I’ll state with reasonable confidence that this decade’s newest fad is officially wearable technology. I say ‘fad’, but clearly I’m doing the wearable tech industry a huge disservice, because the fact is the value of this sector globally is forecast to be worth nearly 6 billion US Dollars in 2018 1.
It’s a compelling statistic but hardly a bolt from the blue. How many people do you know wear smart watches, Fitbit bands or something of that ilk? It’s likely we all know someone who uses a wearble if we don’t own a product ourselves. For the record, I don’t have a wearable, but my LG phone does monitor my steps, which incidentally, is as relevant to me as knowing how many times I blink on a given day! Even as a digital designer I regard myself as a ‘late adopter’, no matter how fancy the brand name is and these names are inventive . . .
Fitbit Flex, Vivofit Wireless, Polar Loop, Withings Pulse Ox Activity, Jawbone Large UP – to name a few interesting brand names for wearable wrist bands dedicated to monitoring people’s lives.
From tracking steps and distance to calories burned and quality of sleep, there seems to be an explosion of wearable tech that is carving its way with alarming speed into the fabric of our everyday existence. And we seem to be lapping it up with care-free abandon, because it gives us a means to measure ourselves and make a positive change. Or does it? As a designer, I’m curious to know three things:
- Just how pervasive is wearable technology?
- How useful is the data?
- And, what are the implications for privacy?
How pervasive is wearable tech?
Wearables come packed with sensors, monitoring temperature, heart rate, blood glucose levels and your location via GPS. This data can easily start to build a personal profile relating to lifestyle choices and habits. They are designed to give unprecedented levels of details relating to individual performance.
Their application is widespread in professional sports and is now becoming more accessible to the masses. Take tennis, for example. It’s a sport where the traditional TV medium has fanatically pushed statistics, during and after matches. Professional sports men and women have been ‘stats-fed’ for years, but now the average Joe has the means to access key metrics about themselves.
As a keen tennis player I’m fascinated by the possibilities of match statistics. The tennis racquet manufacturer Babolat is currently leading the way with their Babolat Play sensor equipped racquets2. It interfaces with a mobile app UI and enables players to access data such as their fastest serve, ball spin rate in RPM, ball impact locator, average ball speed on both forehand and backhands, longest rally and even a rating on technique.
For players who don’t own a Babolat racquet there are other standalone devices that can be attached to a racket for much the same sort of data. Now the game is more than about just winning or losing a match. It’s about finding out why and benchmarking performance against other match statistics to make meaningful comparisons.
The shortfall, it could be argued, is that it cannot account for your opponent’s performance relative to yours unless they too have the same device, with the same metrics and a visual means to compare them side-by-side.
How useful is the data?
It’s not just in the sports and fitness sector that wearables are prevalent. We are seeing its application transcend to embrace other lifestyle related sectors in the form of tattoo-style diagnostic patches.
Take the BioStamp Research Connect3, a flexible wearable sensor that’ll adhere to your skin and keep an eye on your vitals. It’s been designed specifically for researchers who are looking into problems with movement, motor skills and other neurodegenerative disorders.
The medical tattoo has an accelerometer and gyroscope and hardware capable of monitoring the electrical activity generated by skeletal muscles, as well as a miniature ECG.
Another skin patch created by the same company in partnership with L’Oréal is designed to let people know how badly their skin is being damaged by the sun. My UV Patch is a stretchable, ultra-thin sticker that’s loaded with a series of dyes that change colour depending on how long it’s exposed to light.
Users can then take a picture of the patch with their smartphone, with a companion app calculating how much damage they’ve silently endured. In addition, the app will offer suggestions on how to be more “skin safe”.
So the application of wearables is wider than satisfying the whims of health and sports fanatics – wearbles might have the potential to be life saving. We all see the need for that in an increasingly aging population. Wearables could benefit people who care for loved ones living with chronic health issues. For instance, if caring for a relative with dementia, wearable technology may prove useful in being able to tell how they are feeling, whether they’ve eaten, if they have taken their medicine or locate them if they’ve wandered off.
What are the implications for privacy?
But is there a more nefarious implication that is lurking away in the background? Like with all new tech, there always is a sinister side. More often than not it’s to do with privacy. According to TechCrunch4 wearable devices are about to provoke a new revolution in user privacy. Due to their small size and how they seamlessly run in the background in real-time and on the go, they garner much greater volumes of streaming data, potentially making them more vulnerable to security breaches.
Manufacturers will always claim that their devices are secure and that they are meeting any threats head on. Leaving plain old dodgy hacking aside however, there could be other implications from the proliferation of wearable data that are perfectly legal but just as unpalatable for the average consumer. Health insurance companies may use wearable data to formulate a lifestyle profile and charge premiums accordingly. This could be an alarming Big Brother scenario, which many people would say contravenes their civil liberties.
The idea of profile building is not a new one, but wearable tech lends itself so well to it that some gyms are using them to monitor their subscribers and offer rewards based on activity monitoring. At first glance it sounds innocuous enough, a bit like store loyalty cards, but imagine if they sell this data to third party organisation, such as insurance companies to scrutinise lifestyles? There are huge implications for premiums and for most people this would seem a little too intrusive.
So where is the line marked between intrusive Big Brother-style monitoring and personal self-development? At the moment, a firm line has not been drawn and the jury’s out. The wearable industry is still in its infancy but the issues raised here will in time, permeate the public consciousness and bring the debate to the fore.
For now, we revel in the new technology and its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it is a fashion accessory as much as a data-gathering device. This dual role is what I believe to be its raison d’etre. As designers and technologists we know that wearables are here to stay, and they’ll give us yet another medium to apply our design skills to.
- WeStatista: The Statistics Portal
- Engadget: 1st gen of real wearable tattoos
- TechCrunch: How wearable tech could spark a new privacy revolution