In my other life as a fitness professional, I come across a lot of wearable technology associated with fitness – from the  simplicity of a pedometer to the more sophisticated activity monitors that can track heart rate, monitor sleep, body temperature, provide training programs, show progress and provide GPS capabilities.

If you look at the majority of wearable technology products being introduced, they are focused on health and fitness. Why? Because people can see the immediate benefits of these devices and for the most part, they are relatively low in cost.

As a trainer, I am often asked by participants what type of device they should buy and my first question is always – “what type of information do you want to know?” Is it distance traveled? Number of steps? Calories burned? Heart Rate? All of these (and many more), factor into the selection process.

Over the years, it has been my experience that the level of sophistication in the device is directly correlated to the level of fitness of the participant. The novice typically wants the easiest device to use, while the performance athlete is looking for all the bells and whistles and perhaps more importantly – accuracy of the information gathered and presented. My experience has also taught me that the less “involvement” needed on the part of the participant, the more likely they will use the device regularly. Some users may prefer to simply view their data on the device, while others may want to integrate it with an application.

4 W’s of Wearable Technology

So this brings me to the 4 W’s of wearable technology:  Who wants to wear it; Why do they want to wear it; When do they want to Wear it; and Where do they want/have to wear it.

  • The Who – not the rock band – but the intended user. Is the device genderspecific? Targeted at any particular age group or demographic? While miniaturization is the current trend, a person with big hands or even arthritic hands might have a hard time handling something the size of a dime. Remember the calculator watch? The designs should be focused on the user, not necessarily the technology, with the realization that not all users are shaped the same way.
  • The Why – what is the purpose of the device and why would someone want to wear it? What is its’ main functionality? Does it monitor, control, instruct, manage, interact, or provide information? What is the value to the user? Is it simply for fun or is it truly functional?
  • The When – is this a device that will be worn 24hrs/7 day per week or simply during a specific activity.
  • The Where – how does a person wear this device? Does it go on the head, ear, eye, arm, neck, wrist, finger, torso, legs, feet, shoe, etc.? Is it embedded in the skin? Clothing? Is it comfortable and non-obtrusive? Is it aesthetically pleasing to the eye?
The Challenges of Wearable Tech

There are numerous challenges to wearable technology and must be considered during the design process.

Plantronics identified 9 design factors as shown. Power, sensor support, connectivity and compelling apps are repeatedly cited as major issues by multiple companies.

With respect to power, it is important to consider whether the device is battery based or re-chargeable. And if it is battery based, can it be changed by the consumer or must it be changed by an authorized technician. I once had a Polar heart rate monitor that had to be sent back every 18 months to get the battery changed – after the 2nd time and the extra cost I finally bought another brand that I did not have this issue.

Another major consideration is the physical design of the product.  Shine by Misfit Wearables has a very high “cool-factor” and can be worn in a variety of ways with necklace, wristbands and clasp accessories. However, due to its small size (about the size of a U.S. quarter and twice its thickness) – it is quite easy to lose based on the extensive number of comments on its Facebook page - at $119 USD – that is an expensive lesson to learn.

Finally, I would talk about the challenge of customer support. This can start with releasing a device too soon and having significant problems with it. It can further frustrate customers when you sell direct, but fulfill your orders through the Apple store sooner than your own site. But most of all, designers of these devices, should have a comprehensive user guide ready at the commercial launch.

A World of Wearable Technology Applications

Although most of the mainstream press highlights the numerous fitness related devices – there is a whole world of wearable technology applications both imagined and real.

Beecham Research created a fabulous summary of wearable technology applications by sector:

As shown, the possibilities are endless. A few worth highlighting include a product from Second Sight which has developed the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System (“Argus II”) – an epiretinal prosthesis which is surgically implanted in and on the eye that includes an antenna, an electronics case, and an electrode array. The device provides electrical stimulation of the retina to induce visual perception in blind patients with severe to profound retinitis pigmentosa and bare light or no light perception in both eyes. Not quite the VISOR seen in Star Trek, but pretty impressive.

Another interesting concept is the partnership between MC10 and Reebok to develop CHECKLIGHT™ - a sports activity impact indicator designed for use in all helmeted and non-helmeted contact sports and activities. It provides an objective measurement of impact force and is designed to lead athletes on a pathway to assessment.

MC10 is also developing a manufacturing technology that will allow digital circuits to be embedded in fabric or flexible plastic. The BioStamp is MC10’s first flexible computing prototype and it is a stretchable electronics technology that is applied like a Band-Aid and will stretch, twist and move. The sensors within the device collect data such as body temperature, heart rate, brain activity, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation and uses near field communications to communicate with a wireless device. Now that is truly wearable technology.

The Future for Wearable Tech is Bright

Wearable technology is nothing new, as headsets (technically, the first wearable tech) have been around for decades. However, what has changed with wearable technology is awareness with a true understanding of actions and reactions. I see tremendous benefits to this type of technology across multiple sectors and we are already seeing positive examples.

For some, wearable technology will be a life-changing experience (i.e. returning sight to the blind). For others, it will be an educational tool to help them make lifestyle changes (fitness/wellness devices). For athletes, wearable tech will become an elite training tool to improve performance. For an aging population, wearable tech will allow elderly to remain independent for a longer time.

Yes, there will definitely be wearable tech that has a limited audience – such as the mood sweater that interprets emotions and displays mood instantly as an interactive light display or INTIMACY garments made out of opaque smart e-foils that become increasingly transparent based on close and personal encounters with people. Nonetheless, it demonstrates again the endless possibilities.

The key to wearable tech will be to design a product that fits seamlessly and unobtrusively into a persons’ life. The biggest challenge will be to keep the user engaged and continually use the device - as there is always something new around the corner to attract their short attention span.