First came food, shelter and clothing. Then came technology, innovating all three for thousands of years. But innovation in clothing stalled at some point. Once upon a time man make thicker clothing out of animals with thicker hides, better shoes and then armor. These helped to expand where we could go, when we could go there and how safe we were once we got there. But mankind has long sought using technology that is worn to make life better, from false teeth to eyeglasses. Moving into the somewhat more modern era, let’s look at 10 advances that, while more recent than throwing the hide of an animal that might have otherwise eaten us, are still pretty darn cool!
- As a species, we are probably one of the most ordered on the planet. We go places at certain times and are able to minimize the amount of time that is wasted waiting for others because we know what time it is. We don’t have to find the city square and locate a clock tower or find a sunny spot because we have watches. I’ve always been happy with my watch, which I’ve had for a long, long time (see below).
- The cellular phone goes in our pockets. So we don’t totally wear it. Yet… Many of the other innovations are coming and coming faster due to the fact that it seems practically everyone today has a smartphone and the APIs for cloud services that those devices connect to. Since the breakup of Ma’Bell we’ve seen the massive phone, the brick phone, the flip phone, the Treo/Windows Mobile phone and ultimately the battle between iOS/iPhone and Android. At first these started to change our lives by making us connected all the time. Then they gave us cameras and then came the app. Given the custom applications and wireless interfaces that allow each to communicate with external devices, we’re now seeing an unprecedented level of innovation due to a large part the advent of the smart phone. The GPS in my phone tells Foursquare where I am, the camera let’s me share pictures of my kid with the grandparents, the Bluetooth let’s me talk hands and cable free and the accelerometer keeps track of bike rides. The many aspects of technology required to make all this happen then comprise the basis for many of the other recent innovations in this field.
- Wearable technology for the eyes, which we can just call eyewear for short started with the contribution of optics to wearable technology. Glasses were pretty good for a long, long time. Isaac Newton would likely burn the creators of Vuzix and Google Glass at the steak for witchcraft though (only after he’d used the devices to search for how to transmute lead to gold). Today, we are entering a new era, where contacts change the color of someones eyes and your glasses are able to show you information from your computing devices.
- From the Nike+ sensor in my shoes to the Iron Man shirt that glows as though it has an arc reactor in there (thanks ThinkGeek), there are plenty of examples of technology being embedded in clothing today. There are also devices out there that test your golf swing, how you throw a ball and the speed of balls. I’ve come across prototypes of products and products with extremely limited supply chains that go a step further and allow you to wear clothing with embedded sensors for such things. I think that those will become more common, more open (so you’ll be able to use one item for multiple sports or tests) and of course as they become more common, less expensive. In the meantime we’ll have to settle for things like the Scottevest and quick drying shorts…
- Speaking of Nike+, health is an area where we’re starting to see plenty of advancements. Walk into any Apple Store and you can buy a Jawbone Up, Fitbit, Fuelband or a Nike+ sensor for a shoe. My Fitbit Flex is one of my favorite examples of wearable technology that I don’t even notice any more. I had experimented with the Nike FuelBand and others, but a tiny computer that talks to my phone and updates far more details of my life than I even knew previously is just awesome. And, it tracks my sleep patterns and has even become my alarm clock. But having a tiny sensor means these things could do so much more. I look forward to seeing where things go with these types of devices!
- But health doesn’t stop with us leading healthier lives. Wearable patches to control pain, chips in pacemakers to alert manufacturers and doctors when devices are going to die and monitors that can be placed in the body and keep track of pretty much every detail of our medical state all bring us more and more towards the bionic man and woman. There are enough companies at this point that there’s room for an organization like Continua to push for the open and interoperability of these solutions. But to me, blood pressure monitors (such as this one from Wiithings) and glucose monitors available in the Apple retail stores are the best sign of the times, bringing these technologies from the prescribed or surgical to the every day practically mundane.
