Wearable tech: A brief history and a look into the future

July 2, 2013

Google Glass video Much has changed since the invention of the first computer that was available for the masses. After several decades, computers have become smaller, more efficient, and more powerful. Modern computers no longer need to occupy huge spaces. They can even be pocketed and now worn as fully-functional gadget accessories. Before ogling on the magnificent Google Glass and looking forward to the future of wearable tech, it may be worth some time looking back at the history and development of the geeky wearable devices the current generation is now enjoying. A few takeaways:

  • Wearable computing is not exactly new, but the concept has been refined over the decades.
  • The definition of wearable computers has evolved over time, much like how the definition of “smartphones” has changed.
  • Wearable tech has mostly involved head-mounted displays and wrist-mounted user-interfaces like watches.
  • Wearable computing is no longer reserved for uber-geeks, especially with Google Glass and smartwatches now going mainstream.
  • These user interfaces are not just reserved for mobile computing, but also for other purposes, like accessibility, learning, research and navigation.

The advent of wearable computers

Wearable computers are basically small and compact electronic devices designed to be worn by a user. They are also referred to as body-borne computers, considered as a type of wearable technology that has in its core an electronic device that performs calculations and processes information. With this definition, watches from the 1990s that doubled as calculators can be considered as wearable computers. However, today’s concept of a wearable computer has advanced into something that is more than just simple calculations and information processing. This is similar to how devices are being classified as smartphones. Before, many advanced phones were already referred to as smartphones but were eventually relegated to being simply called “feature phones” as more powerful smartphones emerged. Today’s wearable computers are characteristically more powerful, more efficient, and more compact. They also possess a greater range of features and are more convenient to wear. Additionally, they feature better technologies in terms of displays, processors, batteries, and input and output systems. There’s still so much room for improvement but we may have to revisit the predecessors and forefathers of these modern wearable tech to better appreciate all the features we already have.

1980s

An evolution of Steve Mann's wearable devices since the 1980s

An evolution of Steve Mann’s wearable devices since the 1980s

This is the decade when the pioneering wearable computers were introduced. In 1981, a 6502-based multimedia computer was designed to be worn as a backpack by Steve Mann, a researcher and inventor renowned for his works on computational photography, high dynamic range imaging, and wearable computing. In 1983, toe-operated computers were commercialized based on the Z-80s for counting cards. In the latter part of the decade, a head-mounted display called Private Eye was developed and marketed by Reflection Technology. It had a red monochrome display with a resolution of 720×280 pixels and a 1.25-inch screen size that appeared like a 15-inch display when viewed from an 18 inch distance.

Comments

  • MasterMuffin

    That Private Eye had a PPI of 576! :D

    • jangeloracoma

      That’s what I call a retina display. And it’s right in front of the real “retina” too!

      • MasterMuffin

        Yea and who even needs colors?

  • OMGgary

    You missed one era in wearable tech: