Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone
Dec. 17, 2013
Google Glass was just the beginning. A new generation of wearable tech is coming—and it will transform the way you experience the world.
Data will not help you if you can’t see it when you need it. For Dan Eisenhardt—a competitive swimmer for more than a decade, beginning as a 9-year-old in his native Denmark—the data he needed in the water, what he could never know in the water, was his splits. His event was the 1,500-meter freestyle, the longest slog in the sport, a near-mile of grinding exertion divided into 15 laps of 100 meters apiece. As with every distance sport, pacing is all; lag your target time on the first two laps and you may never catch up, but accidentally beat it and you’ll load your tissue with lactic acid, doom your endgame. How fast was his last lap? How did it compare to his usual pace? His coach up on the pool deck could know, his parents in the stands could know. But Eisenhardt, at war in the water, could only guess.
The rigors of engineering school eventually forced Eisenhardt to stop racing. He worked for a while as a management consultant. But later, during business school, while he was spending an exchange semester at the University of British Columbia, the problem nagged at him again. For a project in an entrepreneurship class, he pitched a business plan: data-enabled goggles for swimmers like his former self. He teamed up with some other students, and they soon concluded they had the wrong sport. Swim goggles were too small to support a screen, plus the athletes were too few in number—and too unaccustomed to shelling out for expensive gear. Close at hand in wintry Canada, though, was a better idea. In January 2008, after a year or so of tinkering, four of the classmates founded Recon Instruments.
Their first product, Recon Snow, is a heads-up display for skiers and snowboarders. From the outside it looks just like any set of ski goggles. But tucked below the right eye is a little display, controllable by a simple remote—snow-proof with big, chunky buttons—that clips to a jacket. The main screen is a dashboard that shows speed, altitude, and vertical descent. There’s also a navigation view that uses the built-in GPS to plot position on a resort map, as well as an app screen that offers access to a camera. Through Bluetooth, the display integrates with a smartphone, letting skiers play music, answer calls, and see text messages or other notifications. Recon has sold 50,000 of the Snow so far, and the second generation, Snow2, came out in November. The company’s next product—Jet, designed for cyclists, with voice control and gaze detection for hands-free use—will ship in March.
Recon Heads-Up Display | From the outside, the only real sign that anything’s different about these Oakley goggles is a tiny red logo on the right. On the inside, though, the Recon Snow2 (starting at $399) sports an ingenious display that lets skiers and snowboarders stay connected on the slopes. With an armband-mounted remote control, users can toggle between a few simple screens showing speed and more. Friends using Recon devices at the same resort can keep track of one another on a map. Recon sold 50,000 pairs of its first-generation goggles, and the company’s second product—Jet, designed for cyclists, with voice control and gaze detection for totally
Technically, the Recon doesn’t do anything that the average smartphone couldn’t. The lavish array of sensors in today’s phones can chart speed and altitude; social networking apps can find friends and set up voice or video chats; any number of map apps can navigate users down a mountain. That is, a smartphone would do those things—if users could access it on a ski slope or cycling run. But they can’t, at least not without risking a crack in their screen or their head. What Recon sells is the ability to see all the crucial data, and only the crucial data, at times when it would otherwise remain locked away. It brings the power of the smartphone out of your pocket and into your field of vision, accessible any time you glance its way.
This is the promise of wearable technology, and it’s the reason—after more than 20 years of tinkering by cybernetics enthusiasts—we’re finally seeing an explosion of these devices on the market. It’s the reason Google has poured millions into an improbable set of eyeglasses, why Samsung has unveiled a companion watch for its smartphones, and why Apple is widely rumored to be exploring something similar. It’s the reason tiny companies banked thousands of preorders last year for smartwatches, gesture-controlled armbands, transmitting rings, notification bracelets, and more. A new device revolution is at hand: Just as mobile phones and tablets displaced the once-dominant PC, so wearable devices are poised to push smartphones aside.
In purely technological terms, the wearable revolution could take shape much faster than the mobile revolution that preceded it. Thanks to what former WIRED editor in chief Chris Anderson has called the “peace dividend of the smartphone wars,” sensors and chip sets are cheaper now than ever, making it easier for small companies to incorporate sophisticated hardware into wearable devices. And while smartphone manufacturers had to master the tricky art of providing dependable mobile Internet service, wearable manufacturers can piggyback on those innovations using simple Bluetooth or other protocols to communicate with a smartphone and thus with the outside world. With all that prebaked hardware and wireless connectivity—and huge preorders from crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter—it has become possible for tiny companies to dream up, build, and sell wearable devices in competition with big companies, a feat that was never possible with smartphones.
Recon Heads-Up Display | The display’s main screen shows speed and other key metrics. Another shows your progress on the trail, while a third shows notifications. Ian Allen
It may seem laughable to suggest that people will soon neglect their iPhones in favor of amped-up watches, eyeglasses, rings, and bracelets. But then again, 10 years ago it seemed laughable to think that people would use their smartphones to email, surf the web, play games, watch videos, keep calendars, and take notes—all once core tasks of desktop PCs. We can already see how wearable devices might peel off some of the phone’s key functions: One study of smartphone users indicates that on average we unlock our gadgets more than 100 times a day, with some of us pawing at screens far more often than that. Internet analyst Mary Meeker estimates that as many as two-thirds of those uses could be handled with a wearable device.
To get there, though, pure functionality won’t be enough. After all, people could surf the web on their BlackBerrys; smartphones didn’t really take off until the advent of the iPhone, a device that launched an aesthetic transformation in the tech industry, as design went from an afterthought to a corporate necessity, a core competency prized no less than the ability to make a faster chip or stable operating system. Wearable devices—technology that people will want to display on their bodies, for all to see—represent a new threshold in aesthetics. The tech companies that mastered design will now need to conquer the entirely different realm of fashion. And that could require technologists to unlearn a great deal of what they think they know.