Wearable Technology Essay
This paper will explore advantages of wearable technology such as glanceable information, tracking, and enhanced communication, revealing issues of specific wearables and addressing concerns regarding privacy and social interactions. This paper will provide extensive information on the present wearable computing market, detailing its end-use in different sections. Body-borne computers, also referred to as wearables, are related to the fields of both ubiquitous computing and human-computer interaction. With ubiquitous computing, wearable computing is used to interweave technology into the everyday life, making technology pervasive and interaction frictionless. Through the history and development of wearable computing, the vision of technology in the everyday life has been affirmed through multiple projects directed at either enhancing or extending functionality of clothing, recently notable through devices like the Nike FuelBand, Fitbit, Pebble Smartwatch and Google Glass. Wearable technology is a response to both ubiquitous computing and human-computer interaction.
History of Wearable Technology
A computer is not merely a time-keeping or calculating device, but rather a user-programmable item for complex algorithms, interfacing, and data management . By this definition, there is disagreement in the technology field as to when the first wearable computer was invented. Some recognize Ed Thorp and Claude Shannon invention (1966) and others recognize the invention of Steve Mann (1981.)
In the 1970s and early 1980’s Steve Mann, a researcher and inventor renowned for his works on computational photography, high dynamic range imaging, and wearable computing. Mann designed and built a number of general-purpose wearable computer systems, including various kinds of sensing, biofeedback, and multimedia computers such as wearable musical instruments, audio-based computers, and seeing aids for the blind. In 1981, Mann designed the 6502-based multimedia computer to be worn as a backpack, a general-purpose multimedia wearable computer system with a head-mounted display visible to one eye.
The system provided text, graphics, audio, and video capability, and included a handheld chording keyer, for one-handed input. Because of its generality, this system fit the description of what most people would consider a computer by today’s standards. The system allowed various computer applications to be run while walking around doing other things. This system could also be programmed, thus new applications were written. A variety of different systems were designed and built by Mann in the 1980’s, and they started a steady evolution in wearable computing toward something resembling ordinary eyeglasses by the late 1990s (Mann 2001b.)
Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, was hailed as the father of the wearable computer and the ISSCC’s first virtual panelist, by moderator Woodward Yang of Harvard University (Cambridge Mass.). IEEE ISSCC Feb. 9, 2000 .
In 1966 Ed Thorp and Claude Shannon revealed their invention of a wearable computer capable of predicting roulette wheels. The system was a cigarette-pack sized analog computer with 4 push buttons. A data-taker would use the buttons to indicate the speed of the roulette wheel, and the computer would then send tones via radio to a bettor’s hearing aid. Though the system was invented in 1961, it was first mentioned in E. Thorp, Beat the Dealer, revised ed. in 1966. The details of the system were later published in Review of the International Statistical Institute, V. 37:3, 1969. Thorp also disclosed a similar system for beating the Wheel of Fortune gambling game in LIFE Magazine, March 27, 1964. The development of wearable items has taken several steps of miniaturization from discrete electronics over hybrid designs to fully integrated designs, where just one processor chip, a battery and some interface conditioning items make the whole unit.
The current decade is ushering in renewed interest in wearable computing as many technologies have matured. With components such as displays, processors, batteries, and memories becoming cheaper, more efficient, and more advanced, developing wearable technology has become easier. Thanks to the progress of these various technologies, using wearable computers has now become less unwieldy and awkward. More efficient and smaller high capacity batteries provide enough power to run wearable devices through a full day. Thinner and sharper displays now make it possible to create more comfortable means through which users interact with their devices.
Advantages and Issues
Human beings have developed a new problem since the advent of smartphones and the following mobile revolution: no one is paying attention to anything they are actually doing. Everyone seems to be looking down at something or through something. Those moments watching a favorite band or sports team play are either being captured via the lens of a device that sits between the user and the actual experience, or being interrupted by constant notifications.
Thad Starner, a pioneer researcher in the field of wearable computing, writes the following in an online article for Wired, “one of the rallying cries for wearables is to make technology that is there when you need it, gone when you do not” . Wearable computers are intended to help people get on with their lives, without focusing on the technology, to play supporting roles in what the user is doing, as opposed to the computer use being the primary focus itself.
Technology came to us slowly, from computers on our desktops to laptops to smartphones. Bringing technology and computing closer to the body can actually allow technology to get further out of the way.
While these technologies lowered the barrier to communicating and accessing information, they created other barriers. We are now used to social interactions with a literal barrier of screens that get in the way of face-to-face communication. For example, the conflicted social etiquette of being in a meeting with one’s cellphone can be addressed by wearables. With laptops and smartphones, the desire is to monitor email and text-messages but, in reality, the device’s interface draws the user into the device.
