. But a 2013 survey conducted by Bite Interactive in the US revealed 90 per cent of Americans wouldn’t wear Google Glass. The reason? Not privacy, but social awkwardness.
The gateway into wearable tech for many people is a wrist fitness tracker, such as the Nike Fuel Bandor market-leading Fitbit, which measure how often you move, the number of steps you walk, the intensity of the activity, calories burned and other personal metrics, including the quality of your sleep.
Fitness-focused wearables have raised consumer awareness of the wearable tech space, but for most people they are still a “nice to have” and not a “must have”.
ABI Research estimates the market for wearables in the sports and health sectors will grow to nearly 170 million devices by 2017, an annual growth rate of 41 per cent.
A Juniper Research study at the end of last year forecast that worldwide spending on wearable technology will grow from $1.4 billion in 2013 to $3 billion in 2014 to $19 billion in 2018. From a consumer point of view, what is driving the growth?
INTUITIVE, CHIC, INVISIBLE
When we look back, the tech-enabled products, from phones to music players, that have gained mainstream cultural acceptance have been intuitive, fashionable and human. As Ben Moir, co-founder and technical director at Wearable Experiments (We:eX), based in New York and Sydney, puts it: “The more invisible the technology becomes, the more likely we are to adopt it.”
Devices (and it’s questionable whether we will even call them that) won’t be something we consciously put on, but products we forget we are wearing. For mainstream adoption, and to get over the “dork factor”, wearable tech can’t prioritise function over form.
Recognising the importance of fashion, Fitbit is collaborating with the designer Tory Burch to make its next range of trackers look like a chic accessory.
DATA THAT CHANGES BEHAVIOUR
Data is more useful when it’s not locked away in your pocket. Its value lies in converting the raw data from an insight that makes you understand and care, to then transform into an action that helps you take control. For example, my Fitbit records my daily activity. Each 20 per cent increment of my daily goal is marked by a small LED light on the interface. If by lunch I am only showing one or two lights, I get up and go for a walk.
The first wave of wearable tech is showing us how personal data is becoming when it comes from our smartphone, using real-time “nudges”, such as flashing lights or vibrations, to encourage us to modify our behaviour.
Dr B.J. Fogg, director of persuasive technologies at Stanford University, describes this idea as “computer-based tools designed for the purpose of changing people’s attitudes and behaviours”.
Fogg believes the winning products, the ones we will continue to wear after the novelty wears off, will be those that seamlessly incorporate “hot triggers” to help people change their behaviours for the better.
Wearable devices will enable us to streamline tasks, sync our ecosystem of devices, manage our health and experience our environment in ways we haven’t before. But is this what we want?
While I am excited about what the wearable revolution will bring, I hope we will pause for a second to figure out how they can significantly enhance our abilities, rather than just becoming another irresistible diversion.
FIVE PRODUCTS TO WATCH
Like a fingerprint, your heartbeat is unique.
Nymi, a plastic wristband developed by Bionym, a Canadian biometrics company, measures its wearer’s cardiac rhythms to authenticate identity.
The Alert Shirt
Imagine watching a Collingwood football game and experiencing what the players feel, as it happens. During a marking contest, you would feel what it is like on the field through vibrations in the jersey.
The Alert Shirt from company We:eX, in conjunction with Foxtel and Che Proximity, does just that by converting live sports data into electronics within the shirt.
Australian adults visit the doctor for lower back pain more than any other condition besides the common cold. LumoBack was developed to address the root cause of the problem for most people – bad posture.
The stretchy strap sits around your lower waist and lets you know with a small vibration when you are slouching, or have been sitting too long.
In the near future, babies will be wearing technologies that measure skin and room temperature, respiration, body position and activity, displayed in real time on smartphones.
Humans are not the only ones that can benefit from wearable tech. The MooMonitor monitors a cow’s health and fertility. Dr Edmond Harty, technical director for maker Dairymaster, aptly describes the device as “measuring friskiness”.
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Rachel Botsman is a global thought leader on the power of collaboration.