Desirable accessory, technology solution or fad?

Wearable technology, wearable devices and fashionable technology are clothing and accessories that incorporate computer and electronic technologies. Smart clothes can be both practical and aesthetic, making technology a part of daily life. By embedding garments with electronics and sensors, they can exchange data with people and other connected devices, without human intervention. Wearable devices are, therefore, a good example of the Internet of Things, since they are part of the network of physical objects or “things”.

According to GlobalWebIndex, 71% of 16 to 24 year olds want wearable tech, such as a smart watch, or wristband with 64% of global internet users having already worn a piece of wearable tech already. However, Gartner predicts that the smart garments will soon surpass smartwatches and fitness bands to become the biggest wearables sector by 2016, and are forecast to grow to 26 million units in 2016, up from 0.01 million in 2013.

Some 21m wearable devices were sold in 2014; wrist-worn wearables, including watches, were the majority. The launch, and success of the Apple Watch, suggests that demand for wearable technology is set to accelerate. Samsung, Motorola, Microsoft and Huawei are all developing smartwatches, as are smaller companies like Pebble.

As wearables, such as Apple Watches and Fitbits, become increasingly popular, an increasing number of start-ups are driving innovation by incorporating clothes and accessories with smart technology. However, not all consumers are convinced by the value of smart technology. For instance, a 2015 survey on wearables conducted by UK pollsters, Vanson Bourne, reported that almost half of those asked believed wearable tech was “just a fad”. Nonetheless, as with any product, when wearables solve a need, they become commercially viable in the longer term. Predictions for the future suggest that technology, like phones or cameras, will become increasingly integrated in intelligent garments, offering a range of applications ranging from financial to social, health and medical.

Wearables are rapidly changing forms. Some are disposable, some are fashion items and others seek to solve human problems. New technologies are getting smaller and smaller. Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. The ever reducing size of technology will allow micro-chips, or nano-chips to be implanted in the body, offering a range of social benefits.

Wearables

Image: Pixabay

Wearable technologies offer potential functional improvements for the disabled. For example, engineers at Texas A&M University are developing a wearable device that can sense movement and muscle activity in a person’s arms. Sensors interpret the wearer’s gestures in sign language and translate them into speech, providing a high-tech solution to communication problems between deaf people and those who don’t understand sign language.

In 2012, British cyberneticist Professor Kevin Warwick had an RFID chip implanted into his arm to ‘become a cyborg’. The chip enabled him to control doors, lights, heaters, and other computer-controlled devices based on his proximity to them. Similar chips offer the opportunity for those with disabilities be more independent within their own homes.

Micro-chips implanted in people will perform everyday tasks, such as withdrawing cash from bank machines and can be used to store medical data. Clinical trials could become cheaper and more accurate if drug manufacturers give wearable monitors to the patients taking part. Hospitals and doctors’ surgeries could use such monitors to reduce the need for home visits. Insurance firms could enter a new age in which they reduce risk as well as provide cover for it. One American health insurer is using social marketing techniques, handing out health-monitoring bands to customers and promising lower premiums for those who exercise. Wearables are also adding contactless payments to their functions. MasterCard has revealed its new NFC wallet technology at a conference in Las Vegas, which is designed to be embedded into everything from connected clothing to smart jewellery.

Such innovations may be also be viable as consumer products and offer commercial opportunities for both profit-based, and non-profit organizations. The Sydney-based Tzukuri, for example, notify users when they’ve left their sunglasses behind and Intelligent Textiles, have created ‘intelligent’ uniforms with electronic circuits into the fabric, meaning soldiers only need to carry one single power source instead of multiple batteries. Wearable drones may soon take on the roles currently performed by smartphones, tech futurist and designer. The future may hold wearable drones that interact with users, other people and objects in public space; as the skies fill with drones, they may even get their own superhighways and charging stations to go long distances.

Wearable devices can help athletes, and those taking part in sport of all types, to track their performance. Sportswear companies are already competing to develop jerseys, shoes, and bras loaded with sensors and wireless circuitry. Game Traka, for example, tracks a wearer’s distance, speed, heart rate and other data, and then gives them an intensity rating out of 100.

Some analysts think wearables’ killer feature may eventually be that they will provide their users with a “persistent” digital identity, melding the functions of a driving licence, credit card, house key, car key and computer in one small gadget worn on the wrist or neck. Other firms are taking tentative steps in a similar direction. Carmakers such as Hyundai are creating apps to let people unlock and start their cars remotely with their watches and phones. The next stage in wearables’ development may be led by business users. In factories and warehouses, smart glasses could make it more efficient to locate and handle stock and to monitor workers’ productivity.

As with all technology advances, there are also many potential commercial and personal dangers, such as reduced privacy and susceptibility to crime. The Internet of Things and connected devices, including wearables, offer new avenues of attack for cyber-criminals. The Pew Research Center’s State of Cybercrime Survey (2014) reports that the U.S. Director of National Intelligence ranks cybercrime as the top national security threat, above terrorism, espionage, and WMDs. While stealing data is one common form, extortion, data destruction, release of confidential information, demonstrated denials of service (DDoS), disrupting state infrastructure, and holding information ransom have all become tools in the arsenal of global cybercriminals. Wearables will simply add to the list of vulnerable technologies and user risks.

IB style questions

1. Define the following terms:

  • Social marketing
  • Productivity
  • Innovation

2. Explain the importance of developing goods and services that address customers’ unmet needs.

3. Examine the problems of financing research and development in high technology industries.

4. Discuss how innovation, cultural differences and ethical considerations may influence the marketing practices and organizational strategies of firms producing wearable technologies.

TOK links

  • To what extent do intuition, imagination and reason factor into the decision to set up a new business?
  • Most businesses desire to expand. What motivates the growth of a business offering a social benefit?
  • What types of knowledge, skills and attitudes might future business leaders and employees need?

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