• Rahul Rao

Wearable technology - humans and machines become one

by Rahul Rao, Varun Rao and Yasir Aheer


Summary:

  • Technology continually evolves to become more user-friendly and convenient.

  • Record players were replaced by the more convenient Walkman, and that by the more convenient iPod.

  • The next step in the trend towards seamless integration of human and machine is wearable technology.

  • The wearable tech revolution has begun but where is it going?

1946 saw the assembly of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) finally completed. This momentous occasion ushered in a new era of computing power and speed. ENIAC was the first programmable electronic digital computer in the world.


ENIAC was, by today’s standards, a monstrous piece of machinery. The basement room it occupied was 15x9m - larger than a 4-car garage. The machine produced so much heat it needed its own air-conditioning system. It cost the US government $400,000 (or $5.2m in today’s money). The incredible speed of ENIAC made all this worthwhile - it ran at 5000 Hz.


The iPhone 11 was released in 2019 and fits in your pocket. It generates little to no heat and costs somewhere in the region of $1000. It connects to the internet, makes phone calls and takes pictures. Its processor runs at somewhere near 2.6 GHz - a staggering billion-fold increase on ENIAC - and it does computations that ENIAC could only dream of. Teenagers loiter around shopping malls and whip out their iPhones to catch up with the latest posts on social media.


Technology continually evolves to take advantage of more computing power to perform more complex tasks and to become more usable through miniaturisation of sensors and actuators. We have discussed the first of these trends - the increase in computing power - previously but the second is arguably more intriguing. Where does this road lead? To catch a glimpse of the vista around the next corner, it is useful to look at some bends in the road that we have previously navigated.


Music in your pocket

The 1970s were the time of disco, funk, rock and jazz, with artists like Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, James Brown, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin the soundtrack of the day. This soundtrack was largely listened to on vinyl records at home, even though the magnetic cassette tape had been invented approximately a decade earlier. In 1979, Sony released the Walkman and ushered in a new era of portable audio players that revolutionised the way the public consumed music. In all, somewhere near 400 million units were sold between 1979 and 2010, when production of the Walkman ended.


The first generation Sony Walkman (source: sony.com.au)


There was no real technical innovation with the Walkman - all the parts needed to build one had been available for years. The innovation was in the elimination or downsizing of parts to make the final unit small enough to fit in a pocket or a palm. Convenient!


Sony would eventually be the victims of disruption in the same industry when Apple launched the iPod in 2001. Although by now the Walkman had given way to the Discman, much to the chagrin of die-hard Walkman fans, a fundamental weakness remained - both devices could store a fairly limited amount of music. You could carry tapes or CDs with you, but that was inconvenient. The iPod changed all that, storing a whopping 1000 songs by taking advantage of MP3 compression. Walkmans and Discmans are now only for the nostalgic.


Like its ageing rivals, the iPod was not revolutionary technology. More technically complex cell phones had existed for years. MP3 compression was, by then, old news. The iPod’s appealing design, unique scroll-wheel and convenience took the world by storm.


The world in the palm of your hand

In the years after the introduction of the iPod, another revolution began - that of the smartphone. Mobile phones were getting smaller and more powerful but, until the smartphone, they essentially allowed the user to do just a few things - make and receive phone calls, manage contacts, calendars and lists, and play simple games. Although smartphones existed prior to 2007, the release of the iPhone in that year kickstarted the smartphone revolution.


Steve Jobs launches the iPhone in 2007 (source: ft.com)


The iPhone and future smartphones have integrated themselves into our lives in ways that we could not have imagined in 2007. You can talk to Siri like a real person and set alarms or look up the weather forecast. You likely have a banking app on your phone that you use to transfer money and pay bills. You buy things on eBay on your phone. You use your phone to play music and movies. Maybe you even control your home air-conditioner or lights with your phone. Your phone tells you when you’ve been sitting at your desk for too long, and how many steps you’ve taken in the day.


What will disrupt smartphones? What lies around the bend? A fundamental flaw with the smartphone, as with the Walkman and the Discman when they were usurped by the iPod, is that it is a physical device that has to be consciously carried. When you want to interact with a smartphone, you have to pull it out of a pocket or a handbag. It doesn’t feel like part of us, not like a shirt, or a watch, or a pair of glasses. There are very visible ways in which we are disconnected from our phones.



The era of wearable technology

Wearable technology is different. They take advantage of innovative materials and ultra-miniaturised sensors and actuators to seamlessly integrate themselves into our everyday activity. These are devices that require little to no extra effort to carry and interact with. Some of the earliest pieces of smart wearable tech were watches sold as accompaniments to smartphones. The Sony Smartwatch from 2012 is one such example. The uncoupling of these devices from smartphones is a logical next step.


The Google Glass is a standalone Android device that looks and feels just like a pair of glasses. Although it is generally considered to have failed when it was first released, there is an argument to be made that the world was not yet ready for it. The new Glass has been marketed to factory workers and is performing better than the original.


The Augmented Reality potential of glasses-like devices is massive. Sporting events, open house inspections and corporate meetings suddenly become more accessible. In the era of COVID-19, who wouldn’t want 90% of the social experience with 0% of the dangers? Important information about objects the user is looking at can be displayed in real-time. One of our recent articles describes the value of this in the retail industry. People engaged in physically demanding activities such as cycling need not use their hands to take in information or even avert their eyes from the task at hand.


Wearable technology also plays a key role in athletic training. Athletes use inertial sensors, GPS sensors and heart rate monitors to optimise training routines and perform on the biggest stages. With companies such as PlayerTek and Polar developing small, cheap and easy-to-use systems, these technologies are more accessible at the grassroots level. Coaches can track players' performance over the course of a season and determine an optimum training regimen for each player to maximise their performance. In 2019, scientists at Dartmouth College developed a smart fabric for athletes, touted as capable of optimising performance and reducing injury. In-shoe sensors help runners improve their technique by relaying feedback to them while they run.


A soccer player using a GPS-enabled sports vest (source: wearable.com)


As with glass-like devices, the potential for fabric-type technology is immense. With sensors woven throughout the fabric, it is conceivable that a smart t-shirt could tell many things about you. Are you intoxicated? Are you happy or sad? Are you nervous, tired or excited? Are you depressed and do you need an appointment with a doctor? Do you have a fever? These measurements can all be made without conscious action.


When combined with materials like shape-memory alloys, smart fabrics could do more than measure you - they could force you into certain actions. Are you about to burn your finger on a hot grill or touch wet paint? Your glasses warn your shirt, the smart fabric activates, and your elbow is pulled back towards safety. Does the impact of a tackle on a soccer player threaten to jar their knee? Smart fabrics could apply force in the opposite direction to reduce the damage done. With the impending silver tsunami, smart fabrics could be instrumental in relieving the load on healthcare systems.


There are of course concerns any time we cede control to a machine - how does the machine decide what to do? Are there bugs in the software running the machine? Can the machine be hacked? How do we ensure privacy of data? These are things that become ever more important as smart devices become more integrated into our lives and they are not concerns that will go away any time soon. As a society, we are going to have to have a long, hard think about how we govern the creation of these devices before we allow them to be used.


The wearable technology revolution is just getting started and there’s a long road ahead, but it promises to be exciting.


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Disclaimer: This article is based on our personal opinion and does not reflect or represent any organisation that we might be associated with.