An App Up Your Sleeve

Mobile Computing Escapes From the Phone

By | Updated June 27, 2014

A science-fiction curiosity for decades — think Dick Tracy‘s phone watch or the Terminator’s smart vision — wearable computers are now flooding into the market in the form of smartwatches, activity trackers and Google Glass, spectacles that project a computer screen in the wearer’s field of vision. The devices, which let people check their e-mail, texts and heart rate without having to reach for their smartphone, are certainly cool, but their makers have yet to come up with the wearable killer app to make them best-sellers with consumers and business users.

The Situation

A market that didn’t exist a few years ago, wearable technology could top $20 billion in sales by 2016, up from $8.5 billion last year, estimates researcher IHS, whose forecast includes devices like hearing aids. Google Glass, which sells for $1,500, uses voice commands to take photos and video, and provides wearers with turn-by-turn navigation. The new Gear Live from Samsung, Motorola’s Moto 360 and LG’s G Watch smartwatches offer capabilities such as letting users get email, SMS and call notifications and workout information as well as providing flight information for those headed to an airport, provided they have a compatible Android phone nearby. In March, Facebook spent $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, the maker of a wearable head-mounted display for gaming. A wearable product may still be in development at Apple, as all the tech giants rush to get into the field. And wearables won’t just be aimed at the eyes: some devices will whisper information right into a user’s ear.

The Background

Wearable tech isn’t new. There are hearing aids, of course, and night-vision goggles have been used in military and law enforcement settings for years. But many of the first consumer devices, like Sony’s smartwatch, have failed to gain traction. Fitness-tracking devices such as Nike‘s Fuelband and the Jawbone Up popularized the concept with people who used to need doctors’ help to monitor their health. A range of devices to monitor glucose levels, heart rates and other data have been made for years by companies from Abbott to Medtronic, but these have been aimed at the chronically ill. Now, they’re likely to enter the mainstream, as consumer-electronics companies are turning out wearable gadgets that anyone can buy — and increasingly on the cheap. Health and fitness devices are expected to dominate this market in the next few years. Almost 10 percent of the companies exhibiting at the 2014 CES, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, were focused on digital health, and in January Google said it was working on smart contact lenses to monitor glucose.

The Argument

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said wearable devices will get technology out of the way, so we’re not scrambling to find our ringing phones while driving or out on a dinner date. Others see applications in business: Professionals such as surgeons are among the first users of Glass, which can let them look up X-rays, videoconference with colleagues and answer questions from medical students while keeping their hands free for surgery. In this view, eventually everyone from waiters to repair technicians to kids could use wearable tech to complete tasks faster and better. In response, two prominent researchers argued that we’re more likely to run off the road while our hands are free but our brains are not. A growing number of states agree and are considering banning Glass for motorists. Separately, privacy advocates say devices like Glass present dangers like surreptitious recording and instantaneous facial recognition, and they have been banned from some casinos and other private businesses. As wearable devices become part of everything we wear and carry, the going assumption will be that a computer is always looking on — a cool or a creepy thought, depending on your point of view.

The Reference Shelf

(First published Oct. 31, 2013)

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Olga Kharif in Portland at okharif@bloomberg.net


To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net