Wearables Continue to Advance
While wrist watches, pocket watches, and portable compasses could be considered the first wearable tech devices, the more commonly understood concept arose from body-worn sensors that collect and interpret data. In this sense, University of Toronto professor Steve Mann is a foremost contributor to the wearable computing concept when he mounted a heavy, but self-contained backpack system as an MIT student in 1981. In 1994, Mann developed a wireless webcam that he wore constantly to record his daily life.
Industrial applications for wearable computers began to tease out surprising scenarios in the 1990s. DARPA launched the Smart Modules Program in 1994 in an effort to equip U.S. soldiers with body worn computer systems in the battlefield. In 1998, the company Xybernaut partnered with IBM to create a wallet-sized, fully functioning Windows computer with a head-mounted display.
Such developments prompted both university researchers and fashion-forward tinkerers to try to place components into apparel. With electronic thread, light-emitting diodes, and small microcontrollers, the garment itself becomes the computer. For example, one of the first pieces of clothing to have fiber optics manufactured into the fabric came from Harry Wainwright in 1995, and the first wearable motherboard shirt appeared from Sundaresan Jayaraman at Georgia Tech in 1998. Many wearables pioneers made use of a crucial addition to the idea of wearable technology, contributed in 1988, when Mark Weiser et al. developed ubiquitous computing at PARC. Computers no longer had to be consolidated into a central package, but could be small, inexpensive electronic components the at work together in everyday applications.
A matrix of sensors might be embedded in a user’s clothing with the data being transmitted via conductive polymers. With multiple microprocessing devices working in concert such a system could forgo a bulky computer display worn on the person; instead, tasks would be accomplished seamlessly based on the user’s location, physical data, and natural movements. Weiser’s idea spawned notions of how small, inexpensive chips would coordinate tasks both in environments as well as directly on the user’s body. Ambient computing includes the notion that a user’s environment is populated with sensors, wireless systems, and processing devices such that a user’s personal applications and data follow them around from room to room, from home to office. Body area networks, an idea that arose in the early 2000s, describe small devices worn on the person to sense, process, and shuttle data. Ubiquitous computing and wired communication launched a new era of wearables investigation, first in embedded apparel as a research topic, which initially resulted in prototypes in the service of novelty, art, and entertainment. The cost of early wearables, however, was too high for mass consumer adoption and no strong usage cases for the general public were identified. Size was still large and battery technology not advanced enough to enter the mass apparel market. Wearable tech began to focus on accessories: badges, pendants, bracelets, and wrist-tops.
Some of the first fitness tracking devices were considered “wrist-top computers”—they were bulky, but sophisticated and full of advanced functions for athletes. Finnish company Polar developed the category of chest-worn heart rate straps and wrist-top bands, which would receive physiological data, interpret it, and display it to the user in real time. Garmin debuted the first GPS receiver so that athletes could judge speed, altitude, and heart rate on the same device. At the same time, larger trends in consumer health data changed the way users and companies viewed the personal data generated by the new wearables. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 created new, secure standards for consumer health data and introduced the basic concept to the general public that secure personal data is something that travels with a person across vendors and electronic systems. As these ideas were circulating in the consumer consciousness, the notion of portable data begat a growing awareness that every consumer generates such data constantly. If metrics regarding athletic performance, fitness improvement, or potential health problems could be captured and tracked, then perhaps the consumer would benefit from the presentation of such data by seeing improvement, becoming more motivated, or diagnosing potential problems.
The idea of wearables sprawled with new features and devices, including the early Pebble smart watch and Google Glass, the first major usage models in wearable computing since desktop computers morphed into mobile devices. Many other devices followed. In the current paradigm, such wearable accessories are independent of the clothing they are worn on; they are optional purchases for the sake of communication, heath, and productivity. Such devices have powerful processors, use battery power quickly, and often carry a display big enough to read.
This excerpt was from the “Wearables in Apparel” white paper. For the full article, visit http://modernedge.com