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Examining Wearable Tech

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Smart watches? Google Glass? Computerized sports accessories? Wearable technology sounds like something out of a sci-fi future, where (for good or bad) electronics have infiltrated pretty much everything we do. But wearable tech isn't some future dream, it's here today in the form of smart watches, fitness trackers, cameras, and other nifty gizmos designed to be worn instead of carried. In this article, Michael Miller discusses the state of wearable technology – what’s available, what’s coming, and what to look forward to.
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Wearable technology sounds like something out of a sci-fi future, where (for good or bad) electronics have infiltrated pretty much everything we do. But wearable tech isn't some future dream, it's here today in the form of smart watches, fitness trackers, cameras, and other nifty gizmos designed to be worn instead of carried.

While wearable tech may not yet be mainstream, it's a big enough business that Amazon has its own Wearable Technology store. That's selling the future, folks – today.

Watching the Smart Watches

When most people today think about wearable tech, they first think of so-called smart watches. That's not because there are a lot of them being sold (there aren't – at least, not yet), but rather because this category gets written about a lot in the media. Like the way this article is, for example.

It's obvious that the smart watch, like all wearable tech, is an emerging product. Only 2 million smart watches were sold in 2013, although Business Insider forecasts that by 2018 more than 90 million of the things will be sold each year. If that prediction comes true, and figuring an average selling price of around $100, that translates into a $9 billion market, which ain't small potatoes.

What exactly is a smart watch? It all depends – a smart watch can be different things to different people. Some smart watches are nothing more than watches with built-in digital music players. Others connect to your smart phone to send and receive calls and texts, as well as access other phone-based apps. Other smart watches do fitness tracking, monitoring heart rate and physical activity. Still others record digital photos and videos. And some smart watches, in the future, might function like full-fledged computers.

Today's smart watches are tethered to another device you carry on your person, typically your smart phone, via Bluetooth. That explains why the best-selling smart watch today is Samsung's Galaxy Gear, which pairs with Samsung's Galaxy smart phone.

Google has made the market a tad more interesting with the introduction of its Android Wear, a collection of third-party smart watches that connect to any Android device. Google has tweaked the Android operating system to make it more wearable-friendly, and the result is a nicely integrated system that lots of companies (and consumers) can take advantage of. Current or planned Android Wear watches include the Motorola Moto 360, LG G Watch, and Samsung Galaxy Gear Live. Android Wear watches are priced in the $200-$300 range.

Figure 1 Samsung's Galaxy Gear Live, Android Wear smart watches

Other popular smart watches today don't have quite the feature set found in the Android Wear gear, instead tending to focus on particular functionality (such as sports or fitness tracking). These smart watches include the COOKOO Connected Watch, Martian Watches Voice Command and Notifier, Pebble SmartwatchQualcomm Toq, and Sony Smart Watch SW2. Expect to pay in the $100-$200 range for these smart watches.

Of course, the perennial elephant in the smart watch room is Apple, with its long-rumored iWatch. (Or whatever they end up calling the thing, if they ever release it.) The iWatch promises to shake up the smart watch market, much like Apple shook up mobile phones with the iPhone, tablet computers with the iPad, and MP3 players with the iPod. If anyone can drive the smart phone market into the mainstream, it's Apple.

Exercising with Fitness Trackers

Fitness and activity trackers are wearable devices that monitor your physical activity. These devices come in many different styles; some are integrated into smart watches, others into armbands, still others clip on your belt or can be worn as bracelets or necklaces.

Basic activity trackers are designed for the average person who wants to lead a healthier lifestyle. Some track your physical activity, others track your calorie intake, still others monitor your weight. The information collected is then sync'd to your smart phone or computer for further analysis and reporting.

Some of the most popular activity trackers today include the Fitbit Flex, One, and Zip; Garmin Vivofit; iHealth AM3; Jawbone UP24; Misfit Shine; Polar Loop; Samsung Gear Fit; and Withings Pulse 02.

Then there are fitness trackers designed specifically for runners and other serious exercisers. These devices, typically in the form of a specialized smart watch, use GPS and other technology to record and monitor your distance, time, pace, heart rate, and other vital statistics.

