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The future of wearable technologies is arriving, experts say

Rochester Business Journal
April 25, 2014

They are taking over our feet, wrists, heads and clothes.

No matter what the form—smart glasses, smart watches, jewelry or clothes—wearable technologies are primed to create a future in which computers saturate every aspect of life.

Wearable technologies are clothing or accessories that incorporate computer or advanced electronic technology. They range from a chip in a sneaker to smart glasses that allow emails, phone calls or texts to be read and answered hands-free.

On April 15, Google Glass eyewear—priced at $1,500 apiece—sold out during a one-day sale to the public as part of an expansion of Google Inc.’s Explorer program, in which the company allows a small group of users to purchase the technology before it becomes widely available.

Consumers are “ferociously interested,” says Timothy Moore, wearable technologist at Rochester Optical Manufacturing Co. “I think the fact that it sold out and it sold out so fast (is) telling us that the opportunity is huge.

“Google, their whole goal—and what we agree, too—is that a phone has got to evolve from a heads-down to a heads-up experience,” he adds. Whether the user is at the beach, eating pizza or doing something else, use can be hands-free.

The power of an industry leader to dictate consumer focus can drive acceptance of innovative technologies, experts say.

“We have to give a lot of credit to Google,” says Moore, noting that the company was not the first to develop some of the underlying technology but now is “putting billions behind this and doing it.”

“It’s like the iPhone,” he adds. “Until the iPhone hit, no one had the guts to make a smartphone. So Apple did it and kicked the door open.”

Aligning market readiness and industry innovation in wearable tech means getting consumers to migrate from the hands, to the wrist, to the head—one step at a time.

“We try to baby-step with this thing called a smart watch,” Moore says. “And so now everyone is just goo-goo and gah-gah over a smart watch, and people are like, ‘Oh, I can’t get this fast enough.’ People in the industry (know) it’s not going to tip immediately, (but) we’re seeing that most consumers, especially young folks, can handle a smart watch right now.”

Vuzix Corp. has been working on wearable display technologies since its launch in 1997. The company’s M100 smart glasses were unveiled early last year.

“I have always believed that sooner or later the whole idea of having a wearable display will have the ability to absolutely change the way mankind interacts with information,” CEO Paul Travers says. “That has been the thrust for Vuzix since we started.”

Consumer cycles have sped up in the past few decades as people of all ages view technological innovations and updates as normal and necessary.

“We’re seeing that the digestion habits of consumers young and old (change); they want (technology) fast, and they’re willing to migrate to something new within six months,” Moore says. “(The) whole consumer cycle is getting shorter and shorter, (to) where it’s almost seasonal: ‘For spring I’m going to have an iPhone 5, and for fall I’m going to have the iPhone 6.’”

Varied uses
Wearable technologies are diverse in purpose and application.

At the University of Rochester’s Center for Future Health, a team has been working on a non-contact electrocardiogram device that can measure EKG signals through clothing.

“When they send someone home from the hospital wearing a Holter monitor to measure the 24 hours of their heart performance, they’re looking for rare events where there may be missed heartbeats or irregularities in the rhythm of the heart,” says Mark Bocko, technical director of the Center for Future Health and director of the Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences at UR. “This lets you monitor over a long period of time with really minimal disruption to the subject.”

He adds: “The idea really was to detect changes early and stave off serious events. We don’t want to make everyone paranoid, to think of their heart all day long, but (it could help) something like a condition called long QT syndrome (in which) there are anomalies in the details of the EKG waveform that are associated with sudden cardiac death.”

At Rochester Institute of Technology, students and researchers alike are working on wearable tech in the area of computer human interface and design and lifestyle design.

“(A) product is only as good as the technology and the design, and (with) a lot of the wearable computers that are out there, it may seem like they’re all created equal in a way, but they’re not,” says Lorraine Justice, dean of RIT’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences. “The health wearable technologies now, they can range from being very cumbersome to something you wear strapped on your head at night. What consumers should look for is how the data is collected.”

The future is about sensors and tracking, Justice says.

“We’re going to see a proliferation of products with clothing sensors, wearable sensors,” she says. “I actually think the younger generation will start to monitor their health for preventive (reasons) much more than the older generations.”

With some applications such as those from Affectiva, a provider of emotion analytics, wearable technology helps individuals live a better life, experts say.

“Previously, people who have autism (carried) a huge device with them,” says Eshan Hoque, assistant professor of computer science at UR and a member of the Rochester Human Computer Interaction research group. “There’s a stereotype with it, but right now it’s cool to carry something like (a) wearable, where (you) can use this to serve your daily needs.”

Challenges
Companies developing vision products and other wearable technologies—from industry leaders like Google and Microsoft Corp. to small firms like Rochester Optical and Vuzix—face a number of challenges, including design, functionality and privacy concerns.

“All of them need two things: One is (the glasses are) ugly; they’ve got to look better, because otherwise they just look weird,” Moore says. “We’re trying to make them fashionable by making them look better with new colors (and) designs. The other (issue) is six out of 10 people need prescription glasses.”

