Commentary

The donning of wearable technology

The donning of wearable technology
Google has developed glasses (as modelled by co-founder Sergey Brin) that incorporate a computer screen and camera. Photo: BLOOMBERG
The first “wearable technology” was designed 50 years ago, and it was unreliable. Today’s wearable technology is sleek and cool but are we ready for it?
Published: April 1, 6:34 PM
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SAN FRANCISCO — At an avant-garde art gallery in downtown San Francisco, the crowd looked as hip as you would expect at a show dedicated to the convergence of fashion, industrial design and technology. But this group of technorati had not come to admire exhibits hanging on the gallery walls. Instead, the discussion was about what was hanging from many of their own wrists.

Among them were entrepreneurs catering to the many health and fitness fanatics, who were packed in for a debate on new wearable tech trends.

“Does anyone here know what a GSR — a galvanic skin response — is?” asked Dr Adam Gazzaley, Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. “Wow, that’s a lot of people,” he said, surveying a sea of upraised arms adorned with health bands and smart watches.

Dr Gazzaley was not there chiefly to explain health vitals — GSR is a helpful measure for assessing physical activity — to devotees of Quantified Self, a movement promoting self-tracking of health statistics.

Instead, he warned of the wave of data soon to be unleashed by wearable computers — the wristbands, watches, glasses and other smart devices being dreamt up just a few kilometres away. Among the dangers are ever more distracted brains and technology companies with ever more personal information about users.

But Dr Gazzaley’s concerns are likely to be lost in the wave of hype about wearable computing projects by Google, Apple and other tech companies that could define the next generation of computing.

Google has developed glasses that incorporate a computer screen and camera, enabling users to call up information with voice commands and capture their surroundings. Apple’s watch is expected to link up with an iPhone to alert you to incoming calls, as well as tell you how many steps you have walked today.

And there are many other smartwatches, pendants, clip-ons, bracelets and patches embedded with sensors being developed by start-ups.

Taken together, these moves represent the logical next step in the evolution of computing. The large, complex and expensive mainframes of the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the personal computer in the 1980s. This century has seen the rise of smartphones and tablets, driven by ever smaller and cheaper components. Wearable computers represent a new era of the ultimate personal technology: Gadgets attached to, and in some cases interacting with, the body itself.

It has taken 50 years for wearable computing to be ready for the mass market. The first wearable computer was used in a Las Vegas casino in 1961 by Mr Claude Shannon and Mr Ed Thorp, mathematicians and gamblers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). They hid a primitive computer in their shoes that could predict where a ball would land on a roulette wheel. Operating it with their big toes, it would send musical tones as signals to a concealed earpiece but the wire connecting shoe and ear would often break.

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