Remote control

Smart wearable technologies have the potential to change the way we look at the world, but will they have a positive effect on consumers' lives or simply increase alienation, Dhrubo Paul asks.

The Leap Motion Contoller: uses motion-sensing technology
The Leap Motion Contoller: uses motion-sensing technology

Wearable devices such as Google Glass, Pebble smart watches and brainwave-reading headbands are about to transform our lives.

Over the next year, tech togs of every variety will hit the market. They will allow us to control machines at a flick of the wrist, check our heartbeat and other bodily functions – thus revolutionising health and fitness – and even command computers simply by thinking.

This wearable technology will be attached to parts of our bodies and promises to help us interact with the world in previously unimaginable ways. Google Glass, the voice-controlled spectacles that provide a mini-computer screen in the corner of one eye, combines data such as our location with search and behavioural history to display the right information at the right time.

Glass has been called "creepy" as it allows wearers to film everything they see and instantly call up information about the world and the people around them. If such inventions catch on, they will certainly change the way we live – and not necessarily in a good way. Are we to become a species of super-connected Frankenstein’s monsters lurching around in a machine-dominated dystopia?

A race of Glassholes? We are already slaves to our smartphones and iPads as they replace our real-life human interactions – the theme of the TV series Black Mirror, a nightmare vision of the connected world. Surely this can only get worse once we hook our bodies up to the web?

Before we panic, let’s remember that we have had wearable technology such as spectacles and watches for centuries, while fillings, implants and prosthetics are more recent versions. The difference is that these are not smart, they are not aware and are not connected up like the new wearable tech.

It is worth examining the new devices to see if they should be feared or welcomed. And, more importantly, will they work?

A significant launch for 2013 is MYO, an armband capable of measuring electrical activity in your muscles to capture arm, hand and finger gestures. The promotional video features a demonstration where a small drone is controlled simply by arm gestures.

Meanwhile, motion-sensor devices in the style of Microsoft’s Kinect use infrared light and range-imaging to pick up a human’s form and gestures from a distance. The US start-up Leap Motion is poised to release a similar device that allows 3D motion-sensing technology to be used to control your computer.

Electroencephalography, or EEG, is used in medicine to detect the activity of neurons in the brain. As our grasp of the workings of the human brain advances, so too does the potential for its practical applications. Necomimi and InteraXon have developed head-worn devices that use EEG to allow people to control their computers and devices simply by thinking.

Perhaps the biggest potential for wearable technology is in the field of activity- tracking, using items that can record data and sync it with other devices or a central

repository. Several devices exist that can record the number of steps a user has taken, the calories they have burned, the weight they have lost or the time they have slept. Devices either on sale or on the way this year include Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone’s UP, Withings’ Smart Activity Tracker, BodyMedia’s Core 2 and Fitbug Orb.

One challenge for the wearable technologists is getting the user interface right. Pebble, the smart wristwatch, is tackling this head-on. It promises to merge activity-tracking with the ability to control apps on your phone such as e-mail. Right now, wearers can read text, see who is calling them and scan their Twitter or Facebook feeds while they are on the move. Pebble’s range of tools for developers is in its infancy, but one of the first apps promised will enable integration with the activity-tracker RunKeeper. This will allow Pebble to compete with other activity-tracking bands while providing extra functionality.

Wearable technology will change how we think about health, the way we create and the way we are entertained. It is also pivotal in the movement towards smart appliances, where every device is a smart device. The real opportunity is to build compatibility and openness into each appliance in this ecosystem.

I predict wearable technology will become mainstream. But is this desirable, or a route to increasing alienation? We’ll probably have to wait until the technology is embedded in our society before we can answer that. Which will, of course, be too late.

Dhrubo Paul is a senior developer at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas