A World of Wearables
The ever-evolving category of wearables includes items that range from essential to whimsical.
by Jenny Donelan
“IT’s hard to miss the topic of wearable electronics lately,” wrote guest-editor Xiao-Yang Huang in our May/June 2014 issue. Six months later, it’s still true: wearables are everywhere. If you do not use a fitness tracker, such as Fitbit or Jawbone, you probably know someone who does. Apple’s smart watch, due out around the time that this issue is released, has been much in the news and is both widely derided and widely anticipated, even though it is hardly the first such device on the market. And even if Google glass has failed to win the public’s affection, everyone knows what it is. It has already spawned add-ons and imitators, as discussed in this article. In addition, there are some fairly to really “out there” wearable concepts, including a motorcycle helmet with GPS, camera, and Bluetooth connectivity; a device that clips onto a garment near your collarbone and vibrates to warn you when you are slouching; and a dress that telegraphs your inner emotions using blue LEDs.
The following roundup provides just a sampling of the wearables that are out there. They keep coming – and that’s a good thing for consumer electronics in general and the display industry in particular.
The most successful category of wearables to date – the fitness tracker – is the one with the least emphasis on displays. Some – Jawbone’s UP line, for example – do not even have displays, relying completely on syncing to your device of choice. It would be good news for the display industry if fitness trackers did incorporate more displays because fitness trackers will almost triple by 2018, compared to an estimated 19 million in use in 2014, according to a new report by Juniper Research. Juniper is projecting that fitness devices will remain the dominant wearables segment until 2018.1 One in ten U.S. consumers over the age of 18 now owns an activity tracker from Jawbone, Fitbit, Nike, Misfit Wearables, and others, according to another recent wearables report, from Endeavour Partners.2 Not all is rosy, however, the Endeavour report continues. The devices, while fascinating to their owners when new, often fail to sustain interest. According to Endeavour, more than half of U.S. consumers who have owned an activity tracker no longer use it. A third of U.S. consumers who have owned one stopped using the device within 6 months of receiving it.
Until recently, the three most popular fitness trackers were the Fitbit, the Jawbone, and the Nike Fuelband. The Fuelband, introduced in 2012, enjoyed initial success. but it is reported from numerous sources that even though the device is still for sale, Nike has dismantled its Fuelband development team.
According to a CNET report from last May, the Fitbit represented 50% of the world’s wearable market.3 The Fitbit uses a three-dimensional accelerometer to sense user movement and employs a simple OLED display to provide information such as the battery level. Most recently, these simple trackers have evolved in the direction of a smart watch, as in the not yet released Surge shown at far right in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1: Fitbit’s fitness tracker lineup includes, from left to right, the Zip; the One (with sleep tracking); the Flex, which uses LED lights to show you how close you are to your goals; the Charge, with caller-ID and sleep tracking; a WiFi smartscale that syncs with trackers; and the soon-to-be-released Charge HR with heart-rate tracking and Fitbit Surge Fitness Super Watch with GPS and numerous other features. Image courtesy Fitbit.
Jawbone’s UP and other tracking products are high style, including its recently released Move tracking device, shown in Fig. 2. The UP has no display whatsoever. The Move has a simple LED display that appears on the flower-type button when pressed.
Fig. 2: Jawbone’s new UP Move tracker is a high-style budget-priced ($50) entry-level tracker with a simple LED display that lights up in the center button when activated. Image courtesy Jawbone.
Google Glass and More
Google made, and continues to make, headlines with its head-mounted hands-free smartphone technology. As clever as it is, however, people just do not seem to want to wear it – or be seen wearing it. It is very uncommon these days, in any major U.S. city, to see people sporting the devices in public. This is not for want of trying on Google’s part. One of its latest efforts is the Made for Glass line co-created with fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg (Fig. 3). It seems more likely, as posited by analyst Paul Gray in this issue’s Display Marketplace on wearables, that the hands-free augmented-reality possibilities of the technology will find better use in industrial and health-related applications. For a novel look at how Google Glass can be used to help individuals with vision impairment, see the article, “Augmented Edge Enhancement on Google Glass for Vision-Impaired Users,” in the 2014 May/June issue.
A sign that the Google Glass concept may have life in it yet is that other manufacturers have seen fit to copy or make products that work with it. Rochester Optical is collaborating with Hong Kong eyewear designer Simon Chim to develop a range of frames called chimmm that are designed specifically for smart glasses, including Google Glass. And, as reported in this month’s regional business article on Japan, Toshiba just came out with a Google Glass type of technology that is lighter than Google Glass. “Toshiba Glass” won an innovation award at CEATEC Japan last year.
Fig. 3: The Made for Glass line, co-designed with Diane von Furstenberg, is as high-fashion as Google Glass is likely to get. Image courtesy Google.
There are a number of products in the smart-watch category – the Moto 360 from Motorola, LG’s G Watch R, Samsung’s Gear 2 Neo, and more. While the soon-to-be released Apple Watch (Fig. 4) is probably the most talked about, this category has been in existence for several years. In fact, it could be argued that sportwatches and heart-rate monitors were simply early smartwatches.
Fig. 4: The Apple Watch is both eagerly awaited and preemptively derided. Its looks are not especially fashion-forward, so the success of the device will depend on its operation and its apps. Image courtesy Apple.
Many experts cite the no-frills Pebble, with its basic streamlined looks and intelligent apps, as a successful realization of the concept. The Pebble Steel received the highest praise for a smart watch in CNET’s recent “Best Wearable Tech of 2014 Awards.”4 These watches feature a low-reflectivity LCD with a backlight that looks a lot like e-Paper (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5: The Pebble watch, launched through Kickstarter, is one of the more successful smartwatch designs, popular with the public and press alike. Image courtesy Pebble.
The smart watch or “smartband” category has attracted a number of fashion-minded folks. The Klatz watch, a prototype still in the fundraising stage (you can check it out on Indiegogo), has a simple LED screen, but doubles as a handset and without question makes a fashion statement (Fig. 6).
Another high-fashion entry is the i.amPULS smart band recently introduced by musician and entrepreneur will.i.am. According to the literature, the PULS wearable is untethered and has the ability to make/receive calls while operating independently of any smartphone – it does not require Bluetooth or close proximity to a smartphone.
Fig. 6: The company behind the Klatz watch, with an LED readout, is still in the fundraising stage. Image courtesy Klatz.
There is a huge variety of wearables that cannot be classified into the above groups, like the aforementioned anti-slouch monitor (the Lumo Lift) and the motorcycle helmet (the Skully). One subcategory seems to be wearable devices, especially clothing, that telegraph our moods, including whether we are attracted to another person. The advisability of this on a daily basis is debatable. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting concept and might work on the dance floor with a group of 20-somethings.
Synapse is a digitally designed and 3-D-printed interactive dress (really a bodice and headset) that runs on Intel’s Edison micro-controller and is printed in a flexible material called TPU 92A-1 by the Belgian company Materialise. The dress was designed by fashion designer Anouk Wipprecht, who has created
other pieces of electronic clothing (Fig. 7).5
There are thousands more wearables than were mentioned here, and more being developed every day. The vast majority of products will never make it to commercial distribution, but a great few will cross the line from becoming something we want to something we think we need. The smartphone has become that device for many of us. The next wearable superstar will have to incorporate great functionality, style, and portability that makes sense beyond the novel.
Fig. 7: This space-age-looking outfit monitors brain signals through a headpiece that, in turn, illuminates the leaf-shaped designs on the bodice in varying intensities of blue, depending on mood. Source: Intel-Edison based Synapse dress, photographed by Jason Perry.