Today, Fitbits, Vivofits, Misfits, Jawbones and Jaybirds seem to be coiled around the wrists of everyone from the guy standing next to you on the train to your great-aunt Sally. But with the recent explosion of wearable technology, has anyone stopped to ask whether we really need these gadgets?
What Exactly is Wearable Technology?
To start, let's get back to basics. What exactly is wearable tech? Most of us would define it as a solution that accomplishes a specific task, usually involving a wearable wireless device that connects to another paired device via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G, etc. Some wearables perform unique functions while others simply extend the applicable range of functions on the main device (a Bluetooth smartphone headset, for example) or allow us to export gathered data to another device (for example, e-health solutions).
Few can avoid having to include Apple in a discussion about wearable technology and I'm no exception. However, unlike the iSheep that purchase anything the company dreams up, I would prefer to own a Casio calculator watch, circa 1985, than an Apple Watch. The battery lasted much longer than a day and it told me the time, day and year as needed. It even had an alarm and, let's face it, it was smaller too. These days I don't even wear a watch and — yes, you guessed it — I have an Android smartphone. In an age where miniaturization in electronics enables innovation, why are our commonly used devices, such as cellphones, watches, headsets, glasses and rings, getting ever larger as they get smarter? Is big finally beautiful? And does the fashion industry agree?
Fashion or Function?
As tech geeks, we don't care about fashion too much, but how many of us would brave the outdoors sporting a VR headset, especially when they look like dated diving masks for those that require different prescriptions for each eye? We get enough grief for our "Winter is coming, bastard!" tees and Yoda-style commentary on the latest reality show craze. ("Terrible it is, young apprentice.")
Our primary concerns with any purchase are performance and ease of use. My stumpy fingers cannot use a touchscreen keyboard on a smartphone easily, so I have a Bluetooth mini-keyboard. I could have gone with a stylus but the keyboard is useful and solves my personal grievance with my phone. The wearable technology we choose to use should fit our lifestyles and should solve the problems we bought it to solve.
But wearable tech is far from all-inclusive, and, based on pricing and its apparent target demographic, it seems to self-select its users. Sometimes it seems as though wearable tech devotees are all too willing to hop on the latest wearable bandwagon, even if it's neither fashionable nor particularly functional.
"I do believe that societal pressures are huge. There is an aspect of wanting to stand out with the coolest gadget, but not be totally obtrusive. I think that if a wearable is effective, even if it's 'bulky,' then that should be all the reason you need to obtain it," argues Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications at Accessibility Partners LLC, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based accessibility and information technology consulting firm that promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in all facets of society.
Solving Problems, Both Large and Non-Existent
In the wearable technology market, most advances have been in the realms of e-health, sport and general fitness.
"I use wearables to track my health, both physical and mental. Like many out there, I have a Fitbit to help me track my mileage on my longer runs as I train for a marathon. However, I also use the heart rate tracker, not just to achieve my cardio goals, but also to track my stress levels," says Rosenblatt.
Beyond providing many of us with personal health and fitness benefits, Rosenblatt adds that "wearables have been a tremendous boon for those who have disabilities." She cites Soundhawk (a listening device for those with poor hearing), OMsignal (a biofeedback app for those with mental health challenges) and eSight (a headset wearable for those with poor vision) as specific examples of the beneficial applications of wearable technology.
"I would of course tell all manufacturers to factor in the needs and feedback of users with disabilities when designing wearable tech. They should also include them in the research and development phase," says Rosenblatt.
Now compare the benefits of a solution that helps those with poor vision to, say, a smart ring that vibrates if your phone is on silent in your pocket or bag. Smart rings operate on Bluetooth so, at worst, your smartphone is no more than 80 feet away. If you can't bear the thought of missing another robocall on your mobile then, by all means, go ahead and buy one right now. Or, alternatively, maybe just leave the ringer on?
The Bottom Line
Wearable technology definitely has the potential to offer its users significant benefits. Obviously, e-health and fitness enthusiasts and professional sports players can take advantage of the latest system-on-chip (SoC) technologies to gather improved data. But my point is this: When many of these sensors are already included in smartphones, do we really need additional hardware to gather data?
Battery life, especially if Wi-Fi or GPS is involved, is always an issue. So why are we continually adding wearables to the growing list of devices that need frequent recharging? Perhaps, instead of designing more wearables that replicate the functionality of our existing devices, we should focus on grafting our smartphones to our heads, or bioengineering a third hand that can function as a dedicated smartphone holster. The possibilities are endless.
However, if your wearable device will improve your quality of life in a way that cannot otherwise be achieved, you'd be silly not to make the purchase. I'm currently considering a labor-saving device that will take the tedium out of cold-calling prospective clients — something along the lines of a "smart" smartphone.