The most popular fitness tracking devices today include the Casio OmniSync STB1000, Garmin Forerunner, Nike+ SportWatch, and the Polar FT2, FT4, FT7, FT40, FT60, and FT80.

Figure 2 Popular with runners – the Nike+ SportWatch

Keeping Well with Wearable Healthcare Devices

There are all sorts of other health-related issues that you can monitor in real time, via technology that you either wear or attach to your clothing. There's a lot of this wearable medical tech on the market today, to monitor all sorts of medical conditions.

For example, if you want to monitor your blood pressure, you can use a wireless blood pressure monitor such as the iHealth BP7 or Quardio Qardiarm. If you're looking to monitor your sleep, check out the Lark Pro. If monitoring your weight is the thing, there's the BodyMedia LINK Armband weight management system. Use the Lumo Lift to monitor your posture, or the SunFriend to monitor your exposure to UV light. And the HealthID Band functions as a high-tech emergency medical ID bracelet.

Figure 3 The BodyMedia LINK Armband, with tracking apps

Then there's AiQ's BioMan t-shirt. This funky piece of clothing has "smart sleeves" that monitor the user's heart rate, perspiration rate, and skin temperature. That's pretty cool in and of itself, but the shirt can also be modified to measure skin moisture, EEG, and EKG signals. It sends its results to your smartphone or computer via Bluetooth.

In addition, OMsignal sells what the company calls "biometric smartware." We're talking sports-oriented t-shirts that, in addition to their other features (including moisture wicking fabric with strategic compression), come with little black boxes that record and stream real-time biometric data to your smartphone. The shirt is cool looking and futuristic, and it's a great way to track all your physical performance.

And that's just what's available today. How about a simple patch that attaches to a home-bound patient's arm that then sends all manner of vital statistics to his or her clinic or doctor across town, for remote diagnosis? Or a similar wearable that monitor's a person's activities and alerts his health insurance company of what he's doing right or wrong – so the insurance company can raise his rates for bad behavior? Or contact lenses for diabetics that test the wearer's tears for glucose levels? (That latter one is actually under development by Google, believe it or not.)

Or imagine a smart pacemaker that communicates with doctors via WiFi and reports not only on its own condition but also the patient's condition. Actually, you don't have to imagine this one – it exists already. (And former Vice President Dick Cheney had emergency surgery to disable his pacemaker's wireless capability when he feared it might be hacked as part of an assassination attempt – really.)

Monitoring Your Family with Wearable Trackers

Ever wonder where your spouse is at? Worried about your kids getting lost around the neighborhood? Need to keep track of an elderly relative? Then check out these wearable GPS-enabled devices that let you monitor the whereabouts of a given person by tracking these devices from your computer or smartphone.

Most of these devices are small enough to slide into a coat or shirt pocket. They all work in a similar fashion and include the Spy Spot TT8850 Micro Tracker, Trackimo GPS Tracker, and PocketFinder Personal GPS Locator.

When it comes to keeping track of younger children, consider the Lok8U Freedom for Kids, which straps on like a wrist watch and lets you track their location from a mobile receiver. The Trax tracker is even smaller; just slip it into your kid's pocket and then track his location from the associated smartphone app.

Figure 4 Track your kids' location on your smartphone with the compact Trax tracking unit

And if what you really want is an instant alert in case of an emergency, there's the V.ALRT Personal Emergency Alert Device. It's a round button-like thing, not much bigger than a quarter, that you or members of your family can carry in a pocket or around your neck. One press of the button and the V.ALRT pings your smartphone and sends personalized emergency texts to three pre-selected contacts. The text says that help is needed and includes location information from your phone's GPS sensor.

Then there's Cuff, which offers a  line of smart jewelry (bracelets and necklaces) that function as location trackers and emergency transmitters. Press a button on the Cuff and an alert (including your current location, via GPS) is sent to a list of designated recipients. Cuffs are more stylish than typical location trackers, so that's different.

Recording with Wearable Cameras

Want to know the most fun wearable tech today? It's the wearable camera, which lets you capture everything you're doing in photos and videos – from your own personal perspective.

