wearable technology

What is wearable technology?

Wearable technology is any kind of electronic device designed to be worn on the user's body. Such devices can take many different forms, including jewelry, accessories, medical devices, and clothing or elements of clothing. The term wearable computing implies processing or communications capabilities, but in reality, the sophistication among wearables can vary.

The most sophisticated examples of wearable technology include artificial intelligence (AI) hearing aids, Google Glass and Microsoft's HoloLens, and a holographic computer in the form of a virtual reality (VR) headset. An example of a less complex form of wearable technology is a disposable skin patch with sensors that transmit patient data wirelessly to a control device in a healthcare facility.

How does wearable technology work?

Modern wearable technology falls under a broad spectrum of usability, including smartwatches, fitness trackers such as the Fitbit Charge, VR headsets, smart jewelry, web-enabled glasses and Bluetooth headsets. Wearables work differently, based on the category they belong to, such as health, fitness or entertainment. Predominantly, wearable technology functions by incorporating microprocessors, batteries and connectivity to the internet so the collected data can be synced with other electronics, such as mobile devices or laptops.

Wearables are embedded with built-in sensors that keep track of bodily movements, provide biometric identification or assist with location tracking. For example, activity trackers or smartwatches -- the most common types of wearables -- come with a strap that wraps around the user's wrist to monitor their physical activities or vitals throughout the day.

While most wearables are either worn on the body or are attached to clothing, some function without any physical contact with the user. Cell phones, smart tags or computers can still be carried around and track user movements. Other wearables use remote smart sensors and accelerometers to track movements and speed, and some use optical sensors for measuring heart rate or glucose levels. A common factor among these technology wearables is the fact they all monitor data in real time.

What are some applications of wearable technology?

Consumer electronics, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers, are prominent use cases for wearable technology. However, with the recent advancements in the internet of things (IoT) and AI, wearable technology is being incorporated into all types of scenarios -- from healthcare, navigation systems, consumer goods and professional sports to advanced textiles.

Applications of wearable technology
Wearable technology has many uses, including health and fitness tracking, chronic disease management, interactive gaming, performance monitoring and navigation tracking.

The following are the most popular current and next-generation applications of wearable technology:

Epidermal skin technology. According to ScienceDaily, the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation invented wearable electronic skin for monitoring health. A next-generation of wearables, this ultra-thin e-skin patch can be attached to the wearer's chest area along with a small wireless transmitter by using water spray and can be worn for up to a week. It is sensitive enough to pick up and record electro signals, such as heartbeats and muscle movements, which can be sent to healthcare providers via the cloud so they can monitor the user's vitals remotely. This powerful wearable is a steppingstone for monitoring chronic illnesses such as heart failure and diabetes.

Health monitoring. People use wearable technology to track and receive notifications for their heart rate and blood pressure, watch their calorie intake or manage their training regimens. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted the use of wearable technology, as consumers gained a broader awareness of personal hygiene and taking precautions to prevent the spread of infections. Apple, for instance, updated its Cardiogram app by introducing a new sleeping beats-per-minute feature that monitors heart rate fluctuations for COVID-19 patients.

Entertainment and gaming. The gaming and entertainment industries were the first to adopt VR headsets, smart glasses and controllers. Popular VR head-mounted displays, such as Oculus Quest, Meta Quest and Sony PlayStation VR, are used for all types of entertainment purposes, including gaming, watching movies and virtual traveling.

Fashion and smart clothing. Clothing known as smart clothing, or intelligent fashion, has been gaining wide popularity over the past few years. Smart jackets, such as Levi's jacket made with Google's Project Jacquard technology whose threads are composed of electrical fibers, enable the wearer to answer calls, play music or take photos right from their sleeves. Smartwatches, wristbands, smart shoes and smart jewelry are also popular examples of wearable technology.

Military. These wearables include technology that tracks soldiers' vitals, VR-based simulation exercises and sustainability technology, such as boot inserts that estimate how well the soldiers are holding their equipment weight and how terrain factors can affect their performance.

Sports and fitness. Sports use wearable athletic devices that are either built into the fabric of the sports apparel or are incorporated into sports equipment, such as bats and balls. The GPS and Bluetooth-linked devices relay real-time data to coaches for analysis through connected electronic devices such as laptops. Besides wearable athletic devices, familiar wearable technology such as Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, Samsung Galaxy Watch and Polar are used extensively to track various areas of the player's health and performance metrics.

