OnQ

Searching for superhuman wearables at CES 2015

30 Jan 2015

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Carib Guerra is a Spark contributing editor. The views expressed are the author’s own.

In January, at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, wearable devices in every form, and for every function—from programmable fashion bracelets and Swarovski smart watches, to baby-monitoring booties and superhuman hearing aides—were everywhere. It’s clear that companies are excited about wearable technology, but the same can't yet be said about potential customers.

The hope is that wearables like smartwatches will be to smartphones what smartphones were to the personal computer: the next evolutionary step. But wearables, rather than being a new species of computer, seem more likely to be evolutionary enhancements to our own bodies. Becky Stern, director of wearable electronics at AdaFruit, talks about wearables as “gadgets that restore people’s abilities or enable new ‘superpowers.’” 

Put like that, these devices represent the dawn of plug-and-play superhumans. 

In the same vein, another way to look at these wearable gadgets that’s more grounded in tech history is as peripheral devices. If all you use is a laptop, you may tend to think of peripherals as printers, external CD drives, and so on. Nice, but not essential. For those who still buy or build desktop PCs—or remember having no other option—peripherals are more than just convenient add-ons. Without peripherals like a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor, our beloved desktops would just be warm whirring boxes. Add a camera and computers can see; add a modem, and they can connect. Peripherals, in effect, give computers powers. Maybe not ‘super’ powers, but at least sensory ones.

If we start to think of wearables as peripherals for our bodies (smartphones are by now pretty much a given), we can evaluate them based on their utility and the capabilities they provide us. Though smartwatches and eyewear get the most attention, there are already a number of devices that move in this direction.

Lechal shoes and insoles, for instance, track steps and calories and sync with a smartphone to provide haptic feedback for GPS navigation—convenient for activities like jogging or cycling, where looking down at your phone is a dangerous hassle. Also, this capability could be useful for people whose eyesight is impaired but want to be able to get around in their day-to-day lives. 

The Automated Device for Asthma Monitoring and Management (ADAMM) provides asthma sufferers with some extra control over a potentially life-threatening condition. Worn on the chest, this device tracks coughing, heart rate, and respiration while the wearer or caregiver supplements the data through an app. With constant monitoring, ADAMM can warn of an attack even before symptoms become obvious. Doctors can also use the data to better serve patients with a more complete picture of their particular situations.

While some devices can enhance our sensory perception, other inventions aim to augment our bodies themselves. The StrongArm Vest V22 wouldn’t be called a smart device (it doesn’t connect to anything but the wearer’s torso), but it’s the most obviously superpowerful product I saw at CES this year. Developed by New York-based startup StrongArm Technologies, the V22 is what the company has dubbed an “ergoskeleton” (ergonomics + exo-skeleton). This technology transfers and reduces load force from your muscles to the machine, allowing, say, industrial or freight workers to lift heavier loads with less effort and less damaging strain on their bodies. Plug-and-play superhumans, right?

No doubt wearable devices could turn out to be worth every one of the $53 billion dollars they’re expected to generate by 2019, but that will only happen if we cast them in the correct light. The problem with looking to wearables for the next evolutionary step in computing is that smartphones and PCs are functionally identical. Wearables, on the other hand, are often dependent gadgets. Smartphones were such a success because they took everything great about computers and put it in our pockets, no strings attached. A lot of wearables, such as smartwatches and digital eyewear, are next to useless when they’re not closely paired with the super devices we already carry.

If, when smartphones first came out, they were just tiny touchscreen monitors for our desktops that only worked within Bluetooth range—well, can you imagine needing that? 

Smart shoes, shirts, and even headphones all have something in common. Regardless of what they do, where on the body they sit, or how slick they were or weren’t designed, each of these devices should enhance our natural abilities.