Latest wearable computing gadgets on show in Las Vegas

Wearable devices are growing in popularity as electronics companies tap into the power of gestures, social networks and cloud computing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2014, 12:13am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2014, 8:14am


Will 2014 be the year wearable computing takes off? Upstart entrepreneurs and major manufacturers such as Samsung, Qualcomm and Sony hope so.

Gadgets that you snap, buckle or fasten to your body are already marketed to fitness freaks obsessed with tracking every possible metric their bodies produce.

There are countless smart watches for tech nerds who would rather glance at their wrists to check messages than reach for their smartphones. And thousands of people are already seeing the world differently with the help of the internet-connected eyewear, Google Glass.

Even with the possibilities that these devices offer today, gadget lovers can expect technology companies to stretch the wearable concept further this week at the industry's annual trade show in Las Vegas.

Several companies at the International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) are expected to unveil wearable devices that are easier to use, extend battery life, and exploit the popularity of gestures, social networking and cloud computing.

The wearables wave is still in its early phases. Many of the technologies on display will offer a glimpse of the future - not necessarily products that are ready for the mainstream consumer.

These new gadgets are "like the first generation of the iPod", said Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, the group that has hosted the trade show since 1967. "It was bulky and it wasn't that pretty. Look what happened. It got slimmer. It got better."

Industry analysts' estimates for the growth of wearables are rosy. Research firm IHS says the global wearables market - which also includes health products like hearing aids and heart-rate monitors - could top US$30 billion in 2018, up from nearly US$10 billion at the end of 2013.

While some growth will come from an ageing population requiring more health-related monitoring at home, devices such as the Fitbit Force activity band - which tracks a wearer's steps, calories burned, sleeping patterns and progress toward fitness goals - are also expected to gain popularity as deskbound workers look for new ways to watch their waistlines.

At this week's show, companies are likely to introduce improvements in wearable screens and battery life, said Shane Walker, an IHS analyst. The two are linked because the more a device tries to do, the more battery power it consumes.

This creates demand for innovative low-power screens, but also for ways to interact with devices that do not rely on the screen, such as using hand gestures and voice.

What's driving the boom in innovation is the widespread availability of inexpensive sensors known as microelectromechanical systems. These are tiny components like accelerometers and gyroscopes that make it possible for smartphones to respond to shaking and for tablets to double as steering wheels in video games.

There are also sensors that respond to pressure, temperature and even blood sugar. Toronto-based Bionym will show off its Nymi wristband at the Las Vegas show. The gadget verifies a user's identity by determining his or her unique heartbeat. The technology could one day supplant the need for passwords, car keys and wallets.

Canadian firm Thalmic Labs plans to show off how its armband can be used as a remote control device to operate a quadricopter drone. The band responds to electricity generated in forearm muscles as well as arm motions and finger gestures. Co-founder Stephen Lake said it is more akin to a mouse or keyboard that controls activities than the latest line of smart wristbands that simply track them.

Watch: A glimpse at some of the gadgets on display at CES

Companies are also expected to tweak the business models for wearable gadgetry as the devices become more mainstream. Fitness-focused wearables could one day help lower your health-care premiums if your insurer can verify your exercise regime.

"I think you're going to see a lot of maturity in 2014 in the way companies think about their business," said J.P. Gownder, an analyst with Forrester Research.

ABI Research analyst Josh Flood said "the killer app" for a wearable product with the right mix of form, function and price "hasn't been identified yet".

Gownder said: "It's a bit of a hype bubble. But so was the internet in 1999."