When you read the word ‘wearables’, it conjures up images of wrists with Apple watches or Fitbits, especially for those of us who deal with certain health insurance companies. But wearables are much more than monitoring your heart rate, steps and sleep. The concept is leaping forward, and soon we will be able to connect to our bodies in the same way as we connect to our homes and cities.
Wearables are used in ways we could barely think of a few years ago, and they are evolving rapidly to create a deeply connected ecosystem that will define our lives in the future.
History of wearable technology
Most people place the start of wearable technology at about 1286 with eyeglasses. It was only in the 16th century that the earliest portable and wearable clocks, Nuremberg eggs, were invented. They were designed to be worn around the neck, and became a popular status symbol in Europe. Another early example of wearable technology came in the form of an abacus ring, during the 17th century in China. For those of us combating the hot summer months, we can take inspiration from the Victorians who created an air-conditioned top hat.
The first wearable computer was created by mathematics professor Edward Thorp in the 1960s. In his book Beat the Dealer, Thorp revealed that he built a computer small enough to fit into a shoe in order to cheat at roulette. A timing device helped predict where the ball would land on a roulette table, giving the user a 44% edge in the game.
The first calculator wristwatch was released to the public in 1975, and the Sony Walkman arrived four years later. And now we have solar-powered jackets, and cyborg artists who dance to the beat of a sensor that emits a low frequency buzz whenever an earthquake occurs, and can see colours through audible vibrations (cyborgarts.com)
Different types of wearables
Wearables can be defined by the intention of the action. Outside of the watches we know, unpacked below are current uses of wearables.
INRANGE (inrangegolf.com) is a tracking tool for improving your golf game, technologically upping the golf driving ranges so that golfers can track their shots and improve their on-course play. Inrange is exciting because it democratises the tech that the leading golfers use. At the moment it is only at two ranges, but it is expanding.
FASHIONTECH is leading the way with the future of wearables. Adding sensors to fabrics like Smart Fabric Inks (fabinks.com) and e-textiles Network (e-textiles-network.com) is linking to the monitoring of the body in a more integrated way than watches could.
ANNOUK WIPPRECHT’S SPIDER DRESS (anoukwipprecht.nl) merges technology and safety into a beautiful and elegant solution to strengthen and protect the wearer. But the Spider Dress is perhaps not as easily carried off by all of us as are other exoskeletons such as SuitX (suitx.com), which is giving movement back to mobility-challenged people (youtube.com/watch?v=7GR_lWgwrgs) and support to factory workers.
ASENSEI (asensei.com/pages/vision) monitors your actions through sensors in your clothing, and feeds back into your earpiece how you should adapt to optimise your training session. The concept is to give you the best coaching by monitoring your form and correcting immediately. It is also used by coaches to monitor you, and notify them when you require assistance.
With a globally ageing population, health tech is a focus for many companies that are creating life-saving technology like the diabetes monitor DEXCOM (dexcom.com/en-GB), which places a small sensor under the skin. The bonus is not only life saving, but life changing, as children and adults with diabetes can exercise, partake in playgroups and sleep easily knowing that they are constantly monitored.
Women’s healthcare is vastly under-researched (an interesting read is Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Pérez) but the wearable market is realising how much can be solved, and what a lucrative field it is. A shift in this can be found in companies like Grace (gracecooling.com) – a bracelet that detects and cools hot flushes ensuring that discomfort is minimised during the day, and the incredible peaks in body heat that hinder sleep are curtailed.
As an example of how small wearables are becoming, take a look at DIGISEC (digiseq.co.uk), which has created wearable ‘bank cards’ that are small enough to be fitted into a ring, and with which you can make everyday purchases.
Welcome to the future
When we take all these elements – exoskeletons, minuscule health devices and nanotechnology – along with IoE (Internet of Everything), what we will have is a deeply connected and integrated universe that centres on our individual body within a material world, and is supported by a vast intelligence underpinned and evolving to you with AI.
Author: Chantal Lailvaux is a co-founder of AIHO and Kin, as well as ambassador for the CityAI South Africa, and co-director for Pint of Science South Africa. Lailvaux’s passion is to bring simplicity to the delivery of STEAM-based complexity through research, projects and public discourse.