Monday, March 9, 2015

The Why of Wearables

Ten years from now, 2015 may well go down as the Year of the Wearable. Activity trackers are plentiful and accurate (including those built-in to your phone), Android Wear devices are now becoming more refined, the Pebble will see its first substantial upgrade (including 10-day battery life), and, of course, the Watch will launch next month after additional details are revealed later today.

So why have these technologies recently become interesting and relevant? Did some Silicon Valley innovator simply decide that we needed more technology on our wrists (and *POOF*! VC funding suddenly made it happen)?

Of course not. The truth is actually far more interesting, and, when properly understood, is the lens through which we can peer into the future.

Time for a history lesson ...

My grandfather worked on the UNIVAC computer during his time in the Army at Ft. Meade, MD in the 1950s. It was large (and the battery life was really bad...). This is an example of a UNIVAC system that was used by the Navy:
Credit: Wikipedia
At this nascent point in computing history, could anyone have envisioned a device that's orders of magnitude more powerful, yet small enough to fit on your wrist? Perhaps (see #11). But truth is stranger than (science) fiction, and the reality is that in the realm of personal computing we've easily surpassed even the most fantastic futuristic visions of the 1950s.

The invention and subsequent miniaturization of the transistor have accounted for this success, which has followed a trajectory known as Moore's Law, which I won't rehash here. Some have warned that Moore's Law is coming to an end, at least via silicon. I wouldn't be so quick to throw in the towel. The progress is staggering (note a version of the UNIVAC at the bottom):
Credit: AMD via Technology Review
This dramatic miniaturization allowed my family to purchase its first desktop computer in the early 1990s - a Packard Bell with a 66MHz AMD chip inside. I have such fond memories playing Myst with my dad. I had a desktop in college as well (this time a Dell with a 450MHz Pentium II), and it wasn't until I started medical school in 2004 that I owned my first laptop, a sturdy IBM Thinkpad.

This miniaturization continued and I bought my first iPod touch in 2009 to use as a test device while I was teaching myself to write iOS apps in residency. This was followed by an iPad in 2010 (the day they were released, although I should note that the iPad was most certainly not the first tablet computer on the market), and then pretty much every iPhone since then (I now use an iPhone 6 Plus - the first iPhone that actually fits my hands). My first "smart watch" came in the form of the Pebble in 2013, and I've since used a plethora of other gizmos and gadgets that would fall in the "wearables" category.

Notice a trend here?

Computers have continued to progress towards smaller and faster devices, and as they've done so, new applications for that technology have inevitably been the result. "Wearables" are simply the next step in that logical progression.

So don't be surprised as these devices start to pop up in ever smaller and more discrete places, such as the buttons on your shirt, woven into your socks (you gotta know how much your feet are sweating!), mixed with your food, in your medicine ...

If we've learned anything from the past, it's that this progression is inevitable, and that it will only exceed our expectations and our wildest futurist fantasies.

With respect to his latest creation, Jony Ive seems to agree: "It’s technology worn on the wrist. I sensed there was an inevitability to it."

Despite this predicable inevitability, the future will still hold plenty of surprises. And I suppose that's the best prediction of them all.

1 comment:

  1. Nice shoutout for Pebblers! I was a Kickstarter 1st Tier backer for both campaigns. Looking forward to my new Pebble Time Steel in July.


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