Musings about wearable technology


If there’s one application that’s nearly always mentioned along with the consumer Internet of Things, it’s wearables. Now what makes a wearable a wearable, in contrast to other technology that you can wear like your fancy Casio calculator watch from 1980? It’s the connection to the Internet, or better: the added value that the device provides when it is connected. Sure, any pedometer that informs the user about their performance with a small status indictor can be worn, but we would only call the incarnations that connect to a remote database with an attractive and informative web front-end a wearable.

I’ve recently been asked to sit on a panel about wearable technology at IoT Tech Expo Europe. Not that I’m an expert on that particular class of devices, but I think I seemed like a good fit with my data analytics background. The panel members were asked to think about the following questions:

  • How do we expect wearables to interact with the world around us?
  • What are the benefits wearables will bring to society and businesses?
  • What are the difficulties in creating a real value proposition?
  • Making wearable technology a must have consumer good – how do we turn cool technology into something that makes a difference to people and organisations?
  • Examining the challenges for wearable technology – e.g. battery life, data collection, and functionality and what are the possible solutions?
  • How can we overcome customer concerns with wearable data collection and ensure that received value makes the data sharing trade-off worthwhile?

These are very broad questions, especially when projecting that the most innovative applications of wearables are still to come. And again, how do we define a wearable? Is David Rose’s Ambient Umbrella a wearable? If the definition is that it has to be attached to the user and not be carried: No. Is any sort of smart watch that communicates to a mobile phone one? Maybe. How do we draw the line to smart clothing, like connected sportswear? One of the clear-cut cases may be the SunSprite, a small device that can be tagged on to any clothing to monitor sun exposure.

In any case, at this stage, most of these devices are still going to rely on some Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) communication to a mobile phone, such that edge computing and data transfer to the Internet is managed by ‘a hub device’ that most of us carry around anyway. This has the clear advantage of reduced size and increased battery life-time for the wearable device. In order to be useful when the phone isn’t around, most premium devices have indicator lights to communicate simple information even in the absence of a phone or the Internet.

It’s difficult to assess the societal benefit of wearables. Think fitness trackers: We still lack systematic studies if they really make people more active, or if mostly active people purchase them. If it’s indeed the former, then one could probably estimate the reduced burden on health care systems etc. Unfortunately, it’s still too early to make such assessment. The Flic button is a wireless button that can be attached to clothes (or anything else) to trigger actions on a mobile phone. Can we speak about a ‘societal benefit’ if crime victims can instantaneously call the police and transmit there whereabouts and probably a video feed to the authorities? In a world where everyone carries one, I’d call that ’societal’, but at this stage, that’s a no for me. However, think about the aggregated analysis of hundreds of Flic-triggered alarm calls: This could clearly help to identify crime hotspots and initiate preventive action.

The benefits to businesses are probably easier to identify, at least for the businesses themselves. Flic recently reported on a collaboration with a large pizza delivery chain. Add some sort of unique identifier to any wearable and their users, and they can be used for payments. Apple Pay and the ability to purchase your coffee with their smart watch is only the first step. Insurance companies are probably most interested in data from any wearable device: activity is only one indicator of health risk. Playing devil’s advocate, why not take environmental sensors into account to calculate someone’s score? If their client frequently is exposed to elevated levels of nitric oxide whilst roaming the streets of London, why not add a few pence to the cost of their contract? Google has recently filed a patent for a contact lens that can monitor blood sugar levels. That’s going to be expensive for binge-eating diabetics!

Aforementioned examples obviously highlight the danger of ‘dual-use’ information. Environmental monitoring with wearables could add a huge benefit for city councils (in aggregated form), but linking the information back to individuals might bring difficulties we haven’t even started to foresee. Have I mentioned that cigarette smoke could be quite easily identified…

From a data analytics perspective the value proposition of all these scenarios is clear, but there will have to be incentives for people to buy and use some of these wearable devices. Would you be willing to pay a few hundred pounds for an environmental monitor if, except for informing yourself, you’re essentially providing a service to your local authorities and create a potential backdoor for insurance companies to deny you their protection? The only way this can happen is by convincing each and every user of the common good, and how it is going to benefit them — but when has that ever worked?

At this stage I don’t think that there are too many technical issues with wearable devices. At a time when we’re used to charging our mobile phones very much every day, the week-long lifetime of many devices is sufficient, the 18-hour cockup of the Apple Watch aside. Especially with BLE we’re already seeing greatly improved lifetimes, and energy harvesting through sunlight, Piezo-electric or wireless recharging are already state-of-the-art.

The great issue remains: What’s in it for me? And is the data and services the devices provide interesting enough when the novelty effect has worn off? Geeks will be geeks and are likely to purchase anything with the ‘connected’ label. However, I’m wondering how many of the fitness trackers in the £10 price range are actually regularly worn? As with the entire consumer Internet of Things, I predict that we’re going to see a slow flooding of the market with cheap devices and that eventually, at some point, the integrative analysis of information is going to create a holistic digital view of our lives - if we want that. That’s a pervasive Internet of Things without any bells and whistles, something that’s just there, and that we can tap into if we wish.

Boris Adryan