In the consumer sphere, style is essential, Moore notes.

“You’re not going to pick it up at a Best Buy unless it looks sexy,” he says. “What we’re working on is stylish, and that’s the No. 1 thing: We’ve got to get rid of the cyborg look for the devices that we’re going to wear in public. A gaming headset … can look like a blender, but the ones we’re going to wear out on a date or to a show or at work (must) be almost invisible.”

Travers agrees.

“The thing that I think is the Achilles’ heel for Google Glass is the way it looks,” he says. “It’s easy to make a case for wearable displays that look odd in industry because you’ve got return on investment. People wear safety glasses, they wear helmets, they wear gear anyway; but the average person doesn’t want to be the only person coming off the starship Enterprise.”

Makers of digital vision devices also need to address the fact that 60 percent of Americans wear eyeglasses and would require prescription headsets. Rochester is an industry leader in patents for prescription digital vision.

Rochester Optical is supplying prescription frames and lenses for wearers of Vuzix’s M100 smart glasses. The patent-pending Smart Gold lenses developed by Rochester Optical will allow wearers to mount prescription fashion frames to the M100 smart glasses device.

Personalized data is a major draw in all wearable technologies, experts say.

“You think about any of those things from your feet to your wrist or your shirts or clothing,” Moore says. “For any of that to be usable data, that’s all quantified data about your life.”

Adds Hoque: “I wouldn’t wear it just because it’s cool. If I’m wearing a device that is giving me more information about my-self, my health, my vital signs, my normal behavior, I think that’s really powerful.”

With the arrival of Google Glass and other wearable technologies have come privacy concerns. These should be viewed in a broader context, Hoque says.

“We leave bread crumbs of data everywhere,” he notes. “When I download an app, I don’t have time to read the disclaimer (about) what data they’re collecting. It begs the question, who knows what data people are collecting as you’re using the apps or wearables?”

What lies ahead
Facebook Inc.’s recent purchase of Oculus Inc. signals a significant move toward even more advanced wearable tech, Moore says.

“Oculus, which did not even have a public product, is bought by Facebook for $2 billion,” he says. “They didn’t buy Oculus for the current product; what they want is the technology for virtual reality, augmented reality, and that technology is what people want and all these technology companies see as the future.”

New wearable technologies could create seamless experiences in minor transactions, experts say. A onetime event like purchasing coffee could be done before stepping out the door at home. Directions, ordering and payment could be completed using digital vision.

Even reading a menu will change with wearable displays as the text could be transformed into a different language for customers.

Wearable display technology will be the most important development, Travers says.

“The vision component of it is going to be the biggest piece,” he says. “You can’t really connect the world around you through the vision system in a watch. The hard part is to do that in something that people will want to wear, and it’s companies like Vuzix that (are) enabling that to happen.”

Google will bring digital vision for consumers to a universal level, Moore predicts.

“We can look at what Google is doing, and we’re expecting that at their developers conference (in June) they’ll announce that (Google Glass) will be available and when,” he says. “As soon as it comes available, you can look back at what happened with Apple and just predict, based on (how) people consume the iPad, that there’s going to be a similar digestion path with headsets. (It’s expected) that within the first 18 months of public release, Google will sell 19 to 21 million.”

As with the iPhone, the tipping point for consumers will come when the blend of design and technology makes sense, Travers predicts.

“(The iPhone) moved quickly when it was finally right,” he says. “The pace of innovation and change in the consumer electronics industry is relentless. I don’t think we’re quite there yet for wearable displays.”

In the medical field, wearable tech needs to be functional and practically seamless to attract users, Bocko says.

“Frankly, it’s a tough sell,” he says. “People just aren’t going to tolerate that stuff day in and day out. I think the big challenge … is making things smaller and smaller, and what that really amounts to is you have to make it lower power production because the batteries end up taking up most of the volume in the device.”

The ultimate goal, experts say, is invisibility.

“We believe that there is an invisible tech wave that is going to come next,” Moore says.

Adds Hoque: “There’s this saying: You know something is really big when it becomes invisible. For example, electricity: It was a big invention, but now it’s invisible; nobody sees it, but it’s everywhere. Computers are going to be everywhere. Everything that we interact with will be a computer.

“Why is it fun to interact with humans? Because they’re responsive, they’re emotionally intelligent,” he continues. “Once we can instill some of the intelligence into our own environment, it’s a bit more responsive, it understands me and makes my life easier.”

Travers, Moore and others say it is just a matter of time before wearable tech becomes integrated into our daily lives.

“The surprising thing is this stuff is right around the corner,” Travers says. “(In) the next two to five years, people are going to say, ‘I can’t believe how this has changed (things).’”

“We’re just beginning; this is going to change everything,” Moore predicts. “Most people are looking down at their phones where they’re not social, they’re oblivious to everyone around them, they’re not engaging, they’re almost mindlessly sucked into that device. A heads-up display hopefully will help us evolve back into humans.”

4/25/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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