wearable computer

A wearable computer is any small technological device capable of storing and processing data that can be worn on the body. Wearable computers are designed for accessibility and convenience, as well as improvements to workplaces by making information quickly and readily available to the wearer.

Common examples of how wearables are worn include on wrists as watches or jewelry, around necks similarly to a lanyard or necklace, on the user's head, in the user's shoe or carried in a bag. Wearable devices continue to evolve and become more efficient, manageable and adaptive to the everyday needs of users.

As the technology behind human-computer interaction improves, devices are created and updated to integrate seamlessly into users' lives. Something as common as a smartphone is considered wearable technology because it can be clipped onto clothing or held in a bag. Some technology has been built into a watch or pair of eyeglasses to add information in the user's perception of the observed world through augmented reality, speech recognition or virtual reality (VR) capabilities. Devices that monitor health can keep track of attributes such as sleep patterns, exercise and heart rate. Some popular examples of wearable devices include the Apple Watch, Google Glass and Fitbit.

Challenges of wearable computers

  • Weight and bulkiness.
  • How and where to locate the display.
  • Potential heat or fire hazards.
  • Safety and health risks.
  • Coexistence testing with other devices.

History and evolution of wearable computers

One of the earliest examples of wearable technology was created in 17th century China, when an inventor created a ring that contained an abacus. During WW1, cameras were mounted on pigeons to capture images of enemy troops.

In the 1970s, calculator watches and portable radios, called a Walkman. The next decade released the first wrist computer, a video game watch and a computer that mounted over the wearer's eyes. In addition, the first cell phone was promoted to consumers during this time.

The 90s brought the sneaker phone and a few prototypes of similar devices that would be popularized in the 2000s, the years in which many wearable devices would be invented and refined.

Some examples of more modern, mainstream wearable devices are:

  • The Levi's ITD Anorak jacket that allows wearers to incorporate their cell phone, MP3 player and headphones into the fabric and use a button built into the jacket to switch between those devices.
  • Bluetooth headsets used for hands-free calls or listening to music.
  • The Nike+ fitness tracker that can be placed within a shoe to track the user's workout routine.
  • Bpay, a wearable payment system that can be used instead of a traditional credit card.
  • The Apple Watch, a smart watch that includes most of the functionality of a computer or cell phone such as receiving text messages and setting reminders.
  • Quell, a pain management device that can be worn by sufferers of chronic illnesses.
  • Ringly, a smart ring that can connect to another device, such as a smart phone, and alert the wearer whenever they have a notification to check.

How wearable computers impact various industries

Education: VR experiences and augmented reality (AR) can be used to enhance students' experiences in the classroom. In addition, while controversial, wearable devices that monitor a students' biometrics could provide feedback to educators about how engaging their content is to students. Students can also use wearable devices to aid in note taking and supplement learning by easily looking up concepts they are confused about.

Healthcare: Wearable computers can help healthcare providers deliver better, more efficient care and patient management. For example, a sensor that can be swallowed by a patient could monitor whether or not they stick to their regimen of prescribed pills. In addition, wearable fitness and nutrition trackers can help patients improve their health through lifestyle changes.

Military: The use of wearable computers in the military has grown for applications such as surveillance, location tracking and equipment repair. For example, smart watches that can provide GPS or mechanical information or biometric tracking devices can help military personnel complete tasks more efficiently.

Policing: Members of the police force are required to wear body cameras clipped onto clothing or built into headgear to collect evidence of criminal activity and deter violations of human rights or brutality.

Across other industries, wearable computers can be used by consumers to streamline personal tasks and complete their daily workloads. Wearable computers that incorporate augmented memory technology can help individual users by keeping track of a lot of details or setting reminders.  

Accessibility of wearable computers

There are many accessible uses for wearable computers. For individuals who are blind, braille watches or smart glasses that interpret visual information into audio data can help with daily tasks. Sound shirts and vibrating bracelets allow deaf individuals to enjoy music through vibrations. Individuals with difficulty communicating can wear portable translators that give them independence and improve their everyday lives.

This was last updated in February 2019

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