Top Trends: Wearable Technology

 Happy New Year! If you’re like millions of other Americans, you may have kicked off 2014 by dusting off your sneakers and heading to your local gym (only to find hundreds of other resolutioners in line ahead of you!).

Losing weight is consistently one of the top new year’s resolutions made by Americans. But how to go about this admittedly lofty task? Some approach this with exercise, some with diet…why not try out data science for a change?

One of the hottest trends in consumer data science currently is the idea of “wearable tech.” What does this mean? According to the research firm IHS, products must meet two key criteria to be considered “wearable technology”:

Test 1 – Wearable: being worn for an extended period of time, with the user experience significantly enhanced as a result.

Test 2 – Smart: having advanced circuitry, wireless connectivity and independent processing capability.

IHS further breaks the wearable technology market down into five applications and their related product categories:

ApplicationProduct Categories
Healthcare and Medical
Blood Pressure Monitors, Continuous Glucose Monitoring, Defibrillators, Drug Delivery Products, ECG Monitors, Hearing Aids, Insulin Pumps, Smart Glasses, Patches, PERS, Pulse Oximetry
Fitness and Wellness
Activity Monitors, Emotional Measurement, Fitness & Heart Rate Monitors, Foot Pods & Pedometers, Heads-up Displays, Sleep Sensors, Smart Glasses, Smart Clothing, Smart Watches, Other Audio Earbuds
Bluetooth Headsets, Heads-up Displays, Imaging Products, Smart Glasses, Smart Watches
Hand-worn Terminals, Heads-up Display, Smart Clothing

Chart from IHS whitepaper, “Wearable Technology – Market Assessment,” September 2013

For the fitness realm, popular activity trackers FitBitNike Fuel Band, and Jawbone are prime examples. Pedometers have been around for hundreds of years; in fact, the first all-mechanical pedometer may have been introduced by Thomas Jefferson himself, though he never sought a patent for the invention. Activity trackers like FitBit and Jawbone, however, take the traditional pedometer model and super-charge it with the addition of features like gyroscopes that can measure flights of stairs climbed and track how calm or restless your sleep is.

One of the most important attributes of modern activity trackers, however, is their ability to connect and transmit to mobile devices — i.e., passively collecting stats and passing them to your smartphone, tablet, or computer. This function opens up a whole new playing field for wearable tech, since the data transmitted to your devices can then be stored, organized, and analyzed. That’s where data science comes in.

In terms of constant data collection, you can’t get much more productive than a device that is strapped to a user’s body 24/7, tracking his or her every move. These gadgets are the hottest thing to hit the market in quite a while, and the deluge is just beginning, as evidenced by the players at last week’s Consumer Electronics Showcase (CES 2014) in Vegas, the annual predictor of what’s new and hot in tech.

This year, like tablets and smartphones in years past, wearable tech could be found everywhere at the tech show. CES 2014, in fact, saw the launch of new pieces like the Pebble Steel, Jaybird Reign, Razer Nabu, ThalmicLabs Myo, Bionym Nymi, Garmin Vivofit, and the Sony Smartband and Core, among others. Of course, wearable technology goes beyond just fitness; consider massively popular smartwatches, Google Glass, or even an augmented reality contact lens.

With so many devices, you might wonder how to distinguish or pick between them. Some companies are going head-to-head to provide the best technology for specific activities, like counting steps or tracking heart rates. Others, like ThalmicLabs’ Myo gesture control armband, have tried to make a name for themselves by honing in on niche markets or features. The Myo armband is a fascinating example of this, since it uses proprietary muscle and motion sensors to detect gestures and movements, allowing users to actively control Bluetooth devices from afar, rather than just tracking and recording movements like Fitbit or Jawbone.

No matter how spectacular the features are, however, there are a few key concerns you should keep in mind when determining which device is right for you:

  • Battery life: Does the device run on standard, easy-to-find batteries like a watch battery, or will you have to pay more for specialty ones? Will it run for a month, or need recharging every 10 hours? It’s a general rule of thumb that your battery will run down more quickly based on the number of features the device has, so weigh this factor carefully when reviewing feature-rich devices.
  • User interface/user experience: How do you navigate through your device? You’ll want to be able to access your desired information quickly, which can be tricky if the gadget is operated by single taps on a screen or button. If it’s a smartwatch with built-in call features, consider how quickly and easily you’ll be able to answer your phone.
  • Design: Is the design attractive, bold, practical, or elegant? Manufacturers have had a hard time designing interactive screens smaller than one or two square inches, which is still pretty large in comparison to the standard wristwatch. Is the device something you’ll want to wear with any outfit, any day, or will you need to buy additional accessories to make it work with your wardrobe? If you don’t like the design, consider investing in a smaller, more subtle device that can be tucked away in a pocket.
  • Durability: How will your device stand up to the elements? Unlike a desktop computer or television, wearable tech on your wrist, arm, or belt will likely have to contend with rain, heat, or the odd impact. (There’s interesting news on this front, as well: Corning has just announced the launch of 3D-shaped Gorilla Glass specifically for wearable devices.)

The global wearables market was worth nearly $10 billion at the end of 2013 and could be worth $30 billion by 2018. While this includes health care items like hearing aids and heart-rate monitors, it’s a good indication of the skyrocketing popularity of these other smart, portable devices. “We’re entering a new era of computing,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in reference to wearable technology, “[where] wearables need to solve problems.” With the advent of sleeker activity trackers like Pebble Steel and the motion sensing capabilities of Myo, it seems that these devices are well on the way to doing just that.

Wearable Gadgets Could Take Center Stage at CES Technology Event
How Custom Silicon Could Jump-Start the Wearables Revolution
IHS Electronics & Media: Wearable Technology – Market Assessment (.pdf)