Anatomy of wearables: our bodies covered head-to-toe in tech
19th Feb 2014 | 20:36
The sensors that promise to change our lives
Wearables for the wrist and ears
You don't have to be Theodore Twombly in the 2025-set film Her to understand that wearables and human-like AI represent some of the most forward-thinking technology.
Futurist and Google engineer Ray Kurzweil knows this and has recently hypothesized that an intelligent operating system like Samantha is likely to be invented by the end of the next decade.
The path to delivering that AI starts with the current crop of Internet of Things gadgets that can analyze the body and collect data regarding how we feel.
None of them can carry on full conversations with us via an ever-present earpiece, but that hasn't stop companies from pushing the first meaningful quantified self tech at CES 2014. Eventually, the machines may find their voice to talk back.
From head to toe, TechRadar set out to explore what this means for each part of the body and what's currently available from today's cutting-edge wearables manufacturers.
Wrists for fitness tracking
The most exploited body part for the wearable future is going to be the wrist. Bracelets, bands and watches are all becoming "smart" and have already latched onto millions of early adopters.
These quantified selfers are able to calculate calories burned, number of steps walked, flights of stairs climbed and distance traveled in a day. A few of these wrist-mounted wellness tools can also report on sleeping habits.
Equally as important as the data collected is the fact that it's automatically charted. Users aren't forced to analyze the statistics day-by-day. Trends and patterns begin to emerge seamlessly, reinforcing whether or not a new workout routine is effective.
The three most popular fitness-focused smartbands doing this are the Nike FuelBand SE, Fitbit Force and Jawbone Up. They're lightweight, rubber-coated bracelets or bands that embody all of the metrics that workout enthusiasts seem to want - except for a heart-rate monitor.
The Basis Health Tracker Watch fulfills that heart-rate desire and includes a few more advanced stats, but its extra sensors make it so big that it's a wearable in name only. Basis Science is reportedly looking to sell to the highest bidder, so its bold but too big technology could live on.
More smartbands are on the way. The LG Lifeband Touch adds a swipeable screen to its fitness tracker as well as incoming call notifications, blending the smartband and smartwatch category.
Garmin Vivofit features a non-backlit display that's always on and never needs a recharge. Razer Nabu has two screens, one for generic notification icons on top and a more discrete underarm spelling out private messages. Both are compelling for different reasons.
Wrists for smartwatches
Wrists of the future may be home to technology that's smarter than smartbands, as watches do more than display the time these days. Incoming calls notifications, text messages, emails and social media notifications are beamed to the wrist.
The sophisticated-looking Pebble Steel was our favorite wearable of CES 2014, while the Sony Smartwatch 2 and Samsung Galaxy Gear brought similar functionality to Android device owners with average results.
There's progress to be made among smartwatches, and that may come from top players like Apple, Google and HTC.
Apple is rumored to be readying an iWatch with a digital metrics depository called Healthbook. The metrics are just as unconfirmed as the device itself, but it would have the advantage of full integration with the iPhone 5S, a problem Pebble has run into thanks to Apple's walled garden.
A computer-packed watch may seem like gadget overload, but if it makes taking out a phone to respond to a message passé, it could actually lead to less reliance our current tech addiction.
Bluetooth earbuds have existed ever since the Nokia HDW-1 was fit into someone's ear in 2002. After years of stagnation, the technology is about to move well beyond hands-free calls.
Having information piped through an ear canal could be how we navigate the world in the future, whether it's receiving audible turn-by-turn directions or playing a melancholy song. It can all be done without looking down at a screen. Commence making eye contact again.
The most promising example of this is the Intel Jarvis prototype, which actually resembles the earpiece worn by Her's protagonist. It's part of the chip maker's wearables roadmap that's designed to prove its ready for the Internet of Things after it embarrassingly missed mobile.
Jarvis is more than Intel's version of Siri through an earpiece. The company says its AI is located inside the device and doesn't need to slowly be fed its knowledge from the internet. In a very familiar motto, it has its intel inside.
The LG HRM Earphone Heart Rate Rate Monitor and the Kickstarter-funded The Dash wireless smart in-ear headphones are also pushing the earbuds boundaries. Both devices allow runners to play music, track fitness metrics and check their heart-rate without the inconvenience of wearing an HRM strap across their chest.
This technology has peaked the interest of Apple, with the Cupertino company filing a patent for in-ear fitness trackers that could easily be paired with an iWatch.
Wearables: face, feet and what's next
Donning these literally in-your-face devices puts data that was once confined to a phone in your field of vision. It also attracts a lot of attention from curious onlookers.
That's the best part of wearing Google Glass. Peoples' fascination with what it could mean for the future. But the attention it receives is no guarantee that it and similar devices will take off.
The drastic change in fashion and laws that could ban Google Glass could prevent this type of wearable from taking off. Maybe that's why there are no head-mounted displays in Her.
Google may have more discreet smart contact lenses to come, but so far they're designed for more noble ambitions. Its latest Google X project can measure glucose levels in diabetics thanks to tiny sensors that are sandwiched inside of a clear contact lens.
Tech companies aren't above making wearables for our feet. Future tech could tell us why our arches ache sometimes or when we need to take a load off.
That's already happening with the Heapsylon bio-tracking Sensoria socks. Its pressure sensors and an accelerometer can evaluate the way we run, walk and even stand. Like all cutting-edge technology, it's expensive at $999 (about £598.80/AU$1,108), but that's a typical storyline for innovation.
Runsafer also has injury prevention at its sole. The German-engineered project embeds sensors into running sneakers to offer real-time biomechanical feedback and enhance motivation.
Just as motivating is plant two feet on a scale like the Withings Smart Body Analyzer. It takes a reading of your weight body fat percentage and heart rate, then charts the data automatically.
It's really interesting to see one year's worth of weight, with the most weight gained during the Christmas holidays, and the experience is seamless with with Wi-Fi-enabled scale.
Where wearables go from here
Wearables for the feet remain underdeveloped even though we're on our toes too long - or in some peoples' cases not long enough. That could change soon.
Each body part usually explodes with wearable copycats once a major player has entered the market and Apple, with a patent for a smart shoes, could lead that on-foot march one day.
The world's largest electronics companies are converging on wearable technology and analysts predict that profits could fill their oversaturated phone and tablet market share.
Couple that with the fact that consumers, especially the fitness-deficient among us, have hastily bought gadgets, supplements and juicers that have promised to improve our health. We're willing to try anything and everything in the name of better health.
Wearables need to become more than reminders to complete daily activity goals and offer real nuanced feedback to our increasingly connected world. There's another 11 years - or according to Kurzweil's theory another 15 years - before we can expect to be living in the future of Her.
That means today's wearables represent the early Nokia cell phones with monochrome screens in a decade-and-a-half timeline that ends with bright smartphones that boast full HD displays. There's a lot of innovation that's about to happen in between.