Wearable computing, the subject of breathlessly speculative stories on the science and technology pages until last week, finally made front page news on Sunday, for an utterly shameful reason. Four people, including two dentists and a medical student, were arrested for leaking the answers to 90 questions in the All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT). Recipient candidates were clad in vests wired with cellphones and SIM cards coupled with Bluetooth earpieces, apparently bought in Delhi for R9,000 per unit.
Actually, the news should neither surprise or depress. The human race has ingeniously sought fishy or foul uses for almost every new technology. Pornographers were very early adopters of the internet, for instance, and Little Boy and Fat Man were the first working products of the nuclear age. But let us not get excessively pessimistic about human nature, for the AIPMT hack coincides with signs of real progress in wearable computing. It seems to be on the brink of a revolution that will take the ‘wearable’ out of the term. Beyond Apple watches and Google Glass, there is a world of ever-tinier systems being hatched. They are designed like accessories rather than garments, and are showing the way to devices which will work as embedded systems. Something like the system on a chip that pops up excessively smart toasters today will warn the wearer about health parameters or relations to the external world.
The Dash, a basic in-ear computer developed by Bragi GmbH in Munich, has graduated from the drawing board, is accepting pre-orders, and should start shipping in September. No bigger than truly posh hearing aids, it is an in-ear music player with 4 GB of onboard storage which also takes phone calls—you just nod to answer. Besides, it tracks your fitness statistics, like the watches which try to guilt-trip you by counting how far you have run and how many steps you have climbed. Some devices track the total volume of REM sleep, in which, it is suspected, we process data accumulated during the day. These parameters are quite trivial to sense, and some watches and the shoe-embedded Nike+ system follow quality of life parameters like exercise, rest and nutrition quite serviceably.
Initially priced at $299, the Dash leads a pack of new ‘hearables’, the next generation of devices after wearables. Some, like HearNotes and the Kickstarter-powered Earin, are exclusively designed to play music and, over the years, will probably give way to devices that multitask, like the workout buds FreeWavz, which have begun to ship. The killer feature, of course, would be phone functionality like the Dash’s.
The bulk of the wearables market could shift to such devices within a couple of years, but hearing is only one of several forms of sensing that computers can tap into. As the market grows, sensors will shrink, following the logic set by the mobile phone industry, whose products now pack into a pocket computing hardware that used to take up most of an office desk just two decades ago. Besides, sensors which used to be regarded as posh, like chemical pickups, are now cheap enough for retail devices. Novartis and Google are developing contact lenses which measure glucose in tears, hoping to end the misery of diabetics who have to take blood tests every day.
Assuming that medical and personal health applications continue to dominate development in this sector, the accelerometer may turn out to be the single most important device. Able to detect changes in velocity and orientation, it can serve as the basis of numerous devices which urge users to correct their posture or the manner in which they engage with the world. Slouching and craning the neck while using computers has become a global scourge, contributing to serious spinal disease, and such devices could continuously alert the user to the damage they are doing to themselves. With a little specialised programming, they could also stand in for a Yoga or Pilates teacher, providing feedback that helps users to attain perfect postures on their own. Chemical sensors in the clothing of a driver could be used to automatically immobilise the car if he or she is over the limit.
Wearable computing has come a long way. The first known instance is a 17th-century abacus on a ring dating from Qing dynasty China. It still works and may have been used for some frightfully noble purpose, such as calculating the trajectories of comets. Or, assuming that the Chinese have always been competitive, it could have been used to cheat at something comparatively pedestrian. Now, as device sizes shrink, computers could become so small as to be easily misplaced or lost. But no fear, perhaps a tiny RFID chip will be innovated, which talks to your cellphone or smart vest and indicates the spot marked X in the electronic jungle out there.