Engineering Inside:

2016 Issue 4

Wearing Your Tech on Your Sleeve

November 2016

by Robin Hegg

close up of hands with heart icon on smart watchImagine a world where the clothes and jewelry you wear play a role far beyond keeping you warm or making you look good. Imagine that on top of this, your accessories let you know when you were receiving a phone call, tell it’s time to leave for an appointment, warn you that the area you were in might trigger an asthma attack. With wearable technology, all of this—and more—can be possible.

Wearables include clothing and accessories that incorporate electronic and computer technologies. Since they are worn on the body, wearables require the integration of design, fashion, and technology at a whole new level. In addition to connecting us to our smartphones in a more seamless and unobtrusive way, wearable tech combines technology with fashion in a whole new, sometimes whimsical, way. The Hug Shirt, designed by CuteCircuit, allows one wearer to feel what another wearer is feeling. The HB Ring, designed by TheTouch, allows you to see and feel the heartbeat of your partner who is wearing the connected ring. CuteCircuit also created costumes for singer Katy Perry that featured LED lights so the outfits could change color during her concerts.

Wearables are growing quickly in popularity, with sales picking up speed in 2013. Much of wearable technology is able to piggyback on existing smart phone technology, meaning new and smaller tech companies are able to create wearable tech, speeding innovation and growth. According to a 2014 report, one out of five American adults have a wearable device, and experts predict that by 2018 there will be more than 780 million wearable devices, worth more than $8.36 billion. Excitement for wearables really began with the creation of Google Glass.

Google Glass

Google Glass

While Glass and other optical head-mounted display technology never did take off (because of a high price point and, perhaps, a society that wasn’t quite ready to accept it), smart watches and activity trackers have become very popular.

All areas of our lives may soon be affected by wearables. They can streamline everyday data and impact healthcare, athletics, safety, education, and work.

Some wearables, like smart watches, serve as miniature versions of your smart phone. They alert you when you have a phone call, text message, or email, delivering you the data you need right where you are, saving you the time and disruption of checking your phone. Predictive technology, like Google Now, can also offer up data before you ask for it. It can tell you when you need to leave to get to an appointment, send you directions, and offer a list of places to eat when you get there. Other, more streamlined wearables, can deliver only specific smartphone notifications without even requiring a screen. The Embrace+ is a bracelet with LEDs inside it that flashes a different color depending on the type of notification. It might flash red for a call from your mom, or blue for a text message from your best friend.

Wearables have been widely embraced by athletes and people trying to increase their fitness. Fitness trackers like Fitbit and Nike+ devices have become hugely popular. These devices use sensors to provide users with feedback on their workouts and their corresponding apps allow them to track and share their progress. Nike+ also has shoes with sensors that can measure speed, jumps, and more. Under Armour created a shirt with a removable biometric sensor called the E39. It measured heart rate, speed, acceleration, power, and G-forces. The shirt was too expensive and never took off, but the company continues to work toward athletic wear that can track performance and provide feedback. In January of 2016, Under Armour announced a $400 kit with a scale, wearable activity tracker, and chest strap, all of which connect to their apps.

In addition to providing performance feedback, two head-up displays designed by Recon Instruments allow users to access their smart phones without having to stop their activity. Recon Snow is a heads-up display for skiers and snowboarders that shows speed, altitude and vertical descent. It can use its built-in GPS to show the user’s location on a resort map, and be used as a camera. Bluetooth also allows the user to answer phone calls, view text messages, and play music. A similar device called Recon Jet, designed for cyclists, uses voice control and gaze detection to allow hands-free use. With wearables providing this kind of complex performance data, coaches and athletes can improve training, evaluate fitness, and set goals.

Beyond fitness, wearable technology is already impacting healthcare and promises to change the way patients track their health and communicate with doctors and health insurance companies. Wearable devices and smart fabrics can track vital signs and even warn users of potential health risks, like increased stress or environmental allergens and pollutants. Wearables are already being used to help the hearing impaired through smart hearing aids and the visually impaired with smart shoes. Smart fabrics may even be able to analyze body fluids through non-invasive biochemical sensing. This technology can be incredibly helpful for those users with ongoing health problems and can also provide security for those whose health and safety requires monitoring. Ambient assisted living tools can allow those who might otherwise need to be living in a nursing home to live more independently while still having their health closely monitored.

Wearables can increase safety in other ways as well, particularly when it comes to children. Wearables have been invented to track missing children, with dormant technology that is activated in an emergency. Two-way communicating watches can also provide young children with a safer, more limited alternative to a smart phone. These watches allow parents to see where their children are and to know they can reach their children, but strangers can’t.

Google Expeditions

Google Expeditions

Wearable technology will change the way we learn and work. Programs like Google’s Expeditions can allow children to experience virtual field trips. And software has the potential to allow more personalized education, with programs adapting themselves to the learner’s pace and providing useful feedback. Industrial wearables are changing the way manufacturing works, managing and monitoring workflow, supply-chain logistics, maintenance, and employee safety.

The popularity of wearables has increased the need for materials engineering and e-textiles. The development of smart fabric—fabric that performs or responds in a new way—promises to bring wearable technology to a new level. By weaving self-charging sensors into garments, it’s possible to have clothing that can monitor vital signs or environmental factors. Fabric could also be developed that doesn’t need to be washed, respond to its environment by changing color, or kills bacteria. Making sure smart fabrics remain washable and don’t get too expensive presents a challenge, however. Engineers are looking to the printed electronics industry to see if they can use advancements in electronic ink technology to develop smart fabric. DuoSkin is a paint-on temporary tattoo developed by MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research. It includes circuitry that turns the tattoo into an on-skin interface. Made from gold leaf and using near-field communication, it works as a trackpad, a display, and can hold data. DuoSkin has the potential to respond to your body and could replace things like movie tickets and boarding passes.

Wearable technology presents engineers with a number of new challenges. Wearables require long battery life, need to be small in size, and costs must be kept down. But possibly the greatest challenge is the need to combine technology and fashion. For the first time, tech companies are competing with fashion companies in areas like jewelry, wristwatches, and glasses. Since wearables are displayed on a user’s body, they need something people want to be seen wearing. Beyond being pretty, they need to be fashionable. This means they need to be not only socially appealing, they need to appeal to a person’s desire to appear unique. Apple has already hired executives from Burberry, Levi Strauss, and Yves Saint Laurent.

The other major challenge when it comes to wearable tech is security. Wearables collect a large amount of personal data, which is often networked and even integrated with social networks. Wearable data could be used to pinpoint a user’s location, learn about their health, or even judge their credit worthiness. Because of the relatively small size and low price point of wearables, strong security measure can be hard to implement. And as with all Internet of Things devices, wearables will create an incredibly large amount of data that will need to be managed and secured.

Wearables are already providing us with data that has the potential to improve our health, our productivity, our education, and our performance. They’re moving our connected lives away from smartphones and into the real world, putting the information we need right where we need it. It’s integrating with fashion, adding function to our accessories and style to our technology. As wearable technology grows, it’s possible that these devices may soon move from being worn on our bodies to being embedded or implantable inside our bodies, integrating technology, the internet, and big data into our lives on a whole new level.

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