Chris Dancy started measuring his life four years ago.
It started with social media, then grew to health monitors, and home devices. Now, on a typical day, 300 to 400 systems are tracking his every move, thought and feeling, and logging them in his Google calendar.
He wakes up to WiFi-enabled lights whose colour changes based on the temperature outside (a deeper hue indicates a chilly morning). Sensors monitor his blood pressure, skin temperature and heart rate, and the calories, sugars and carbs he consumes. Thermostats, humidifiers, lighting and music systems are all synced together to create “optimal environmental states.”
His wristband records his steps and speech. If Mr. Dancy raises his voice or slouches, he gets an alert. He even has a sensor attached to his toilet, to measure his bathroom activity overnight.
The Denver-native and former IT help desk employee calls his hyper-connected smart environment the “inner-net,” through which he can sift through aggregate data and view a snapshot of his world at any given moment. “Imagine it as a dashboard for your life,” he says.
Mr. Dancy’s meticulous universe might seem eccentric. But he is a trailblazer for a broader personal data revolution, or “quantified self” movement, that’s gaining traction among technology enthusiasts, fitness gurus and data-lovers alike.
The market for gadgets that monitor our lives is undeniably on the rise. Research confirms that wearable technology is expected to be among the hottest emerging trends. But beyond the hype, there is nagging uncertainty: No one has gotten wearable technology quite right so far, take up is slow, and there are lingering concerns about privacy. And what are people supposed to do with all of this data anyway?
That hasn’t stopped businesses, from tech giants to startups, from jumping in to the fledgling market. Google is expected to begin distributing its Glass to a wider group later this year, and released a version of its Android operating system for smart watches on Thursday. Samsung released the Galaxy Gear smart watch last September. Rumours are flying about an Apple iWatch.
Startups such as Pebble have established resounding success: Its smart watch became the poster child for crowd-funding campaigns. Meanwhile, Fitbit and Jawbone trackers continue to gain more mainstream appeal.
Sales are on the rise – wearable smart device sales jumped 168 per cent to 8.3 million units in 2012, according to Berg Insight. Can wearable-tech graduate from an underground niche – only popular among the most sophisticated gadget hounds – to a mass-produced, ubiquitous companion such as the iPhone? Or is the dizzying hype surrounding these devices just smoke and mirrors?
Duncan Stewart, director of technology and telecom research at Deloitte, says the wearable-tech industry is interesting and important, but the number of unit sales is “almost certainly smaller than the hype would indicate.”
Mr. Stewart attributes lacklustre sales to the “gym effect.” People will buy a wristband to track their activity with the best intentions, but then eventually get lazy. He predicts there might be four million units of wristbands sold in 2014, which is still significant, but “it’s not 40 million, or 400 million.”
Heather Bowerman, former White House science and technology policy adviser, is cautiously optimistic. “A lot of venture capital funds are going towards this niche market,” Ms. Bowerman says. But the market so far is small, limited to a certain subset of the population: the health-conscious and tech-savvy. In order for the market to really balloon, a bigger audience needs to embrace them.
Ms. Bowerman warns this might not materialize. “We are human beings, we lose interest and it’s not because we don’t care. It’s because entering that much data and tracking yourself isn’t sustainable over the long term.”
Still, companies dipping their feet into wearable tech are optimistic that the excitement surrounding these products will translate into hard sales.
Karl Martin, CEO of Toronto startup Bionym, is launching a wristband that will unlock passwords based on your heartbeat. The Nymi wristband, set to officially launch next year, will connect your identity to smart devices so that when you are wearing it, you can unlock doors, computer passwords, or anything that requires authentication. The band uses a biometric sensor to identify you based on your electrocardiogram.
Mr. Martin says that the next stage is developing intelligence to turn the raw data into actionable insight. “Something predictive. That says actually you should sleep earlier, or later, because that matches your physiology better.”
One area with seemingly unlimited potential is health care. Push Fitness, another Toronto-based startup, developed a weight-training tracker for professional athletes. But CEO Rami Alhamed quickly saw the potential for a bigger customer base. Push received 134,000 pre-orders for its wristband, and 75 per cent were regular consumers, not professional teams.
The Push tracker has caused a stir in the professional sports arena, but regular gym-goers and CrossFit enthusiasts are also showing huge interest in it as a tool to measure performance during a workout and optimize exercise routines. The implications reach beyond gym rats, though. Insurance and health-care providers are already looking into how to capture this personal data into adaptive health care strategies and disease prevention.
Privacy is a huge roadblock to mass adoption of wearable devices. Google recently told Gmail users they have “no presumption of privacy” over e-mails. Presumably, this extends to Glass, through which Google would have access to our street views.
Consumers are all too aware of this. One-third of Internet users worldwide are worried that wearable devices will invade people’s privacy, according to a September, 2013, poll by Survey Sampling International. And two-third of users feel that wearable devices should be regulated in some way, according to a University of London study.
“People need to feel they are in control of their own data,” Mr. Martin says. “We know we have to get [privacy] right, or we could blow the whole thing.”