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A word on wearables for the next three years

Two consistent threads:  The really interesting developments lie at the intersection of both emerging and maturing technologies.  Social norms evolve more slowly than tech!

Wearables will enable more fluid interactions with our increasingly smart phones…

Whilst the phone will remain “the sun at the centre of our personal universes”, the means by which we interact with them will keep evolving.  Going beyond the wrist, “hearables” will be where most progress is made in the near term.  Google’s successor to Glass, Project Aura, is rumoured to major on audio interactions (via voice command and bone conductive speakers). 

In particular, this is one half of the battle Intelligent Assistants (Siri, Cortana, Google Now et al) need to win to fulfil their potential.  It still feels awkward to talk to ask your phone a question on speaker, and wearables could provide several ways to make that experience better.  (The other half is maybe even more fundamental – actually making it worthwhile interacting with them). 

…and filter the daily deluge of notifications

I get the ‘tech-to-wean-off-tech’ irony, I do!  But checking our smartphone for an email now exposes us to a hundred other follow-on temptations – check your LinkedIn, check your WhatsApp, check Twitter…  

But wearable devices can mediate the stream.  For a start, the formats simply don’t lend themselves to take the secondary browsing / checking – indeed I feel its one of the killer features of my Apple Watch – I stay informed, but my phone stays in my pocket. 

The form factors themselves are forcing designers to think much more carefully about the encroachments they make on users attention.  Products like Kate Unsworth’s Kovert Design jewellery is aimed specifically at filtering only the really important notifications you need, and blocking the rest (with the ultimate aim of helping the user be more mindful and assuage the fear of missing out on “important” info).

Therefore companies who design to inform only when required – a deeply personal, and therefore deeply complicated thing – will start to stand out in the next few years.

Wearable tech will help bridge the gap between online and physical experience

There’s a huge amount of interest in the data generated by our online shopping forays and how this can link to our real-world trips to the high-street.  But there are other ways to bridge the gap.  Take for example, a great innovation from one of the oldest musical equipment retailers in the UK.  Staff wearing a pair of smart glasses, equipped with a camera, can advise online shoppers about the specifics of a purchase. The staff can hear and converse with, but not see, the customers.  In this way, shoppers can be transported to the bricks and mortar store virtually and get the “feel” of the product in a way few websites can convey.

This is an interesting space for wearable solutions to occupy.  It’s an improvement on video-based reviews on Youtube – but is it a merely a warm-up act to the onrush of virtual reality?   In some respects its potentially a better solution than both.  After all, there’s no need to create a new digital version of the asset – what the customer sees is the actual item they’re interested in.  Customers get to interact with real human expertise – and that expertise may be being augmented by smart AIs in the background.  Expect to see this grow, particularly for higher-ticket retail items, event venues and estate agency.

Big Brother will be watching you…  for the right reasons?

I’m concerned by this prediction from Gartner:  “By 2018, two million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment”.

In physically and mentally stressful jobs – being a lone social-worker, or a soldier in theatre, or even as Gartner suggest, a politician – such tracking can keep people we need to be on the ball safe, and at the peak of their powers.

However, there’s a very fine line between monitoring to ensure wellbeing and safety for and monitoring for performance management.  How many employers will fall the right side of that line?

Here I offer more questions than opinions: When and where should a device operate?  Will they be constrained to a geo-fenced area or timebound to working hours?   If the aim is truly protection and employee wellbeing (and realistically reducing employers health insurance premia too), how could the individual keep tracking their activity outside work – and have confidence their boss isn’t tracking them too?

The logical step after performance monitoring is performance enhancement.  So leaving aside the Russian athlete jokes…

…Wearables offering performance enhancement will begin to be used more widely

Some of the more “out-there” wearables that made a big splash at the start of 2015 will see their products normalise.  A great example is Thync. A TENS machine for the side of your head, this promises to pep you up or calm you down at the touch of a button.  If you need to be extra sharp before that crucial pitch – or if you’re a junior doctor coming to the end of a 20hour shift – would you use it?  And how much safer is it than pharmacological alternatives (like nootropics or other, ahem, stimulants)?  Could these kind of devices even be made mandatory?

