After Mobile: Your Body Is The Computer

The last few years have presented an unprecedented shift in the computing world as PCs are being replaced with mobile devices. But now that a large portion of the market has already shifted, what comes after it? Last week, we looked at how the giants of tech are going after TV screens. This week, we’re going to take a look at how wearable computing is redefining your body as the next frontier in tech.

Wearable Computing: The body as data

When Samsung recently released the Galaxy S4, they talked up a new piece of software called S Health, that leveraged some of the sensors built into the phone to provide you more information about how active your lifestyle is. The phone uses the existing accelerometer to work as a smart pedometer and also includes humidity and temperature sensors. This is part of a wider trend of using the human body as a new source of data.

Companies large and small have decided to go after the health sector through an array of devices and sensors that report on anything from your weight to how much your exercise or sleep. The aforementioned Samsung is competing with Nike, Jawbone, Fitibit, Withing and others to outfit individuals with activities monitors. The monitors then synchronize with the internet, providing their users with data about their activity and sleeping patterns as long as they wear the device at all times.

In the technology set, this type of self-monitoring has become so prevalent that it is now organized as a category known as the quantified self. But while there are many different form factors to the devices, what is interesting is that the technology inside the devices is actually provided by only a few companies. One of those companies, FullPower, is the creator of MotionX, a set of core technologies that sit inside Nike’s, Apple’s and Jawbone’s offering. The company’s CEO, Philippe Kahn, is no stranger to disruption as he previously invented the camera-phone. His company is now looking to become the leading provider of sensor technology in the space.

“The semantics part of sensing is the difficult part of the technology. As sensors get cheaper, things get better for us, as the technology becomes even more important. It’s an exciting space” he said. “The demand for wrist-based, glass-based and clothing-based solutions have been overwhelming. Our IP portfolio precedes most of these efforts, so we see obvious opportunities to power well know brands such as Jawbone, Nike and others to be announced.”

Because Fullpower has been around since 2004, it has had a headstart on potential competitors and the complexity of what it’s doing has, so far, kept many from trying to compete with what it does. “With wearable devices, we do assembler language “on the metal”, which seems like a lost skill: small, fast, compact, long battery life, accurate and reliable,” said Kahn, comparing his efforts to earlier ones in his career when he helped launch the personal computing revolution as a co-founder of Borland, one of the earliest providers of tools to software programmers.

The disappearing screen

But in order to make this data interesting, its creator/consumer needs to be able to see its output. While a phone or tablet is fine when stopped, it is not the type of device you want to interact with when you are running or bicycling. Three different schools of thought have evolved as to how to distribute information back to the user, each of them working as peripherals to smartphones (the logic for doing so is that you can let the smartphone do the heavy lifting when it comes to connecting to the internet and processing information, with the peripherals mostly receiving small bits of information to be displayed to the user and sending back instructions from a related limited set).

Currently, we have audio related interfaces that rely on on the user speaking commands (often via a bluetooth headset) and receiving audio information back. This is the concept that powers Apple’s Siri search engine and Google’s voice search. Audio cues are also provided by different apps like RunKeeper, which provides exercise-related information as different time or distance intervals.

Head’s up

The next generation of devices falls into one of two possible categories: as glasses, displaying information in the user’s field of vision, or as watches, providing information via vibration and display on the user’s wrist.

The most talked about of the glass displays is Google Glass, the company’s controversial entry into the wearable computing field. The $1500 device has, to date, only been available to a few people but has already started several debates in the technology world about pricing and privacy. It consists of a set of glasses with a built-in camera, display, touchpad, and microphone that allow it to interface with a smartphone (Android-only for now) to take pictures and movies, perform searches and translate information on the go. For Google, it’s an effort to get even more embedded into people’s everyday life, by ensuring that the company’s services are right there in front of the user and that the user’s personal information (personal photos and videos) is stored on Google’s servers, making it more difficult to leave the Google universe.

But Google is not the only company to offer glasses. Over the last few months, more specialized computing glasses have entered the market. Canadian company Recon Instruments, a pioneer in heads-up displays for sports, is introducing Recon Jet, a pair of glasses designed to provide sport-related information to its user.  The device is priced at $599, or $900 less than Google Glass, but not be available to consumers until early 2014. Meanwhile, Italian-based GlassUp is looking at the same price point and is trying to fund its effort through via crowd-sourcing; Rochester (NY)-based Vuzix has introduced Smart Glasses M100, which it currently sells in the business-to-business market for around $1000. A consumer version is slated for release in the fall at a lower price point; and Taiwan-based Oculon will introduce a sub-$500 heads up display in the fall.

Watch this

So a consensus seem to be emerging that consumers will pay around $500 for such head mounted displays but for consumers who are looking for a lower price point, the alternative may be on their wrist. Another emerging category in the display of information coming from a mobile device is in the watch form factor.

In 2004, Microsoft introduced SPOT, smartwatch technology that would receive information from the internet and allow for mini-programs to deliver very basic interactivity to users. The company had the backing of large watch manufacturers like Fossil, Tissot, and Swatch but failed to get traction with users, eventually closing down in 2008.

This could have been the death of the smartwatch concept but last year, Pebble reintroduced the idea. Using Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform, Pebble raised over $10 million, making it the most successful project on the platform at the time. While it had initially been passed over by several venture capitalists, forcing it to go the crowd-source route, Pebble is now seen as a growing player in Silicon Valley and recently secured $15 million from Charles River Ventures.

A year later, the company has sold over a quarter million units and a number of competitors are emerging. Sony recently introduced the Sony Smartwatch, which differentiates itself from the Pebble’s black and white e-paper screen by offering a touchscreen color LCD (it sells for $150, the same price as the Pebble). Meanwhile, rumors have been that Apple is planning on introducing its own take on a smartwatch in the fall. Recent trademark filings to secure the term iWatch seem to point to the company having plans for something called an iWatch, which could be a watch (but could also be a TV-related program). And the recent hiring of Paul Deneve, who was until recently CEO of Yves St. Laurent, has added further fuel to industry buzz about Apple’s move in the fashion and accessory space.

Other players in the market include several offerings from  MetaWatch, which range in price from $129 to $300, and I’m Watch, which sells for $300.

Accessorizing the phone

Part of the reason for this explosion of products is the introduction of Bluetooth Low Energy, a new technology that allows for devices to communicate among each others without spending as much power as they used to. This ensures that devices connecting to a smartphone can run for much longer without having to be recharged, a challenge for previous generations of devices.

However, put together, they also represent a new trend in computing: while the last few years have been about moving from PCs to mobile devices, future trends appear to be about using that mobile device as a central hub of connectivity and the brain of a set of networked tools that communicate with it. Whether it is a set of glasses, a wristwatch, or even a TV screen (as we discussed last week), smartphones and tablets will increasingly provide the smarts but be tucked away while information is consumed on another device. As processing power increases and power consumption decreases, we could even envision a time when the mobile phone or tablet is not needed anymore. But that’s still for much farther down the road as currently peripheral devices are still relatively unable to allow batteries that last as long as the ones in mobile devices.

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