Mention wearable technology to most people and they’ll imagine Google Glass, or virtual reality headsets and the like. It may seem a little sci-fi, but wearables are becoming increasingly commonplace. They’re making drastic changes to the way we live our lives, as the technology continues to become more intuitive. These innovations also present major opportunities for manufacturers, as the devices become cheaper to produce.
The 21st century has seen the advent of smart watches, virtual reality headsets, smart glasses and the ubiquitous fitness bands we see getting around on everyone from office workers, to fitness instructors, to pram-pushing mums. Little do many of us realise that in fact, wearable technology is not a new phenomenon. Hearing aids, Bluetooth headsets, pacemakers and even digital watches are all examples of ‘wearables’ that we’ve been using for decades now.
What is wearable technology?
Wearable technologies are electronics that can be worn by the user, either incorporated into their clothing, their bodies or worn as an accessory. However, we may soon see a new phenomenon of wearables in the form of ‘injectables’ become the norm. More about that later.
Wearable tech such as fitness wrist and chest bands have become so pervasive that we barely seem to notice them. When chatting with your bank teller, you are no more likely to notice them wearing a fitness tracker than a regular digital watch; and you’d barely bat an eyelid when your mum tells you that she’s got to run, as she’s not hit her ‘10,000 steps yet, dear’.
Smart watches such as the Apple Watch and Samsung’s ‘Gear’ watch, are also an increasing trend. Incorporating the fitness technology, with the ability to receive and send text messages, take photos and even give you directions; smart watches are becoming cleverer and cheaper. As price reductions make smart watches more accessible, much like the fitness band, they are sure to become ever more prolific. Smart watches aren’t reserved for the manufacturing powerhouses of Apple and Samsung, however. Thanks to the Android operating system, just about anyone can make a smart watch which is compatible with a huge portion of the smartphones around the world. LG, Tag Heuer and Garmin are all getting on board with the trend, and many are offering a more competitive price point than the ‘big two’.
Not to be forgotten, some of our older wearable technologies have been seeing upgrades recently. Hearing aids have seen advances in the areas of feedback cancellation and voice detection, as well as reductions in size. Minneapolis firm Starkey Hearing Technologies, together with Apple have developed a hearing aid which is compatible with iPhone, iPad and iPod called the Halo. This device allows users to integrate their hearing aid in much the same way that a Bluetooth headset does. Users can access music, phone calls and Facetime just like they would with a wireless headset, while enjoying the benefits they’re used to receiving from their hearing aid. Smaller manufacturers such as Starkey have the opportunity to jump onto the technological bandwagon, with the price of developing apps being extremely accessible (you can pay firms as little as AUD$39 to set them up for you!), and the demand clearly present.
What is coming up in 2017?
Many major manufacturers have announced upgrades to their existing technology, including the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, Under Armour’s smart running shoes and more. However, there are some new devices set to enter the market this year.
Smart rings are getting a lot of rumoured hype online at the moment, and are long overdue for some investment from tech firms. After all, the market does tend to move towards smaller, and more discreet forms of wearable technology over time. Smart rings have the potential to store personal information and be used as payment devices, as access devices and as identifying devices. They may one day replace the need for carrying credit cards, access passes, driver’s licenses and passports. With a lack of serious investment from manufacturers at the moment, this is an area which presents immeasurable opportunities for savvy manufacturers who are keen to get ahead of the curve.
Another several fields which are set to see some exciting advances this year are the organic, flexible and printed electronics markets.
Organic, flexible and printed electronics?
You may have heard of the ‘OLED’ screens in electronics such as smartphones and televisions, but have you really ever considered what the acronym means? OLED, or organic light-emitting diodes are electronics which are comprised of organic materials, such as carbon or hydrogen. Lighting up when run through with an electric current, these kinds of screens are not only cheaper to produce (being sourced from organic materials, after all, and can be developed at much lower temperatures) but are thinner and lighter, as they don’t require a backlight. Organic electronics are developing to become even lighter, thinner and cheaper over time and will begin to be used for wearables like ‘stick on IDs’ and bendable screens. Printed and flexible electronics are a little more futuristic in their applications, however, organic electronics play a big role in making these things possible. Manufacturers are already developing flexible smartphones and TV screens, however, in the not-too-distant future we may see these things become a part of our outfits. Everything from printed solar cells to power our devices, to scanable IDs stuck straight to your hand—these exciting advances are not far from the mainstream marketplace.
The next frontier in wearable technology is the kind which you can’t simply slip on and off, like your smart watch, nor peel off, like a stick-on ID. Injectables are already being used in some forward-thinking firms such as Sweden’s Epicentre, a technology and innovation company. Employees of the firm are able to have a microchip inserted under the skin of the hand, which will allow them access to everything from the building’s lobby, to meeting rooms, bathrooms and printers. The technology is already available to make these chips the carriers for private information such as identification, payment gateways and more, however it is yet to become mainstream.
Understandably, consumers are a little wary of having something so permanent and potentially privacy-compromising injected into their own bodies. While the technology presents obvious and almost limitless potential benefits, the risks of privacy invasion are not to be overlooked. According to Epicenter chief executive and co-founder, Patrick Mesterton, it is simply a matter of what you are willing to sacrifice for convenience.
“Of course, putting things into your body is quite a big step to do, and it was even, for me, at first. But then on the other hand, people have been implanting things in their body, like pacemakers, and stuff to control your heart. That’s a way, way more serious thing than having a small chip that actually can communicate with devices. “
As around 150 of the Epicenter workforce and affiliates have already opted-in for the opportunity, it would seem that many are deciding that their privacy is safe enough with Epicenter for now, to justify the convenience aspect of the scheme. As yet, the devices being used in this instance are ‘passive’ chips, which do not possess their own power source or tracking capabilities. As Mesterton explains:
“The technology does not allow for any kind of monitoring. It doesn’t even carry that ability – it’s exactly the same as if you would use a single key card. If a person is worried about being traced, your mobile phone or internet search history poses a bigger threat than the RFID chip we use ever would do.”
As the old adage goes, what have you got that ‘the government’ or other parties would be so interested in? If like me, it’s not much, you may find that the convenience factor outweighs the risk.
As these technologies are still in the development stages in many cases, they present great opportunity for manufacturers in the technology industries. Early adopters of the tech are already spruiking the benefits; and as we continually move towards more convenient options in our everyday lives, there is no doubt bound to be a huge market for these kinds of devices. Whether wearable or injectable, manufacturers are able to enter the market at increasingly lower prices, as the technology becomes cheaper to develop and produce. The success and popularity of crowdfunding schemes also gives start-ups the chance to dip their toes into the market, and bring these exciting innovations to the masses.