Examples of wearable technology

Common examples of wearable technology include the following:

  • Smart jewelry. This can include smart rings, wristbands and watches. Smaller wearable devices typically work with a smartphone app for display and interaction.
  • Body-mounted sensors. These sensors are placed on the body to monitor and transmit biological data for healthcare purposes.
  • Fitness trackers. These wearables often come in the form of wristbands, straps or headbands that monitor physical activity and vital signs. Trackers may connect wirelessly to an app for data storage, processing and reporting.
  • Smart clothing. This type of clothing comes with built-in technology that can perform a variety of tasks including fitness or health monitoring, interacting with phones and other devices and changing fabric characteristics to suit the user's preference, activity or environment. As an example, in 2014, clothing manufacturer Tommy Hilfiger launched clothing that came fitted with solar cells to charge devices.
  • Augmented reality (AR) headsets. AR headsets use a real-world setting and integrate digital information into a display of the user's environment in a way that enables interaction with real world and virtual reality.
  • VR headsets. VR headsets entirely replace the user environment with digital information and enhance the fictional reality. VR users are controlled by the system.
  • AI hearing aids. AI hearing aids can filter out unwanted noises and automatically adapt to provide the best performance in the user's current environment and for their individual hearing needs. Such devices, sometimes referred to as hearables, can also incorporate capabilities such as fitness tracking, audio streaming and translation.
  • Virtual assistants. Some companies create wearable virtual assistants that clip to a user’s clothes and are controlled with voice and gestures. Humane’s AI Pin is one example, which features a virtual assistant powered by the GPT-4 language model and miniature projector that can turn the user’s hand into a touch screen. The device can answer questions, find information and carry out tasks in a similar manner to nonwearable virtual assistants -- such as Amazon Alexa and Apple's Siri. The device also has translation and fitness tracking features.

The history of wearable technology

The origins of wearable technology date back to the 13th century when eyeglasses were first invented. In the 15th century, timepieces were created -- some of which were small enough to be worn -- but it was not until the 1960s that modern wearable technology came into existence.

The following is a brief history showcasing the various turns wearable technology has taken over time:

  • 1960s. In 1961, Edward Thorp and Claude Shannon created wearable technology in the form of a tiny four-button computer that could fit into a shoe or be strapped around the user's waist. It was created to help gamblers in casinos cheat at roulette games, as the computer acted as a timing device to predict where the ball would land.
  • 1970s. Wearable tech gained popularity during this decade. The first calculator wristwatch was released in 1975 by Pulsar and quickly became a fashion statement, as many celebrities, including Police lead singer Sting, were seen wearing it. Other companies, including Casio, released watches well into the 80s and Marty McFly was seen wearing the Casio CA53W calculator watch in the movie Back to the Future.
  • 1980s. Sony released the Walkman in 1979 and it became the most popular wearable music device throughout the 80s. The healthcare industry was also transformed during this decade with the release of the first digital hearing aids in 1987.
  • 1990s. Steve Mann, a Canadian researcher, invented the wearable wireless webcam in 1994. This bulky webcam facilitated the use of future IoT technologies. Smart clothing expos and wearable technology conferences also spiked in popularity during the 90s.
  • 2000s. This decade saw an explosion in wearable technology with the introduction of Bluetooth headsets, Fitbits and the Nike plus iPod Sport Kit.
  • 2010s. This period was the tipping point for wearable technology. Google Glass entered the scene in 2013, while the Apple Watch debuted in 2015 and was followed by The Oculus Rift Headset in 2016.
  • 2020s. The gaming industry continues to add newer AR and VR headsets, while clothing designers are rapidly bringing smart clothing to the mainstream.

The future of wearable technology

Wearable technology is becoming increasingly popular and is all set to revolutionize the future. While fitness trackers, smart devices, intelligent clothing and VR and AR headsets have gained widespread approval, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

The following are some futuristic products and concepts predicted by tech experts and how they will shape wearable technology going forward:

Apple Glasses. Initial reports from Bloomberg and The Information suggest that Apple Glasses could be released by 2023. These AR smart glasses are designed to transfer information from a user's phone to their face. These glasses will be able to synchronize with a wearer's iPhone to display texts, emails, games and other items over the user's field of vision.

Energy harvesting. One drawback of using wearable technology is that it must be taken off for regular charging. Energy harvesting is being researched and could prolong battery life by converting body heat, movement or solar energy into power. Piezoelectricity is one example of energy harvesting where piezoelectric ceramic can be used to convert the body vibrations produced during movement into energy.

Smart contact lenses. Nothing short of a sci-fi movie, smart contact lenses that can deliver real-time information to the human eye will be available to consumers soon. Tech giants, including Google, Mojo Vision, Samsung and Sony, are working on developing these soft electronic smart contact lenses that can sync up with smartphones or other external devices to provide real-time, hands-free information along with vision correction.

AI for the human brain. AI-integrated non-invasive sensors that help with performing functions associated with thinking are currently being developed. Facebook is developing a brain-computer interface that could enable people to type Facebook status updates by using their minds instead of typing. Elon Musk's company Neuralink is also working on an interface that could help people who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.

Each wearable device comes with computing capabilities as well as several pros and cons. Learn about the benefits and management challenges posed by enterprise wearables.

This was last updated in November 2023

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