Wearable technology hits the mainstream

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      As a programmer, Parveen Kaler sits as much as 10 hours a day. Aware of the health risks associated with spending so much time being stationary, Kaler wanted a way to make sure he was keeping active when he wasn’t working on his computer. So he bought a Fitbit.

      “I’m wearing a Fitbit right now,” Kaler told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I was an early adopter, so I’ve had one for two or three years.”

      The Fitbit One he currently owns is a small plastic device that fits in his pocket and looks like it was designed by the minds behind the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Using a Bluetooth link to a smartphone or computer, Fitbit devices—also available in the form of a wristband or a gadget that clips onto your belt—track their users’ steps taken, distance travelled, and floors climbed, as well as sleep patterns.

      “The Fitbit makes sure I take my 10,000 steps a day to keep myself limber,” Kaler said.

      For Kaler, a member of Vancouver’s Quantified Self Meetup group, the wireless tracker is a treasure trove of information on his own activities.

      “The classic Peter Drucker quote is ‘Whatever gets measured, gets managed,’ ” Kaler remarked, referring to the famed management consultant. Kaler pointed out that two of the most important statistics in personal health are weight and level of activity. While weight is straightforward enough to measure, the Fitbit makes keeping track of activity almost as simple.

      While the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch and Google Glass are grabbing more attention, the Fitbit, the Nike+ FuelBand, and other activity trackers are perhaps the best examples of wearable technology to reach the mainstream.

      It’s happening slowly—sometimes in ways we don’t think about—but computers are becoming a key part of our attire, according to Richard Smith, director of the Centre for Digital Media and a communication professor at Simon Fraser University.

      “We’re beginning to see it in things like solar panels in jackets and backpacks, and we saw it maybe five years ago with holes and grommets for people’s iPods,” Smith said by phone. “So all of this is part of an overall trend of technology being integrated into everyday life.”

      Smith explained: “This was predicted by [computer scientist] Mark Weiser in the ’80s, when he wrote an article about how technology would recede into the background and become invisible and in doing so becomes more and more powerful. Something like the thermostat, which is a pretty cool bit of technology, we don’t even think about it. So wearables are a trend in and of themselves, but they’re also part of this trend of integration of technology fitting into everyday life and everyday things.”

      Although trackers like the Fitbit and mobile-device-friendly clothing are becoming commonplace, some wearable devices still seem like they’re from the future.

      Vancouver-based Recon Instruments began when CEO Dan Eisenhardt was a student at the University of British Columbia, and one of his courses brought together students from the business and engineering schools to work on a project. Eisenhardt, who had been a competitive swimmer, suggested goggles that provided a heads-up display to give the swimmer information during a race. After realizing that the technical issues involved with creating a small, lightweight, waterproof display would make the product too expensive, he switched his focus to a display for ski goggles.

      “That was always just a start,” Eisenhardt said by phone. “There were already companies out there making ski goggles and it’s the fashion industry, so we were going to focus on the technology inside, which was the heads-up display. The heads-up display technology has GPS in it, has various sensors—accelerometer, gyroscope, just to name a few. It has a processor and on-board memory, so you’ll be able to see how fast you’re going, how much vertical you’ve covered, so you’ll be able to navigate by looking at a resort map.

      “If you’re at Whistler, for example, you can see where you’re going, where the lifts are, and even where your friends are, because they’ll show up on the map through your phone,” he continued. “You’ll be able to connect to your phone to see text messages, phone calls, have access to your music, and various other things.”

      In releasing its heads-up display for ski goggles, Recon Instruments has worked with established manufacturers, including Oakley, Scott, and Smith Optics. Now the company has turned its attention to making sunglasses with the Jet, which features a similar heads-up display that’s made for cyclists and triathletes.

      For now, wearable gadgets tend to be tied to a more powerful device, most often a smartphone, which provides most of their user interface and computing power, and an Internet connection. In any case, they are becoming more useful and more common. So much so that we may just stop noticing them.

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      Mary Robinson

      Nov 2, 2013 at 6:50pm

      For those interested in learning the latest on wearable technology, there is an event coming up next November 7 in New York City. Wearable Computing Conference 2013 New York City (http://www.wearable-computing-conference.com) will show how next-generation technology is revolutionizing the human experience... People from Goldman Sachs, BioSensics, Sony, Hitachi, Apple, Kinetic Body Lab, HTC, Fingent, and many more leading companies will be in attendance. To reserve your seat, visit http://wearablecompcon.eventbrite.com

      Ahmed Bouzid

      Nov 3, 2013 at 9:38am

      Very nice piece. I think one thing that is still missing in coverage of wearables is the role that voice will play for interactions with the various bits of intelligence around us (cloud as well as smart objects). With the advent of ubiquitous computing -- e.g., smart objects, such as sensors and switches all around us -- voice is going to play a CRUCIAL role. I think the watch format is still within the current flow-interrupting paradigm: you have to look and touch, and it occupies one wrist and requires the other hand... A superior interface for many situations is a smart voice badge -- resting on your chest a la Star Trek Comm badge -- that you interact with it via voice (imaging getting a text message while in your office typing something - and you engage your badge without taking your hands off your keaybord or your eyes off the screen -- can't do that with a watch).... Check out this for more on that vision: http://www.xowi.me