On 17 October, 2012, Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc, predicted a paradigm shift in computing. She christened it ‘Smart Body, Smart World’ to describe how computing has evolved from mainframes to desktops to sensor-laden devices (SLDs) like ‘wearables’ and ‘electronic tatoos’.
SLDs, she said in a post on the research firm’s official blog, included ‘wearable’ devices worn in or on the body that include accessories like Google Glass or the Nike+ FuelBand, and electronics actually enmeshed in our skin and organs like the “electronic tattoos” developed by Nanshu Lu at the University of Texas at Austin, or the heads-up display contact lenses developed by researchers at Washington University.
On 3 June, 2013, Jayanth Kolla, partner and founder of research firm Convergence Catalyst, forecast in his blog post that it “seems only logical that after filling up our rooms (mainframes), desks (PCs) and now pockets (smartphones), computing devices will soon be on our bodies”. He pointed out that there are two key dependencies for wearable computing to go mainstream—technology and human behaviour. He predicted that all sensor-enabled devices will slowly but surely keep altering human behaviour and adoption patterns and that users will start identifying the limits of these devices and yearn for more, all-encompassing gadgets.
The key for wearable computing to go mainstream, he added, will be human comfort level and modification in habits and behaviour with sensors on them. “And, we believe, we are at least four to five years away from mass-market adoption of wearable computing devices,” said Kolla.
But the technology treadmill seems to be grinding away much faster.
On 18 March, Google Inc. announced the launch of Android Wear—a project that extends Android to wearables. “Android Wear shows you info and suggestions you need, right when you need them. The wide variety of Android applications means you’ll receive the latest posts and updates from your favourite social apps, chats from your preferred messaging apps, notifications from shopping, news and photography apps, and more,” said Sundar Pichai, senior vice-president, Android, Chrome and Apps, on the company’s official blog.
Android Wear lets you access and control other devices from your wrist. “Just say “Ok Google” to fire up a music playlist on your phone, or cast your favourite movie to your TV. There’s a lot of possibilities here so we’re eager to see what developers build,” said Pichai.
Kolla himself admits that “...with key Google services (Maps, Now, etc) integrated (with Android Wear), and most importantly with Google’s experience and might in expediting the ecosystem development, it (wearable computing going mainstream) could be much sooner!! We’ve seen Apple pull that off with Tablets...”
The prediction is not off the mark this time around.
For instance, closer home, Kochi-based robotics start-up RHL Vision has a wearable smart ring that can turn your palm into a gesture interface to control multiple devices.
Called Fin, it is fitted with a bunch of sensors that can detect finger taps, swipes and identify various parts of the palm by calculating their distance from the thumb. Fin can transmit these natural gestures as commands to any connected Bluetooth device, such as a smartphone, a music player, a gaming console, a digital interface inside a car, a television set or a home automation device.
RHL Vision, which is incubated at Startup Village in Kochi, has completed the Fin prototypes and testing.
On 17 January, the company said in a press statement that it is gearing up to take the device into production. By June, the RHL team hopes to complete product/software development and testing; and launch the developers’ version. By September this year, the full-feature Fin is expected to be shipped to the early backers.
Wearable technology, dubbed as the technological trend of 2014 and the future of consumer electronics by many, sees a huge market in India.
On 3 October, for instance, Google announced a partnership with The Archaeological Survey of India to create 360-degree online imagery of 100 of India’s most important heritage sites, including the Taj Mahal, Khajuraho, and the Ajanta and Ellora caves.
According to Accenture’s digital consumer tech survey 2014, consumers in India were ranked highest among the six countries (Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, the UK, and the US) in the percentages that plan to buy consumer electronics products during the next year in numerous categories. Indians were most interested in buying fitness monitors, smart watches and Internet-enabled eyeglasses.
Business models will also be impacted.
According to a 6 November report by research firm Gartner Inc, smartglasses, such as Google Glass, are causing CIOs (chief information officers) to take a fresh look at the impact wearable electronics will have on the enterprise. Gartner said that the use of smartglasses has the potential to improve worker efficiency in vertical markets such as manufacturing, field service, retail and healthcare.
“Smartglasses with augmented reality (AR) and head-mounted cameras can increase the efficiency of technicians, engineers and other workers in field service, maintenance, healthcare and manufacturing roles,” said Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner. “In the next three to five years, the industry that is likely to experience the greatest benefit from smartglasses is field service, potentially increasing profits by $1 billion annually. The greatest savings in field service will come from diagnosing and fixing problems more quickly and without needing to bring additional experts to remote sites.”
Smartglasses still remain an emerging technology in the enterprise and less than 1% of companies in the US have implemented smartglasses, although Gartner predicts that may increase to 10% during the next five years for companies with offsite workers, such as field service personnel and inspectors.
The adoption of smartglasses remains slow because the benefits they provide depend heavily on the apps and services targeted at smartglasses. However, during the next five years, the ecosystems are forecast to evolve to include more apps that do specific tasks with smartglasses, which may cause IT organizations to provide them for a wider range of employees.
Smartglasses are expected to have the most impact on heavy industry, such as manufacturing, and oil and gas, because the AR (augmented reality) glasses enable on-the-job training of workers in how to fix equipment and perform manufacturing tasks. The impact is likely to be medium for mixed industries, such as retail, consumer packaged goods and healthcare, where the benefits may mostly be looking for information via a visual search.
Insurance agents, for example, may use smartglasses to video property that has been damaged and then check on the replacement value of items they have identified using a visual search. Financial institutions and the media will use smartglasses to deliver alerts via subscription services for smartglasses to professionals who need up-to-the-minute information.
For the healthcare industry, smartglasses would facilitate telemedicine and expert consultations with doctors in a different locale. Smartglasses, according to Gartner analysts, could streamline the patient experience at the doctor’s office.
Top technology providers see wearable devices as an important market opportunity. However, Gartner expects that wearable devices will primarily remain a companion to mobile phones with less than 1% of consumers actually replacing their mobile phones with a combination of a wearable device and a tablet by 2017.
Meanwhile, privacy concerns may abound with wearables with consumer wearables becoming more sophisticated, capturing what the user sees, hears or even feels through biorhythmic responses.
By 2020, consumer data collected from wearable devices will drive 5% of sales from the Global 1000, according to Gartner.