Wearables: The Next Big Thing as Smartphones Mature

By Lori Cameron
Published 02/22/2018
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Industry insiders already know it: smartphones are the familiar tech, wearables are the new.

Wearable tech is surpassing smartphones as today’s fastest-growing technological innovation, making it the next big thing for consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs alike. Experts predict a major market shift in coming years as on-body tech becomes more versatile, prevalent, and energy-efficient.

Major tech expos like Consumer Electronics Show and the IDTechEx Show have shown an upsurge in industry exhibits showcasing the latest in techwear. “We believe wearable computing is entering its most exciting phase yet, as it transitions from demonstrations to the creation of sustained markets and industries, which in turn should drive future research and innovation,” say Oliver Amft of the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany and Kristof Van Laerhoven of the University of Siegen, Germany, authors of “What Will We Wear After Smartphones?” in the October—December 2017 issue of IEEE Pervasive Computing. (Login may be required for full text.)

categories of wearables
Categories of wearables today and examples illustrating the diversity of systems and applications.

Smart watches, belts, ear buds, sewn-in accessories, implantables, body patches, eyeglasses, and even tattoos will replace the ever-present smartphone as mobile tech becomes less imposing and more integrated with everyday life.

“Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the market’s evolution from bulky carry-on electronics to smartphones and now computing-integrated everyday accessories, clothes, and body patches,” write Amft and Van Laerhoven.

Tech upstarts and industry giants alike are getting in on the action.

Bragi sells wireless earbuds for music playing, communication, and sports activity recognition. Apple Smartwatches provide sensing, information display, and interaction capabilities from the wrist. Myant is developing garments with integrated electrodes and sensors for heartbeat and muscle activity monitoring. Google’s Project Jaquart is developing yarns for touch and gesture interfaces. And, MC10 is prototyping skin patches for physiological monitoring such as hydration and temperature.

How wearable computing might be influenced by and influence future research.
How wearable computing might be influenced by and influence future research.

While the fields of textiles, body patches, and tattoos are in their infancy, the proven success of fitness trackers and health monitors has set the bar for what experts believe will be a surge in wearables, with success hinging on a strong partnership between the creative and tech industries.

What will the next generation of wearables entrepreneurs need to know? Amft and Van Laerhoven identify five key considerations:

  1. Resilience and Long-Term Validity – methods must be developed for collecting consistent data with wearables over longer time spans.
  2. Benchmarks and Evaluation – wearables must undergo thorough clinical testing for accuracy, especially those promising fitness and health benefits. Systems and algorithms must be rigorously improved, but their limitations must also be identified.
  3. Sustainable Software – Operating systems for wearables form a very messy landscape that lacks developer guidance. Wearable system software needs (standard) frameworks that fit an increasing pool of diverse devices. Moreover, critical applications in certified health intervention systems need a solid framework, like those that dispense medication, for example.
  4. Wearer Compliance – In the near future, a multitude of widely diverse mobile and wearable systems will reside in the personal space of every user, making generic interoperability the critical factor for wearer compliance.
  5. Market Size vs. Development Effort – There are already research efforts underway to develop wearable technology that lets businesses scale across small applications. For example, the EU-funded SimpleSkin project developed fabric material that lets developers realize different sensor functions, while textile manufacturers could mass-produce the generic fabric in standard processes. Moreover, novel smart materials and printing methods are helping designers and researchers not only prototype ideas but also develop digital production processes.

    The “market size versus development effort” dilemma in wearable computing
    The “market size versus development effort” dilemma in wearable computing. In this qualitative illustration, dots represent examples of wearable computing applications, and their size represents the application bandwidth.

Separating the hope from the hype won’t be easy, say the authors, but research opportunities abound.

“Wearables have transitioned from single, general-purpose computers to a set of devices, each with its own challenges. Consequently, core wearable research must grow beyond the well-established topics in context-awareness, sensor, and interaction research, providing new methods and tools for truly integrating computing with the body and creating real-world impact,” they conclude.


Research related to wearables in the Computer Society Digital Library

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About Lori Cameron

Lori Cameron is a Senior Writer for the IEEE Computer Society and currently writes regular features for Computer magazine, Computing Edge, and the Computing Now and Magazine Roundup websites. Contact her at l.cameron@computer.org. Follow her on LinkedIn.