Will your next Android be wearable?

October 8, 2012
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As awesome as the latest smartphones are, you still have to pull them out of your pocket and manipulate that touchscreen to take advantage of their features. Being chained to those screens is clearly still a barrier to true convenience. Is voice-activated wearable tech the answer? Glasses with augmented reality overlays that alert you to incoming calls or give you directions, watches that hook up to the smartphone in your bag, or even touch pads projected onto your forearm are all possibilities.

Google’s Project Glass has definitely catapulted the idea of augmented reality glasses into the conversation about the next big thing in tech. Apple was recently granted a patent for head-mounted displays (surprise, surprise), we know that Microsoft has been working on wearable computer systems, and even top game developer Valve is dabbling in the wearable tech pool with some R&D. According to a report from IMS Research there will be 170 million wearable devices shipped in 2016.

It’s already here

Perhaps more surprising than the IMS Research projection, is the fact that 14 million wearable devices shipped in 2011. The fact is that wearable tech is already here and many people are already using it.

We’ve also been keeping a close eye on the development of smart watches, such as the Pebble e-paper watch which can connect to Android smartphones and the iPhone, using Bluetooth, to bring you vibrations for incoming calls or messages, caller ID, emails, calendar alerts, Facebook messages, and more. We’re still waiting to see a watch that runs a full version of Android, but releases like the Motorola ACTV and the Sony SmartWatch look like a step in the right direction.

A company called Vuzix already offers a range of augmented reality glasses. They also have glasses for watching video and virtual reality gaming. It’s fast becoming a competitive market and Silicon Micro Display is another company that offers glasses for movie viewing right now. A company called Recon Instruments has designed ski goggles with a heads-up display capable of providing you with location and speed information and alerting you to incoming calls.

You can also buy an array of other wearable tech from LED dresses, to vibrating FPS gaming vests, to heart rate monitors, to Bluetooth pendants.

Possible applications

New options on the wearable tech horizon cover a pretty wide range of uses. We might be most excited about informational displays that allow us to communicate more easily, but there are some important alternative applications beyond that.

The fitness industry has been quick to see the potential and we already have devices for tracking your position, recording routes, distance, and even heart rate information. That ties neatly into the healthcare industry. Clothing that could monitor outpatients and alert medical staff to any problems would obviously be very useful. The possibilities for enhancing people’s lives and helping them to cope with various conditions and disabilities are also well worth exploring.

If we consider industrial applications, wearable tech could clearly be extremely important for a wide variety of jobs. Whether developing niche products for specific tasks would be cost effective is debatable right now, but as wearable tech becomes more popular it will inevitably come down in price and we’ll see new and unexpected adaptations. Positioning, health monitoring, and a display that provides information from various sensors could help save firefighter’s lives, for example. It would also have an obvious military application.

What’s the catch?

There are a number of problems for wearable tech to overcome, but they’re actually not that different from the problems facing standard tech right now. Number one on the list is inevitably battery life. The problem of how to accommodate sizeable batteries in something you wear could be solved with developments such as LG’s flexible battery. However, if you want lots of functionality in something the size of a watch or a pair of glasses then how to power it is going to be a problem.

Washing wearable tech is another potential problem. Smart sensors and integrated batteries can make wearable devices fragile and difficult to launder. How do they cope with different weather conditions? What happens if you have a heavy fall and land on the battery? Safety and longevity are serious concerns that need to be addressed.

Design challenges can always be overcome, but just like any tech product, early adopters are liable to be helping manufacturers iron out the kinks and they’ll pay a premium to do it.

Why buy wearable tech?

The two big developments in wearable tech which are already hitting the consumer market are smart watches and smart glasses.

Going back to the IMS Research report, there’s an interesting comment from senior analyst, Theo Ahadome:

“Even in infotainment, where ‘coolness’ can sometimes drive product adoption, wearable devices must establish their extra usefulness against smartphones and mobile applications. Consumers may question the value of smart watches or smart glasses if they cannot do anything that their smartphone cannot do – apart from being wearable,”

This is an important point. Having already invested so much time and money in smartphones what would drive you to buy a wearable device? For technophobes wearable devices are liable to be a step too far. They could also be a stretch for the older generation. Is there a strong demand for wearable tech in the consumer infotainment space?

I stopped wearing a watch years ago and I wouldn’t go back, even if it did run Android. I don’t see a watch on your wrist being a great leap beyond a smartphone in your pocket. Even if you overcome the charging issues – it’s uncomfortable and the screen could never be that big.

Augmented reality glasses are another matter. A pair of Android glasses could be seriously awesome for navigation, capturing great photos, keeping up with messages and calls – the list goes on and on. There are some pretty obvious downsides too. Once again, wearing glasses is uncomfortable. It has to be one of the main reasons that 3D hasn’t really taken off in the home – who wants to have to sit in their own lounge with glasses on? Would you walk around the city center with augmented reality glasses on?

I also suspect that a heads-up display could be dangerously distracting and the idea of it being a conduit for targeted advertising is kind of horrifying. Do the pros outweigh the cons? Will your next Android be wearable? What would it need to tempt you? Post a comment and tell us what you think.

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