Wearable technology: the hope, hype and reality - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

Wearable technology: the hope, hype and reality

Written by on January 14, 2016 in Digital Health, Wellness with 0 Comments

images-1A bracelet that monitors your heart rate, and how much deep sleep you get every night; a jacket that tells you where to go when you’re lost; a pair of glasses you can take photos with. Sounds like science fiction but the reality is many companies are experimenting with embedding sensors and microcomputers into the things we wear. Some have even developed products, most notably fitness trackers and diagnostic devices that are now on the market. So how will wearable computing change our lives for the better, and do we have anything to fear from this next great frontier in technology?

The potential of wearable computing has been known for decades. According to Professor Sandy Pentland, the director of MIT’s Dynamic Lab, and one of several guests interviewed on this radio program, “it can know everything about you – because it goes where you go, it sees what you see, it hears what you [hear]. And, of course, people or machines that know you that well can anticipate your likes and dislikes, can warn you about things, can help you through rough spots, can help you remember the things you can’t remember and so on.”

While such machines have endless possible applications, commercial activity has been mainly focused in two areas: fitness and medicine. Hence there are now a number of fitness trackers and diagnostic devices on the market although as co-founder of the Sydney-based Wearable Experiments company Ben Moir says, “start-ups are really only looking at fitness trackers” because these must meet far fewer regulatory requirements than products in the medical space.

As the technology for wearables improves in terms of washability and durability, and the costs of the electronics used come down, Moir says the hope is it will also “move into other areas – tourism, transportation, lifestyle.” For example, it’s not inconceivable that one day, stroke patients at home can wear a cardigan with an integrated sensor that communicates with their mobile phone so they can get emergency help if they need it. Or that people needing directions can put on a jacket configured into Google maps that through vibrations or little LEDs that light up will help them navigate. Or that avid beachgoers can wear bathers that alert them to when they’re getting too much dangerous UV and need to head for the shade or apply more sunscreen.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But like any new technology in its nascent stage, it’s important not to let the inevitable hype and excitement surrounding it stop us from considering the possible negatives. And the most obvious of these concerning wearable technology is that it could be very very distracting. Certainly we’re already held captive to varying degrees by our mobile phones and other portable devices.

Billlie Whitehouse, the other founder of Wearable Experiments, concedes “distraction is a problem. So I guess our main goal is just to improve efficiency and time management for people.”

Dr Don Norman, former vice president of Apple, is similarly worried although loath to put all the responsibility on the user. He doesn’t subscribe to the popular view that it’s solely up to us to decide how to use these technologies, for better or worse. “That’s like saying if I put you in a room filled with tempting desserts, if you overeat, that’s your fault.

Which is why he’s an advocate for governments making new laws dictating where, when and how we use this new technology. He says, “I hate to add to the heavy weight of laws we already have, but it may be legislation [is needed] that protects us from ourselves.”


Andrew Eagling is the Business Development Manager for Fitbit’s wellness and enterprise business in ANZ, a company that specialises in wearable technology to help users achieve health and fitness goals. He will be presenting on the topic of the role of wearable technology in workplace wellness at our Wellness@Work conference in April, part of the Wellness Show co-located with the Digital Health Show and Happiness & Its Causes 2016.

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