The wearable tech market is very much embedded in a “because we can” mind set. Exploiting the human propensity for want over need, wearables have moved beyond smart watches and fitness trackers into an Alice in Wonderland-esque farce. Yoga pants that vibrate when you’re doing a pose incorrectly? Because we can. Spectacles that use bone conduction audio technology to provide music without headphones? Because we can. Measuring muscle oxygen with a leg-borne monitor? Because we… okay, you get the idea.
It’s no surprise then that the wearables market has lost at least $3 billion in valuation over the past two years. Intel shut down its wearables division this summer to focus more on augmented reality. Various studies have shown that the stalwarts of the wearables ecosystem – fitness trackers – aren’t noticeably effective at helping users lose weight, with more still studies finding that most consumers lose interest in their fitness tracker in a matter of months. Don’t even get me started on Google Glass.
But all is not lost, nor is the future bleak. There are a raft of companies and start-ups creating wearables that, in this blogger’s humble opinion, have wider mass market appeal – and more general usefulness. Here is a round-up of some of the devices that standout in a landscape that includes pelvic-tilt data for cyclists:
Waverly Labs is a tech start-up “at the convergence of wearable technology and machine translation.” Its set of earpieces – called Pilot – can translate between users speaking in different languages. Pilot also serves as noise cancelling headphones, and can facilitate voice calls and audio notifications. But it is the real-time translator that promises to be life changing. An earpiece – or indeed multiple earpieces – can be shared with users to translate conversations via the Pilot app. Whether used for travel, business, diplomacy, or leisure, Pilot has the potential to make the notion of “lost in translation” obsolete.
If you’re the kind of person who is constantly misplacing keys, wallet, passport, or even your vehicle in a car park, then it’s products like Tile to the rescue. These Bluetooth-connected square discs fit in the palm of your hand and are easily attached to a number of items, including purses, tools, and even teddy bears. The Tile ecosystem has been designed to work around enumerable eventualities. For example, lost your phone? Click on a Tile and it will send all Tiles buzzing. Can’t find your wallet? Ring it from your phone. Tiles can also can be used with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant (i.e. “Ok, Google, ask Tile to locate my keys…”).
Sadly, even in the 21st century, attacks on (mainly) women are as prevalent as ever. However, many technologists and entrepreneurs are working with a 21st century technology to help those in need send out a distress signal to both emergency services and loved ones. Even though such developments treat only the symptoms and not the disease, the hope is that such devices will deter assaults over time. MIT scientist and researcher Manisha Mohan has created Intrepid, a smart sticker that can “detect, communicate, and prevent sexual assault”. Its motion sensors – when triggered – send automatic alerts to five named contacts. Revolar is a key-ring sized portable personal safety device that will contact friends and family if the user triggers an alarm. From smart necklaces to rings, pendants to watches, there are a number of subtle wearables that can assist in ensuring personal safety.
Wearables in this area are too many to name, and that is a good thing. As the last of the baby boomers cross the retirement threshold, so do the challenges of aging increase. Emergency response systems for domestic use have evolved beyond installing a red cord or an alarm – both of which are oftentimes frustratingly out of reach. Instead, a range of remote monitoring tools for families and caregivers can be tailored to specific needs, sending out alerts without any intervention required. Vitals data can be communicated to medics and family via smart implants, while virtual assistants help with monitoring medication intake and send reminders of medical advice via touchscreens.
What next for wearables?
Call me an idealist (or an anti-realist), but while I think all of the above have merit, and while I am also one of the few who have used a fitness tracker beyond six months, why not have one wearable that can be customised to a user’s needs? Why can’t I have a ring, for example, that tracks my exercise, serves as a location tracker, sends out distress signals, and monitors my asthma? Because while some wearables no doubt have specific, essential, individual uses, surely uptake will increase when users have a choice of a single device that meets all of their needs. Or perhaps it is I who am now heading into Alice in Wonderland territory…