Ever since the first integrated circuit was developed by the semiconductor prodigy Jack Kilby way back in 1958, there has been a considerable reduction in the size of chips. As the years have gone by, engineers have found novel micro-fabrication processes to make chips and sensors with astonishingly smaller footprints. And there seems to be no stoppage to this at all, as this trend is continually evolving and sensors are getting smaller day by day which is actually realizing what Feynman had envisioned five decades back.
Today we are at the technology tipping point where the minimum achievable size of sensors and ICs has reduced to a nanometer scale. The real question, however, is not about the size of chips rather it is about, what shall we do with this small size? What has been done so far and what is still pending to be done?
This article focuses on a new prospect of computing which in spite of being a bit futuristic, seems promising enough to unlock new potentials of ubiquitous computing and Internet of Things (IoT)– wearable computing.
Over the past few years the era of Personal Computers (PCs) has been ushered out by smart phones and tablets which themselves, in turn, are giving way to another not-too-far future technology i.e. wearable computing. Yes, a computer that can be inter-woven into the fabrics of our wearables like t-shirts, watches, caps, goggles, bracelets, shoes and many more. Although the term ‘computer’ is being explicitly used, the wearable electronics include everything starting from a nano-sensor, processor unit and the antenna to facilitate connectivity between devices. The concept of wearable computing is not new to people and many technology pundits have been writing much about this subject.
But in its initial years wearable computing had failed to mark any notable success for the users. One possible reason to this is that people thought the idea of wearable computers ‘impractical’ and ‘ugly’. However, in today’s scenario, the advances in nanotechnology, chip revolution and improved power management methods are making them one of the most promising technologies in the nearest future. So what exactly it can do and how?
At a small scale, we can think of a t-shirt with nano-sensors woven into the fabrics which are capable of interacting with your smart phone. It can monitor the daily calorie consumption and also the amount of exercise done. The sensors can send the vital data to the smart phone from where it can be analyzed using a sophisticated mobile app enabling health-savvy group of people like those of athletes know about their diet and exercise patterns.
Similarly, a miner’s uniform that would be able to monitor his body temperature and provide alerts when that temperature reaches beyond a certain level. This data could in turn be aggregated for each individual and also for a group of individuals, resulting in both singular and multiple data points that can then be analyzed and correlated to make a more information driven working environment. Such wearable tech-driven research can allow businesses to take more informed decisions.
Further case could be that of a patient suffering from a chronic disease like Diabetes Mellitus or Hypertension. The patient’s physiological data like blood pressure, sugar level, breath rate, heartbeat, sweat level can be collected by sensors. This cumulative data can be communicated over cloud hosted by a health portal from where the family doctor can monitor the health statistics as and when required eliminating the need of frequent and unnecessary visits to doctor.
According to a report by ABI Research, the global market for wearables in health and fitness could reach 170 million devices by 2017. Health and fitness devices are believed to be one of the major potential of wearables. Adding further momentum to its growth is the entry of most of the industry giants into the space, including Google, Intel, Microsoft and Apple, Adidas, Nike etc. The fact that these big players are making huge investments is an indicator that the global market is in all readiness to experience a huge surge of wearable devices in the coming years.
There have been many products and services in the wearable computing landscape being made available to the market. Google is believed to have been in the helms of wearable computing because of its cutting edge ‘Google Glasses’. Taking a step further, it is now joining hands with sunglass retailers like Ray Baen and Warby Parker in order to morph the ‘geeky’ looking glasses to more fashionable looking shades.
Adidas’ miCoach is another addition to this technology, which is a multisport mobile app specifically designed for athletes. This Apple iOS compatible software can interact with the wearable sensors that measure speed, pace and distance as well as a heart rate.
Along the same line, the miCoach Speed_Cell is another tracking device that fits into a range of Adidas shoes and tracks running speed, acceleration and distance. It has so far been widely acceptable by soccer players. None the less, it has analyzed the performance of Argentinian football legend Lionel Messi in a match between Argentina & Germany.
For sportspersons, there seems to be more good news upcoming in this context with devices like NikeFuel (Smart Wristband) by Nike, E39 (Smart Shirt) by Under Armour and many more. The healthcare industry also goes in adjacency with the sports & fitness industry and wearable technologies have been found equally vital for the same. For some time the industry has failed to translate wearable technology into commercially successful products.
However, at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held at Las Vegas earlier this year, a number of players showcased their wearable devices which are expected to roll out in the market in less than a year’s time. For instance, Qardio, a San Francisco based company developed Qardio Arm which can send the ECG readings straight to the smart phone for remote heart monitoring. Intel also showcased their Mimo Baby Monitor that includes onesies stuffed with sensors, a docking station and a smartphone app. It can measure skin temperature, body position and the activity pattern of babies while sleeping. All this information is then relayed via low-power Bluetooth to a Wi-Fi enabled docking station so that parents can access all the details via their smartphones. Another device along this line is the Huggies’ TweetPee which can be worn along with the diaper and it can send alerts to the parents on their smart phones whenever their sweet hearts are wet :-).
And why should human have all the benefits? Wearable technology matters to animals as well which is evident from a device called FitBark. The device can be tied to the neck of your pet and its 3D accelerometer can track its daily activity.
Although this seems to be the ideal time for big players to introduce more wearable gadgets, but the wide adoption of these devices by the users will definitely take some more time. After all, who would like to make those ‘ugly’ gadgets a part of their daily attire?
To leverage the benefits of wearable computing, the player must first incorporate a correct balance of fashion and technology. This could only be realized by the inter-disciplinary collaboration between technology providers and fashion product designers.
They both will first have to perceive the requirements of one another prior to unveil something new for this domain. The future however, for wearable devices is very bright and rewarding and it is coming sooner than we think.
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