A Tale of Two Wearables
By Steve Wallage, Wed Sep 18 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Two things characterize the wearable device market: Slow progress in the commercial deployment and exciting long-term visions of pervasive computing.

Wearable devices, from computers to phones, are exciting and innovative. The problem is that they have remained just that. From the highly successful 'wearables' fashion show hosted by Charmed Technology in London in May 2000, the consumer market has barely moved. Some early adopters have used wearables in the business market, but progress has been painfully slow, and most wearables still reside in universities and labs. The market is slowly maturing and there may yet be a killer app to drive wearables more into the mainstream. The real impact of wearables could still be a decade away.

Wearables vary enormously. The International Symposium on Wearable Computing in Zurich in October will feature an incredible variety of devices. One laboratory has even talked of implanting devices into the human head - at least it will reduce the churn rate!

Commercially, the three main areas are head, belt and finger devices. The main aim is to ensure complete hands-free operation and devices often use speech recognition or provide some visual access to data. Current commercial designs, particularly in the area of head-mounted displays, range from unwieldy to horrendous.

What Happened to Deployment?

On the consumer side, many leading clothing manufacturers have looked at the wearables market. The idea of stitching a device into a leading brand is not new. Yet, most agree it is still at least two years away from any sort of significant usage. Reasons have included the complexity of the engineering particularly the miniaturization, cost, volume production, heat dissipation and radiation concerns, poor design, limitations in voice recognition technology, battery life and user demand. Most of these issues are being overcome over time. Miniaturization and user demand will be helped by developments in other areas - for example, companies such as Sony are launching cameras that are the size of credit cards.

On the business side, many of the same challenges exist. Added to this, is the need for vendors to make clear business and return on investment models. Prices start at $3,000 for the most basic of hardware, with no software or connectivity. Researchers Venture Development Corporation (VDC) who have analyzed the wearables markets believe that the single biggest obstacle for business users is still design and how they would look with a wearable.

More specifically, there is the fact that users can't see or do anything with a head-mounted display. A further key barriers for many of the commercial solutions is whether it really needs to be wearable? Could a normal PDA with hands free usage not do the job equally well? Until costs come down dramatically, adoption will remain slow.

Working Applications

VDC believe the global wearables market will grow by more than 50% each year through 2006. They estimate shipments totaled more than $70 million in 2001 and are forecast to reach $563 million in 2006. This growth will be driven by commercial sales in areas such as the military, transportation and field engineering.

The market has tended to be driven by specialist providers, particularly Xybernaut, but companies such as Symbol and Vocollect will join them. Symbol is the global leader in ruggedized handhelds and barcode scanners, and has wearable clients such as FedEx and UPS.

Xybernaut, which has 150 employees, works with IBM Wireless, which manufactures, resells and provides software and consulting. Xybernaut own over 750 patents in this area. Early clients have tended to be where there is a clear payback. A UK local council has supplied head mounted devices to road maintenance engineers. Previously, they struggled with carrying the equipment or working in wet or bright conditions. Another recent win is on the production line at an aircraft engine manufacturer. Quality engineers can capture accurate information and process it in real time. Previously, it was taking up to a day to update records potentially wasting thousands of dollars.

Retailers have also been among the early adopters of wearables. Wearable specialists, ViA, recently announced a deal with McDonald's for a wearable device that will speed up the drive-through service.

The most interesting vertical in 2002 and 2003 may prove to be the military. Wearables can offer video surveillance, true hands-free, medical and identity records and access to current information.

All the vendors are keen to push the notion that connectivity is critical to wearables, and that they are not stand-alone items. Behind this, 802.11 has been key with much less interest in Bluetooth.

On the consumer side, devices are still on the drawing board or, at best, highly niche applications. Some of the watch companies have been among the innovators as they fear new technologies stealing their market. Companies with products include Citizen, Timex and Casio. Swatch is working with AOL to provide an Internet Swatch carrying AOL entertainment content. Fossil, a US vendor of watches, sells a Wrist PDA, a Palm-compatible device that displays contacts, a to-do list, appointments and other information from a handheld computer. It sells for $145 although it has very limited capabilities such as a maximum of 20 business cards.

Lots of wearable devices in clothes have been exhibited varying from Levi's jacket that always knows its location to backpacks that display the latest MTV promo and textiles that change function with the weather. Entertainment-led items appear to have the most potential, although this market is still at least three years away. Charmed Technology believes that wireless TV will prove to be the main driver.

The popular choice of killer app for the wearable market is currently healthcare. Researchers at the University of Alabama believe medical tests will be far more accurate of they are undertaken during the normal working day of a person. Finnish company Reima is among those looking to create a T-shirt that can monitor heart rates.

Long-term Vision

Many in the wearable industry are looking beyond the next two years of commercial development. They see one wearable device that can encompass all other computing and communications devices, as well as applications such as heart rate monitoring. With a mass market wearing such devices, and the proliferation of 802.11 hotspots, then the idea of pervasive computing becomes a reality.

Alex Lightman, CEO of Charmed Technology, believes that this will lead to the rise of sensory networks as users get access to an incredible amount of information that can be viewed at any time.

Wearable devices also potentially change the whole notion of the man and machine relationship. Some researchers have already coined the thought that the 'computer will wear you'. Leading wearable researcher, Steve Mann at the University of Toronto, believes we will see the rise of humanistic intelligence. He sees, "the computer as a second brain and its sensory modalities as additional senses." An early example is the Eyetap which is a miniature device allowing the eye to be used both as a camera and display. Longer-term, researchers even see the notion of the 'cyborg' where the human and computing elements are further entwined.

The short-term development in wearables may be slow, but the long-term trend could certainly be dramatic.

Steve Wallage works and writes for the451. Steve has more than 13 years of experience as a technology analyst specializing in telecommunications.