One of the world’s most influential designers and well-known professor Don Norman writes, “it’s a great myth that people can multi-task without any loss in the quality of their work. Numerous psychology experiments show that when two relatively complex tasks are done at the same time, performance deteriorates measurably. Some experiments were done by me, back when I was a practicing cognitive scientist” . Also, David Strayer, whose research group at the University of Utah has studied these issues for decades, has shown that hands-free phones are just as distracting as handheld ones, and using one while driving is just as bad as driving while drunk .
Wearables are devices that encourage in-person, face-to-face communication, while still delivering the data people need, when they need it. It may seem like a paradox, but bringing technology and computing closer to the body can actually improve communication and attention, allowing technology to get further out of the way.
Wearable computers reduce the time between a user’s intentions to do a task and the first action to perform it. This reduction in time between intention and action is one of its main advantages. Wearable devices can also be very social devices in the interactions they enable and the contexts in which they are used. They are designed to take a secondary, supporting role in the user’s life as opposed to being the main focus of the user’s attention. “One of the key points here,” Starner says, “is that we are trying to make mobile systems that help the user pay more attention to the real world as opposed to retreating from it” .
Think of it this way, if a smartphone user gets a text message or has an incoming call when walking down a busy street, there are something like two or three things he has to do before he can deal with that situation. Most of them involve the user completely taking his attention off of his current task: walking down the street. With wearables like Google Glass or Pebble Smartwatch, that information just appears to the user, ready for him to take action on. And taking that action is little more than touching the side of Google Glass or Pebble Smartwatch.
The same is true for navigation. Joshua Topolsky from The Verge wore Google Glass for a day and wrote,
“When I get out of trains in New York I am constantly jumping right into Google Maps to figure out where I’m headed. Even after more than a decade in the city, I seem to never be able to figure out which way to turn when I exit a subway station. You still have to grapple with asking for directions with Glass, but removing the barrier of being completely distracted by the device in your hand is significant, and actually receiving directions as you walk and even more significant. In the city, Glass make you feel more powerful, better equipped, and definitely less diverted” .
The goal of technology should be to assist with the flow of human interaction, not misdirect the user’s attention to itself unnecessarily. Wearables empower the user to do a task and their ability to perform that task while aware of the world around them.
Issues and Concerns
The introduction of new body-worn technologies is transforming the way people interact with their environment and one another. Social and environmental psychology studies of human-technology interaction pose as many questions as answers. Users of wearable technology as they go: “learning by doing” through interaction and “learning by being.” Steve Mann calls this practice existential learning .
Wearables can collect data about physiological characteristics, record real-time location coordinates, and use embedded cameras. Such data, knowingly or unknowingly collected, and bandwidth permitting, may be wirelessly sent to a private or public cloud and stored, often for public view an under a creative commons license. Embedded sensor on wearers can actively gather information about the world and capture details of personal nature.
A third party might own the data gathered by these devices or the device itself. Google Glass Terms of Service state: “… you may not resell, loan, transfer, or give your device to any other person. If you resell, loan, transfer, or give your device, and neither you nor the unauthorized person using the device will be entitled to any refund, product support, or product warranty” . Personal information stored on the Internet for ease of access from anywhere at any time raises the possibility of unauthorized access.
Wearable devices can look outward, reconstructing the world with location coordinates, current speed traveled and direction, high-resolution photographs, and audio capture. Wearers gather data about themselves but also heterogeneous data about others, including infrastructure and vehicles.
Consider the potential for government surveillance beyond the Call Detail Records that caused such controversy for the National Security Agency in 2013. Relentless data capturing is uncompromising. Wearers concerned only about whether the device is working as intended might not consider the consequences of unauthorized data collection.
Bystanders are likely to be as oblivious to data collection from wearable devices as they are from data collection of private investigators using covert devices. Yet, many people vehemently opposed being a subject of someone else’s recording. The more data we generate about ourselves and people around us, the greater the potential risk of harm to others and ourselves.
Widespread diffusion and data manipulation can require more than an ordinary consumer decision about use and acceptance. Trust adoption are key to conversations that will shape guidelines and regulations about what is and is not acceptable with respect to wearable computing.
New technologies can bring wonderful benefits, but also disputed, unintended, and some hidden consequences. Technologies should aid and sustain humankind, but we cannot limit technologies to just positive applications. Benefits should not be claimed without admitting the risks and costs. Wearables devices create moral and ethical challenges, especially if they are widely used. Unreflective adoption cannot be afforded.