There are two different types of wearable cameras. The first, what we'll call action cams, are ruggedize for use in capturing sporting activities, such as biking or skiing or parachuting. These include the venerable GoPro, Contour+2 and ContourRoam2, Garmin VIRB Elite, and Sony POV Action Cam. You can mount these cameras on a helmet or body harness, or just hold them in your hand.

The next category of wearable camera we'll call the spy cam. These cameras are small enough to be either unobtrusive or totally unnoticeable. Most will fit in your pocket or clip on your clothing and let you record your surroundings without anyone else noticing. These wearable cameras include the Narrative Clip (which clips onto your shirt) and Autographer (designed to wear around your neck), both perfect for constant filming of what some are calling "lifelogging."

Figure 5 Record everything around you, all the time, with the miniature Narrative Clip camera

Eyeing Google Glass

When it comes to capturing the world around you, nothing beats Google Glass. You've probably read about this nifty futuristic wearable – it's essentially a miniature computer, smartphone, and digital camera all built into a set of eyeglasses. You pick your frames (some are more stylish than others), slap 'em on your face, and get ready to multitask via the voice-activated controls and miniature screen just over your right eye.

Figure 6 Google Glass – trendy, fashionable, and geeky cool

You can use Google Glass to make phone calls, send messages, listen to music, track your fitness routine, map your location (and provide directions), search the web, and – oh yes – take pictures and videos. All this makes Google Glass the ultimate wearable tech today, although it's bound to be surpassed in the future.

Not unexpectedly, Google Glass is a little on the pricey side -- $1,500 to be precise. I guess that's the price of being on the bleeding edge. (That and having everyone around you think you're either recording them or surreptitiously surfing the web or playing solitaire instead of paying attention.)

Interestingly, Google Glass isn't the only glasses-like gadget designed to augment your reality. Recon Jet is a heads-up display designed especially for athletes. It gives the wearer real-time performance metrics, such as GPS-based location, speed, distance, elevation, and more. It also connects to your smartphone for phone calls and such. And, while Recon Jet is more purpose-specific than Google Glass, it's also a lot lower priced – just $499 when it launches this fall.

Figure 7 Recon Jet – like Google Glass, but for sports activities

Wearing Other Smart Clothing

But that's not all. There's lots of other wearable tech on the market today and in the pipelines that promises to revolutionize your daily life. Just make sure you don't put any of these wearable gizmos in the washing machine with the rest of your clothes!

For example, the Razer Nabu is a wearable "smartband" designed for social media use. It delivers messages and logs your activity data, as might be expected, but also lets you interact with other Nabu wearers in your vicinity. It's supposed to learn from what you do to offer you more personalized options.

Figure 8 Razer Nabu, a social smartband

Then there's Ring, a "wearable input device" that looks like... well, a ring. This deceptive little gizmo lets you control selected home appliances and apps with a simple gesture. You can also use Ring to send messages by drawing letters in the air with your finger. And, like the best of wearable tech, no one will know you're wearing anything special.

Figure 9 Control your world through gestures with Ring

If you have a drawer full of mismatched socks, wearable technology provides a solution in the form of Plus+ "smarter socks" by the BlackSocks company. These are socks with built-in RFID chips. Use the associated Sock Sorter app to keep matching pairs together. (The app also keeps track of how many times your socks have been washed, in case you're interested.)

If smart socks isn't crazy enough, check out Smart Diapers from Pixie Scientific. (Yes, Smart Diapers.) This wearable for the infant set contains embedded sensors and a unique QR code. Scan the QR code with your smartphone and the associated app analyzes the data collected, alerting you to signs of urinary tract infections, kidney problems, and the like.

Figure 10 Smart Diapers for your baby

And there's more in development. The French company Cityzen Sciences is developing a Digital Shirt that uses so-called "smart fabric," connected to a Bluetooth transmitter, to track your every movement and send that info back to your smartphone. The company says the fabric is no heavier than a regular t-shirt and can be washed and ironed – provided you remove the Bluetooth transmitter first, of course.

The world of wearable tech is changing daily, with more and more interesting developments powered by advancements in miniaturization and new-age fabrics. There's a lot more to come, so keep your eyes open – you never know what sort of tech you'll be wearing tomorrow!

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