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Sensors working overtime: the latest in wearable data-gathering technology

Wearable technology will eventually be able to capture, and possibly reveal, everything you do, writes Jamie Carter

 

ARE YOU THE sensor-tive type? Everyone's pointing to "wearables" as the next big thing, but what are they? There's been a lot of talk about Google Glass, a smartphone-connected headset that's due out next year, and rumours about an iWatch from Apple, but the wearables revolution is really built on wristbands, trackers and smart watches, all with sensors galore. Going for a run now requires a lot more than mere willpower.

"Wearables are devices worn directly on the body," says Ian Reid, marketing director at Plastic Logic, a company forging flexible plastic displays.

Reid expects wearables to coalesce around accessories such as watches, wrist straps, pendants and glasses, but the future is about flexible screens and devices with always-on web connections. "With the Internet of Everything converging with technological advances such as flexible rugged organic transistor-based displays, a need has met its answer."

For now, most of the gadgets are for measuring health metrics, such as Nike+ Fuelband, the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP. Such devices tend to record steps taken and movement so accurately that they can measure your exact mileage, and even how restful your night's sleep was. Some - like Larklife - track activity and sleep but add meal-logging and a silent vibrating alarm.

Smart watches, such as Samsung's Galaxy Gear, have emerged in the past year or so but the potential for wearables is endless; we're talking about no less than the future shape of mobile computing.

"Wearables provide an extra dimension of interactivity between body and gadget," says Julian Smith, head of strategy and innovation at mobile marketing agency Fetch in London, who thinks the technology could significantly enhance our lives.

"There are other forms of wearables out there, such as electronic stick-on tattoos, electronic fingertips, smart bras that detect signs of cancer, and embedded chips and head-attached cameras that enable you to 'hear' colour," he says.

The latter has been demonstrated by artist Neil Harbisson - who can only see in black and white, who used an "eyeborg" headset to develop the Pure Sonochromatic Scale.

Today, most wearables require a smartphone app, but in future are expected to connect directly to a host of other gadgets and devices as the so-called Internet of Things kicks-in. The Jawbone UP connects with other fitness apps, including the athletes' favourite, RunKeeper, mountain biking app Strava and electronics brand Withings.

It also links with the IFTTT (If This Then That) app; when you reach a goal - say, 10,000 steps in a day - IFTTT can tweet automatically on your behalf or, if you have automation gadgets like the Philips Hue lights or Belkin WeMo switch, IFTTT can flash the lights on and off in celebration. Banal, perhaps, but the trend is clear.

Hapifork monitors what goes into your mouth; it looks like a normal fork but contains sensors to monitor how quickly the user eats, alerting them if they're eating too fast. Another problem-solver is Lumoback, a posture sensor that sits in the small of your back and mirrors your posture in an app, vibrating gently when you're slouching. It's alarmingly effective; could it one day be embedded in clothes?

Partnered with MasterCard, Kalixa is hoping its pre-pay Watch2Pay will make contact-less payments popular, while there exists a new category of "life-logger" - such as the OMG Autographer and Narrative Clip - that clip onto a shirt collar or hang on a pendant to record still images and video 24 hours a day.

But for now it's another smartwatch that impresses. "The best example of a wearable is probably Pebble," says Jeremy Garner, executive creative director at digital agency Weapon7. "The benefits are seamless - you can carry on with your life and merely look at your wrist, instead of picking up your phone to check your e-mails, texts, and messages."

While the products have varying degrees of staying power, there's no doubt that this embryonic industry is all about innovation. "Facebook held a 'hackathon' recently to partner with the likes of Fitbit, Jawbone, Pebble, Google and Recon to see what cool stuff they could develop," says Garner, who singles out an app that uses the Pebble smartwatch's accelerometer data to trigger friend requests when people shake hands in the real world. "Some of the other hacks were a little frivolous, such as a Tamagotchi pet that's kept fed and happy with Facebook posts."

Sonny Vu, CEO at Misfit Wearables, thinks there's still plenty of room for improvement. "[The gadgets] are ugly, bulky, chunks of plastic and rubber and not really wearable. You have to make them either beautiful or invisible - there's not much room in between with users." Vu's company makes the MisFit Shine, a micro-tracker no bigger than a coin that can be placed either in a wristband, belt loop clasp or necklace; at 9.4 grams it's barely noticeable.

Should we be wary of such personal data being collected? "Privacy will be an issue on two fronts - for those who are the unwitting or unwilling subjects of such technology, and the privacy of the wearer," says Reid. "The latter could include their location, state of health, financial situation, where they live or whether they have children."

Reid worries that wearable technology could be stolen not for the value of the device, but for the saleable value of the personal information stored with it.

Says Smith: "With the potential to capture, store and upload even more personal data, wearables will come under the same scrutiny as platforms such as social networks in terms of the amount of personally identifiable data available, how it is kept private and not misused by large organisations."

After the NSA scandal, it's difficult to imagine government snoopers won't be interested in the highly personal data that wearables will deal with.

"Those companies providing wearables will have to tread a fine line between enhancing the user experience and exploiting their data," says Smith.

But are wearables really the next big thing? Or are they merely a passing phase that will produce gadgets that just don't catch on in the wider world?

"I cannot imagine a time in the foreseeable future when the average housewife in the suburbs walks down the street in a pair of Google Glasses," says Smith. But others are not so sure.

"There's a level of interest and intrigue around wearables that reminds me of iPhone apps in the mid-2000s when even the vaguest hint of usefulness dressed up in a well-designed and entertaining package was enough to trigger conversation," says Garner.

Function and form are important - as always in the world of gadgets - but we shouldn't write off the smartphone. If flexible, lightweight screens quickly become popular, it's possible that wraparound or extendable, foldable models will render wearables redundant.

Anything that helps us lead a healthier and more entertaining life is welcome, but many will see the wearers of gadgets that constantly measure, record, film and analyse their every move as a touch narcissistic and self-obsessed. "Friends may have to cut each other a bit of slack while everyone gets used to wearables, and the as yet unwritten social etiquette surrounding them," says Garner.

48hours@scmp.com

 

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