Single purpose devices will lose ground to multi-purposed devices…

Particularly as devices proliferate, we will see a parallel re-run of the story that’s played out in apps.  Doing one thing well has been the start point for a lot of successful apps.  But because they’re software, we’ve then we’ve seen them expand into messaging, social networking, news – all as means of keeping their users engaged.

Doing one thing well for hardware is, however, not enough.  Multiple sensors and low-power connectivity enable this kind of extension.  Those which just focus on, for example, heart-monitoring, will find themselves outflanked by devices offering richer experiences.

….but specific purpose wearables will still have a place to play – in specific environments

Rather than risk getting the Apple Watch caught up in the quagmire of regulatory approvals for medical-grade monitoring devices, Apple are reportedly looking to create a separate health-focussed wearable.  And this despite the Watch’s ability to store about 60 different types of data, including blood pressure and glucose levels… 

Head-worn wearables – especially glass-like devices – will pick up pace where aesthetics play second fiddle to function – ie the enterprise, or when gaming (despite being increasingly socially engaging online, gaming is still largely done physically solo). 

Microsoft will be hoping that the HoloLens developer kit launching in 2016 leads to genuinely useful applications in both work and play environments.  Interesting to see how this will be positioned going forwards though, given Satya Nadella’s recent comments on Xbox effectively being non-core… 

Wearables in combination with other techs will help build rich, truly useful applications

By applications I mean benefits to users, not software packages. 

For example, in Malawi, Kenya and Nairobi, a phone application will track steps taken – each step earns users a fraction of a “Bitwalking Dollar”.  Using a similar infrastructure to bitcoin, this can then be traded for goods or physical world cash.

Some businesses not only gather your data, but analyse it and deliver human, personalised recommendations or encouragements.  These recommendations are being delivered by trained humans – who are themselves training learning AI systems.  As we see AIs being trained and improved, the level of human intervention will drop.  One could imagine services where freemium models include AI-only advice, with premium input from human experts.  Could this model translate into the NHS?  Speaking of which…

Self-management will save the NHS and Social Care

OK, not on its own...  But self-management is unquestionably growing as an area of focus.  Structural drivers are (and will continue) to force individuals to be involved more closely in their own care and wellbeing, both in terms of health and finances. 

The NHS ran a deficit of £1.6bn in just six months of 2015.  We’re living longer, but even with new local government powers to raise funds, there may be no money to pay for our care – witness the infamous Barnet Graph of Doom.  Pensions changes mean there is now almost £5billion drawn down and sitting in current accounts, earning no interest to help pay for care in older age.

Wearables will play a key part here.  The (albeit outgoing) national director for patients and information at NHS England has gone public with an ambition to make outputs from wearables a part of into Electronic Patient Records by 2018.  There are trials underway in Poole to integrate personal data from epilepsy’ patients smartphones and wearables with its patient records system, for example, and another in Staffordshire where patients wear cameras with GPS, motion and light sensors to help them combat memory loss.  The prevention of diabetes (a massive financial spend for the NHS) is receiving current, specific attention, with four major trial cohorts due to start in 2016, with scaling of effective solutions to be expected beyond that. 

Smart tattoos, ingestibles and even implantables, (if they fit the definition of wearable) will remain confined to specific health-related applications for some time.

Wearables might just change how we see the world

Probably the most hyped, yet secretive wearable device currently is Magic Leap.  Having raised a staggering sum of money – over $500m from venture royalty including Google and Andreessen Horowitz – it promises “the proper application of technology to our biology that leads to the experience of magic."  It’s not augmented reality or virtual reality, but is based on light-field technology.   The result is life-like digital images that appear to be part of our surroundings like real physical objects would.

Uses cases abound – gaming, learning, travelling, entertainment…  Whist there are big challenges in making the technology genuinely portable, this is the one device I’m most excited about for the next three years.

And finally…

Beard baubles will continue to be a thing.

Photo of Chris McKibbin

Chris McKibbin

Innovation and collaboration lead, Capita

Chris is a passionate advocate for innovation (via technologies or techniques) and collaboration (with real people). He is based within Capita’s Group Business Development team with a remit for identifying, applying and trialling new technologies which matter to Capita and its clients; identifying new commercial and operating models that flow out of the uptake of these techs; and understanding existing and developing societal attitudes and pressures.

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