It has been said that wearables are technology looking for a market. Whether that seemingly rather cynical view is justified or not, many manufacturers are trying hard to make a niche for themselves and their products. At the same time, there are a substantial number of would-be fitness fanatics donning gadgets that tell them something about their performance that they may (or may not) want or need to know.
Though we may assume otherwise, the desire to combine physical adornment with useful functionality is actually nothing new. One of the first examples of wearable technology appeared in 17th Century China when someone produced a ring that doubled as an abacus for those moments when precise calculations were called for but a full-sized abacus was not available. Given that the abacus beads it incorporated had a diameter of around 1mm, its calculation function was obviously not intended for daily use, but it must surely have provided a talking point even then.
And a talking point is how most of the current crop of devices remain. Despite some studies suggesting that the trend is waning (US industry analyst eMarketer predicts that by 2020 only 1 in 5 Americans will be using a wearable device), the public is definitely eager to see them succeed, as indicated by is how many wearables are now receiving crowdfunding. Kickstarter and Indiegogo both have a wide range of crowdfunded wearable projects on their books and in varying stages of development.
A large proportion of today’s wearable devices have basic wristwatch functionality, but many go a few steps further too. As well as telling you the time, they might give you all sorts of statistics about your heart rate or running performance. Many of them add functionality to a smartphone, with the phone handset providing the necessary Internet connectivity and mass storage, as well as additional processing power.
Whatever functionality you want, there’s likely a vendor who has thought of it and a device you can buy that delivers it. Even so, none of them have yet proven to be the revolutionary device that pundits originally predicted would drive stellar sales. To date, no item of wearable technology has emerged that even begins to rival the success of the Apple iPhone in terms of either revenue or technical innovation.
But still they keep on trying. We’ve seen eyewear with built-in computing functionality. Google Glass, which launched in 2014, featured a touchpad, integrated camera, and a display, never really took off (mainly due to concerns about infringement of people’s privacy and relatively high unit costs). A spin-off, Google Cardboard, has managed to find wider appeal. This may have something to do with its much lower price point. As the name suggests, cardboard is indeed the primary material used. The device is a fold-out viewer, designed to incorporate a smartphone and intended to be a Virtual Reality (VR) platform. The viewers can be made by users themselves from a parts list and assembly instructions located on the Google website. Software development kits are available for Android, iPhone and the Unity game engine.
Head or earphones are another popular category of device. Kortex, from Fisher Wallace, comprises an array of sponge electrodes. It clips onto VR headset straps and is designed to lower the levels of stress hormones while stimulating the production of beneficial ones like serotonin and endorphins. Through utilizing multiple tiny microphones, Nuheara's IQbuds are able to enhance your hearing, as well as offering active noise cancellation (with a variety of different settings available to suit the particular environment in which the wearer is located). They also allow users to make their own mix between personal music choices and real world sounds. Pilot is an earpiece with a difference. It enables real time translation of languages, ranging all the way from German to Hindi, directly into the wearer’s ear (much like science fiction writer Douglas Adams predicted in his novels four decades ago).
While it is still not clear what future direction consumer wearables are going to take, a new and potentially massive market is already starting to open up elsewhere—namely medical wearables. Nanotechnology is being harnessed to develop body-powered devices that do not require batteries, but instead use heat generated by the wearer or their movement. Adhesive patches can indicate levels of pollution or analyse sweat to determine the existence of potentially life-threatening illnesses. Data collected from body-worn patches and transmitted automatically to a clinical operative enables patients to have their medical progress monitored in detail while living more normal lives.
One report, compiled by research firm Markets & Markets, predicts that Asia will be the fastest growing region in relation to medical wearable development for the next five years. The European marketplace is also expected to grow rapidly, in line with the increasing proportion of its population who are above the age of 60.
Technological advances are being made in terms of the materials from which wearable devices are fabricated. For instance, thin film printing of electronics in a patch that stretches and conforms to body contours, coupled with thin film metallization techniques, enables multiple layers of circuitry to be embedded into the same patch. There is also development work going on to incorporate specific functionality within textiles—wearables in another sense.
Curiosity and innovation are what will get the wearables marketplace really buzzing. Is your interest piqued by this exciting field? Have you thought of an application that’s crying out for a wearable solution, whether it is medically oriented or destined for leisure time activities? Don’t get stuck in the rut of producing the same old designs. Think laterally—and, who knows, you could be the next Steve Jobs.
Mirko Bernacchi joined the Italian branch of Mouser Electronics in Assago in 2012 as a Technical Support Specialist. With more than 25 years of experience in electronics, Mirko provides expert technical assistance and support as well as customer service for our Italian office. He worked as a test development engineer at Celestica and Service for Electronic Manufacturing. At IBM he was a Burn-in memory modules test engineer and an Optical transceiver card test engineer, responsible for the installation of new test equipment, production test problem management and supplier interface as well as the introduction of new test routines.
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