Martin Heidegger, Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul, have argued that the worst outcome from technology gone wrong is dehumanization of the individual . A fundamental insight of such authors is that technology has not only to do with building, it is also a social process. Any social process resulting in unreflective adoption of technology is profoundly deficient. More is not always better, and the latest is not always the greatest.
Wearable technology is being used for different purposes with a variety of applications in the market today, they have the potential to change our lifestyle with different applications in fields such as healthcare, fitness, entertainment, and military. In the medical realm, wearable sensors are being used to detect vital signs , to perform gait analysis , for case studies in post-polio syndrome , and healthcare monitoring solutions . Wearables are considered one of the key research areas in computer science and healthcare application industries for improving quality of life. Wearables and implantable body sensors are one tool to provide quality care and service, as a prominent application in these areas is the integration of sensing and consumer electronics technologies that would allow people to be monitored during all their everyday activities.
In America, wearable technology has been able to take hold in America in the form of fitness tracking devices. According to Pew Research as in September of 2013, 21% of Americans already use self-tracking technologies to understand health patterns or improve cognitive performance . They have become an everyday sight, from small, pocket-based devices like FitBit to wrist monitors such as Nike FuelBand. Research from the Consumer Electronics Association shows wearable fitness device sales jumped from just $43 million in sales during 2009 all the way up to an estimated $845 million in 2013. This year, wearable fitness devices are expected to earn nearly $1.2 billion in sales.
In the intersection of wearables, gaming and entertainment, Oculus VR, recently bought by Facebook, is currently developing the Oculus Rift, an immersive virtual technology as an effort to revolutionize the way people experience interactive content. Since the company was started, much of the public focus on the Oculus Rift headset has been on its potential as a gaming device. But Nate Mitchell, Oculus’ VP of product, says the Rift has much broader applications in everything from immersive experiences to narrative storytelling . For military use, wearables are increasingly an advantage in the battlefield. “In the embedded and wearable space, we are seeing a huge demand for lightweight but powerful systems.
These are being applied to both the wearable computers and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) applications,”  says Jim Shaw, Vice President of Engineering at Crystal Group in Hiawatha, IA. Wearable computer designers are designing modular systems that are flexible enough to meet a variety of mission and human factor requirements. Wearable computers have great potential for military use, and there is currently great interest in what these highly portable devices can do. These devices can have military application in communications, position determination and map functions, report preparation and calculation, repair and maintenance, medical support, and the digitized battlefield .
The Wearable Computing Market
USA Today recently reported that wearable devices have experienced sales growth of over 1,886% in the last four years , and are expected to grow another 35% this year. These numbers are driven largely by fitness devices such as the Fitbit and Nike FuelBand. Lifelogging is also starting to drive demand for wearables like the Narrative and Autographer. Google Glass and the like are expected to do very well in the market. Smartwatch sales are expected to reach $9.2B by 2018 . The explosion of wearables is really just the next evolution of mobile growth. As of last January 2014, 58% of Americans owned smartphones .
With technologies such as Bluetooth allowing secure connections between devices, smartphones can act as the central remote control among a series of devices. ABI Research estimates the global market for wearables in health and fitness could reach 169.5 million devices by 2017 . Adding further momentum to the growth of the market is the entry of most of the major platforms into the space, including Google, Motorola, and Apple. The first several decades of wearable computing failed to produce any notable success stories on the consumer front, but advances in materials sciences, battery power, augmented reality and chip evolution have made the possibilities for wearables grow rapidly. Google’s unveiling of Project Glass has garnered a great deal of attention, but the market is much broader and includes, fashion, health and wellness technologies, and technologies for the aging and disabled. As the quantified-self trend gains traction the use of wearables will grow too.
In the end, either wearable technologies will be able to augment our experiences and focus our attention on a current task and the people with whom we are interacting, or they will distract us, diverting our attention through tasty morsels of information that are irrelevant to the current activity. When technologies are used to supplement our activities, and the additional information being provided is of direct relevance, our attention can become more highly focused and our understanding and retention enhanced. When the additional information is off target, no matter how enticing it is, that is the distracting and disruptive side. Wearable devices can be absolutely helpful. But they can also be horrid. It all depends upon whether we use them to focus and augment our activities or to distract. It is up to us, and up to those who create these new wearable wonders, to decide which it is to be.
The bigger picture is that it could take years to figure out exactly what the right place for wearables is. Google Glass might fail, but another product that refines some of its best features will then take its place. Fitness wearables might fade as thousands of fitness devices flood the market, but the longer-term opportunity might be wearables that track our general health rather than our activity levels. Wearables will cause a major change in what we can do, period. When you can actually take useful actions through devices attached to your body, it is a different way of thinking, and that is powerful. And so I believe, and this is what a lot of people currently believe in academia, that these on-body devices are really the next revolution in computing.
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