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Wearable Devices and the Quantified Self

January 8, 2014


Troy Wolverton reports, “If Big Brother — or at least Little Cousin, aka your smartphone — isn’t watching yet, he soon will be. That seemed to be the underlying message … of the opening events of the Consumer Electronics Show. … On display at Unveiled were numerous products that will monitor things ranging from users’ heart rates to the sump pump in their house. Taken together, the vision of the technology industry was clear: everything you do and everything that happens in and around your home is going to be tracked.” [“CES’s Unsettling Message: Everything Will Be Tracked,” siliconbeat, 6 January 2014] Tim Bradshaw, who also attended the CES, reports that of all of the technologies on display at the show, wearable devices are the most prominent. [“Consumer Electronics Show: Wearables emerge as top trend,” Financial Times, 6 January 2014] Bradshaw writes:

“The T-shirt that tracks your heartbeat. The bra that tells you if you are eating too much. The badge-sized camera that takes photos from your lapel every few seconds, all day long. The headset that tracks how quickly you blink to see if you’re tired – then tries to wake you up. People who were already alarmed by the future heralded by Google Glass, with its face-borne camera and screen, could be in for a shock. A wild array of new wearable technology is the talk of this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, as both established companies such as Sony and Samsung, and a multitude of start-ups, propose ever more inventive and surprising ways to augment the human body with sensors and displays.”

Each new wearable device adds data to the so-called “quantified self.” As Wolverton notes, “Some of this monitoring — at least on an individual basis — is benign enough and many consumers might find it useful. Many fitness buffs like to keep track of how much they are exercising and the impact of their workouts.” The problem with most of the data collected by wearable devices is that it is siloed. There has been little effort to integrate the information in such a way that an individual or physician can use it to judge an individual’s overall health. As more devices are introduced, the integration problem will continue to grow. Eric Tung defines the Quantified Self movement (“also called lifelogging, body hacking, and self-tracking among others”) as the process of tracking “data around multiple aspects of life.” [“What the Quantified Self and Big Data Mean for Social Media,” ExactTarget Blog, 18 December 2013] He continues:

“[The Quantified Self movement] is a movement combining wearable technology and self-sensors to collect large amounts of data about ourselves. Sensors monitor heart rate, blood oxygen levels, air temperature, sleep patterns, motion in or out of rooms, and more. Combine this information with other trackable data, such as your Outlook calendar, Pandora playlist, Amazon purchases, Dropbox uses, remotely controlled light bulb colors, Bluetooth controlled thermostats, debit purchases, mood trackers, tweets, and other devices and data sources, and you might begin to understand the enormity of data that a single person can generate.”

If Wolverton and Bradshaw are correct, the amount of data a single person can generate is going become even larger. Wearable devices will become part of a network that is generally being dubbed the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Analysts predict that the IoT will overwhelm the traditional Internet with the amount of data it will carry. But, that’s a storyline for another post. In another article about the CES, Bradshaw reports that the chipmaker Intel is throwing its support behind wearable devices. [“Intel throws weight behind wearable tech and ‘internet of things’,” Financial Times, 7 January 2014] Bradshaw explained:

“While evangelising on the subject of wearable technology such as smart watches, and the ability to connect new kinds of household objects to the internet, [Brian] Krzanich, [Intel’s chief executive], admitted that so far most innovations were ‘not solving real problems’. Leading Intel’s bid to change that is its tiny PC-on-a-chip, Edison, intended to ape the success of the Raspberry Pi, which is popular with hardware developers and tinkerers – and a $1.3m competition for the best ideas in wearable technology. It showed off its own designs for a smart watch, which unlike most on the market does not require a tethered smartphone. The device also offers the ability to track its wearer, which Intel said could be useful for parents of young children.”

On the subject of smart watches, Ian Sherr reports that they were prominently featured at the CES. [“Smartwatches Pop Up All Over CES,” Wall Street Journal, 6 January 2014] He writes:

“The trickle of companies putting computing and communications power on people’s wrists has turned into a torrent, making it tough for small and newer suppliers to stand out in the crowd. … For those hoping to stand out, however, there is a problem: there is very little functional difference between the products. The latest smartwatches are essentially wearable companions to smartphones, which serve as their portal to the Internet. Most of them have a processor chip, a collection of sensors and a display that shows roughly the same kinds of information — text messages, notifications about emails, weather or other events. Smartwatches, for example, can allow users to sidestep the need to pull out a smartphone to watch for important messages — a practice sometimes considered rude in meetings. But users still have to carry their phones, and constantly looking at one’s watch isn’t a lot more polite, some industry executives say. Some analysts say these early smartwatches are too bulky or don’t offer long enough battery life to entice anyone other than early adopters to buy.”

Intel, Apple, and Samsung are not the only big companies getting involved in the wearable technology field. Daniel Thomas reports, “Sony is planning a range of products using ‘modular’ wearable technology with lifestyle tracking applications, as part of a push to make the Japanese group the third-largest smartphone maker in the world after Apple and Samsung. Sony’s wearable technology – which involves a thumb-sized sensor and a ‘Life Logging’ service – is one of a number of product innovations lined up for 2014. It differs from other wearable devices by providing the basic components that could be fitted into a wristband, or other items of clothing such as shoes, a necklace or a hair band.” [“Sony eyes range of ‘modular’ wearable gadgets,” Financial Times, 7 November 2014] Bradshaw reports:

“Fitness devices make up the vast majority of the wearable technology market at the moment, which Accenture estimates is worth somewhere between $1bn and $3bn today. As the sophistication, convenience and aesthetic appeal of new kinds of devices such as smart watches improve, [John Curran, a senior executive at Accenture’s communications, media and technology group,] forecasts the wearables market will rise to as much as $8bn by 2018.”

One of the bumps in the road for makers of wearable devices is the fact that some of the features now found in wearable devices will eventually be incorporated into smartphones. As a result, Sonny Vu, chief executive of Misfit Wearables, told Bradshaw, “Activity trackers are going to go the way of MP3 players and GPS units … as single-purpose gadgets are replaced by smartphones and their wearable accessories in the next two years.” Bradshaw concluded that manufacturers may be getting excited about wearable devices, but “consumers’ appetite for more sophisticated tracking devices is still somewhat unproven.” He noted, “A recent Forrester Research survey of more than 4,500 American consumers found that more than a quarter would wear sensors on their wrists or clipped on to clothing – above the 4 per cent it estimates are using fitness trackers today – but only a few said they were prepared to go much further. While 15 per cent would embed technology into their clothing, 4 per cent would wear smart contact lenses and 3 per cent would tattoo sensors on to their skin, but only if they thought they would see enough benefit from them.” In the end, it will be the consumer who decides whether wearable devices have future. Tung reminds us, “Five years ago, the future of social media looked like a 3D rendering of avatars running virtual stores, meeting for virtual drinks, and even holding virtual business meetings. Second Life was going to be big. … Just a few years later, we can see that isn’t the case.”


Is the future bright for wearable devices? Frankly, I’m not sure. I suspect that more and more capabilities are going to be crammed into smartphones; but, beyond that, what the wearable device field will look like in five years is anyone’s guess. If I had to prognosticate, I would predict that aging baby boomers will be a ripe market for wearable devices that link them to health providers and monitor either specific medical conditions or overall health. The big question will be whether health insurance companies will pay for such services.

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