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Prince Charles wearing a Google Glass device. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
Prince Charles wearing a Google Glass device. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

What’s the point of wearable technology? Add to ...

Connected glasses, watches and clothes will have to fit seamlessly into our lives to make an impact

Wearable technology sounds like a cool idea, but why should we wear machines? Unless you’re a pilot, performance athlete or a cyborg, the most sophisticated tech you’re wearing right now is probably an ordinary watch.

This will change. When it does, it will be partly the result of innovation and technology, but also because of new thinking that looks at what tech wear can do for you if you choose to dress for the future.

People who are interested in wearable technology should think about the benefits more before they simply drape themselves in sensors and wires, says Rachel Arthur, Global Senior Editor for digital at WSGN Group, a company that monitors business and innovation trends: “I’ve been obsessed with this for a while, and it’s hitting kind of a boiling point.”

 From her vantage point in New York, Arthur scours fashion runways, social media and tech product and app launches in search of tech items that cry out to be worn, but she doesn’t see much yet. The reason? Most of it looks too weird, or there’s not really a point.

 “I see things and I don’t understand how you can have the word ‘wearable’ attached to them,” she says. “The problem is that technology companies come up with an idea, then they stick a battery on it and only then do they say, ‘Oh, we need to make it look good.’”

Arthur thinks this will change in several areas. She’s encouraged by the strategic partnership announced in March between Google and Luxottica Group, maker of fashion-forward eyewear.  Arthur has experimented with Google Glass and finds it interesting and promising; she thinks it’s only a matter of time before someone comes out with the first enhanced reality glasses that actually look good with a nice outfit and shoes.

 The other area where wearable tech is about to break barriers is in usefulness. Sensors and big data are making this possible.

 Up to now, wearable tech has fallen into a few narrow categories: specialized necessity, experimental or sort of pointless. A commercial diver’s dry suit with scuba gear is a specialized necessity, but unless you’re going underwater you don’t need this wearable tech. Glasses that let a golfer see a map of the next hole while teeing up are experimental — an interesting idea, but they’re not going to stop people who don’t have them from golfing.

 A wristband that constantly tells you your heart rate and blood pressure when you go to the corner store? At first this may seem like overdoing it, but if you apply the test of “why wear this tech?” it can make sense. It can tell you if you’re walking enough, getting enough rest, putting too much strain on a knee or hip joint. Its use is growing; clothes with sensors are already linked to some running and cycling gear that keep track of workouts.

Arthur agrees that the “Internet of things” can make tech wear even more useful. For example, with the right array of sensors, a device you wear for that walk might be able to tell you what food groups your body craves right now — as well as whether you have the right food in your fridge, the right portions and where you can find the nearest store that has what you need.

 Designers should also think of how wearable tech can be used, she says. For example, Arthur saw a jacket with GPS built into the shoulder pads, and thought this was silly at first. Then she realized that for bike couriers, a quick buzz to the shoulder telling you where to turn right or left might be a great help.

Enhanced-reality glasses might also be useful if you’re shopping for furniture. Imagine seeing a sofa on a showroom floor, says Arthur, then looking at it through glasses that show you how it would look in your living room.

 Wearable technology has fashion possibilities if it’s done right. Why not manufacture clothes or accessories that change colour, so they can be worn in different seasons or at different times of the day?

The key is to combine the possibilities that new technologies offer with some common sense. Everyone is anticipating the coming of interactive, smart wristwatch-like devices, likely later this year. But, says Arthur, people will look awfully foolish if the microphone is built into the watch and they’re constantly sticking their hands in their own faces to talk.

Wearing the future

Here are a few current and upcoming examples of wearable technology that make sense.

  •  Smartbands: Due out this year, the Razr Nabu is a wristband with two tiny screens — a tiny “public screen” that links to your smartphone so you can discreetly look down to see who is calling or texting, and a “private screen” that provides more detailed messages as well as bio information such as steps walked, stairs climbed and so on.
  • Glasses: Even the Prince of Wales is hip to Google Glass. He tried out a pair during his visit to Winnipeg in May. He used an app called Visualspection, which is being developed for use by workers such as hydro inspectors to spot anomalies in systems such as wiring and analyze what’s wrong and how to fix it on the spot.
  • Watches: Remember when you just wanted to know the time? Experts believe the trend toward wrist devices is about to take off, with some smart watches such as the Pebble device making a stylish entrance, and every Apple-watcher on alert for the rumoured iWatch (Apple has trademarked the name).
  • Pyjamas: Smart PJs have code embedded in the clothing; paired with an app, you can summon up a favourite bedtime story on a smartphone, or a brand new one if everyone is tired of the same old tale. If only they could make your child go to sleep.
  • Stealth wear: For those involved (or would like to be) in the world of esponiage, there are hoodies, scarves and even burqas made of metallized fabric that prevents thermal imaging.
  • Tattoos: Why stop at clothing? Temporary tattoos being developed by a company called Electrozyme measure the presence of lactate in the wearer's sweat, transmitting the data wirelessly to track electrolyte balance and hydration.

For more innovation insights, visit www.gereports.ca

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with GE. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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