- I first saw techie headgear, such as the Emoki project (now cancelled) at Burning Man, long ago. Actually, I guess I first donned a head mounted flashlight while exploring caves in Georgia far before that. But science fiction has long promised us brain wave translating or altering technology that we can wear on our heads and that just hasn’t really become common place. What is becoming normal are head mounted cameras for biking and other sports (such as live action Dungeons & Dragons). You can buy this stuff at the Apple retail stores, Amazon, etc. I’m not sure what the future holds for head mounted gear. Certainly we’ve come a long way from helmets to protect our heads from the sword of our enemy. But I tend to think that wigs that change color with our mood aren’t even scratching the surface of what we can really do. Not that anything will ever top the hat with beer straws that everyone should try at least once (yes, that is putting old school technology to a very important use)!
- So we’ve covered the whole body, except our hands. The most obvious modern example of a wearable technology is the glove. I picked up a pair of Etips from North Face a long time ago. I have another pair of their gloves that’s thicker as well (it gets cold where I live) and while I like the way they do things, there are other companies that specialize is a more contoured threading around the tip of glove fingers. I don’t like the gloves with little metal discs on the tips (e.g. Isotoner), but I’m sure many must. As I mentioned, gloves with sensors, that analyze the way that we hold or catch a football, grasp a golf club or swing a bat are likely to become somewhat common place at some point. I expect the future may hold gloves that send gestures to your phone without you taking the phone out of your pocket. Burton has already taken the technology they put into jackets 10 years ago and put them into their Mix Master Gloves. But the Nintendo PowerGlove made a promise to humanity. One that we could some day control Bad Street Brawlers with gloves. And while sensors in gloves to control machinery are now common in factories, I’m not certain such technology will really make it to the every day home until we all have robotic minions doing more than vacuuming our carpets.
- RFID is used to track parts in warehouses and Wal-Mart had supposedly made a requirement that all items sold in their stores would be tagged with RFID. Plenty of schools use RFID to track students as they move around campuses. While there are privacy concerns with students rolling around with chips embedded into their backpacks or ID cards, those arguments could be countered with the fact that when emergencies happen, it helps to be able to locate all your kids in a hurry. RFID isn’t as flashy nor as user friendly today as, let’s say, Google Glass. However, it does have some seriously awesome connotations for the future of logistics, passports and even safety in schools.
- Sure, I don’t really carry cash or much more than a couple cards and a license in my wallet. But I don’t want even that. NFC (Near-Field Communications) is getting more and more traction, although far slower than I would have thought. While there have been some Android devices with NFC built-in, it hasn’t become the killer protocol for wireless financial transactions we’d hoped. I’m assuming that’s because Apple has tried many of their own things, like Passbook and apps that can be used to exchange money. I like using Groupons more because I don’t need to exchange money than because I get to save money. But the promise of NFC is there and whether it’s NFC or some other, more secure technology, I very much look forward to the day I can stop carrying a wallet!
And now, with fortunes to be made out there, there are wearable technology conferences springing up all over the world, from the Wearable Technologies Europe Conference to the Wearable Technologies Conference in San Francisco, there are vendors who are already doing this kind of stuff. And with Apple hiring former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve as a new VP we can only assume that Tim Cook’s statement “I think wearables is incredibly interesting, it could be a profound area” was more than just a politically correct response. Dell has announced they’re looking into wearables as have others. With all the added resources now available to the market expect innovation to increase so that it’s not just health and fitness, medical and other smaller markets that are getting a lot of this innovation. Apple isn’t going to do much if they don’t see every human on the planet as a potential customer for their new products. What’s the most fascinating to me is what we haven’t even though of. And with the ability to control much of our homes from our mobile devices (Apple Stores now have NEST and controllable light bulbs), technology is becoming far more a part of everyday life than just the laptop, phone or tablet. It’s now being interwoven into the fabric of our everyday existence, helping us to live better, reduce our impact on the environment and be better. Or just have Angry Birds on a much larger “screen” with our Vuzix if that’s what we’re interested in!