The Rise Of Wearable Tech: Tiny Computers For Every Body

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The year was 1997 and Men in Black, the ambitious sci-fi comedy starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones was just starting to hit theaters. The protagonists rid the planet of ill-intentioned alien invaders, using an arsenal of futuristic technology, the likes of which the surrounding world is just not ready for. Among these, the objects that remained perhaps the most memorable, aside from the famed neuralyzer, were the duo’s watches: incredibly normal-looking devices that concealed within them the communicative power of a phone and the computational propensity of a computer. Twenty-two years later, as we gear up for a reboot of the Men in Black series, the then-futuristic technology that Will Smith strapped to his wrist is available in any and all electronics stores. Not only that, their industry seems to be amongst the healthiest in the tech sphere. 

The future of tech, as a matter of fact, is starting to look all the more wearable. As suggested by a new International Data Corporation (IDC) report, wearable device shipments have increased by over 8.5 percent in the last year alone, counting a total of 125.3 million units shipped. This same figure is fully expected to reach 190 million units by 2022 if we were to take into account the 11 percent five-year compound annual growth of its industry. 

This should come as no surprise: the wearable industry has been steadily growing for some time. Pushed forward early on by the advent of fitness-oriented technology like the famed Fitbit, a product to be worn like a watch to track biological metrics like heart-rate and burnt calories, it slowly rose into acceptance by the midway point of the 2010s. When, in 2015, Apple released its take on wearable tech, the highly anticipated Apple Watch, the industry began to soar, as commonplace consumers suddenly desired the coveted apple product as part of their Cupertino-inspired technological arsenal. Four years later, wearable technology has not only become a well accepted and established industry but has also extensively built upon its functionality, offering services that now go far beyond the strictly biological. Rather, we are now impressively close to dealing with technology equal in power to that employed by Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black. 

The distinction between different products in the industry of wearable technology has all to do, once more, with intelligence. Presently, it is divided between “smart” wearable technology and “basic” wearable technology. A Fitbit, which is able to record distinct biometrics, but unable to impose any additional sort of calculus upon them, or provide an interactive user interface, is considered “basic”. What that means, in industry terms, is that it is a form of wearable technology that relies on another (like an iPhone) to provide its user with a graphical interface and computing power. An Apple Watch, on the other hand, is considered a “smart” wearable, as, while able to record the same biometrics as a Fitbit, it also hosts enough computing power to employ the data it receives and provide its user with a graphical interface detailed enough for its manipulation. The technology is powerful enough to change the way we interact without bodies, as Gonzalo Tudela briefly explains in the TED Talk below.

It should feel natural, then, that the same report indicates that around 52.8 percent of wearable device shipments contained smartwatches. By 2022, however, the same reports predict that smartwatches will rule over a much more enticing 63.3 percent of the market. The advent of “smart” wearables, as a whole, blew the winds of great progress into the lungs of what had, until then, been an extremely uncertain industry. Now, some four years after the introduction of the first Apple Watch, Juniper Research places wearable tech well on track to become a 20 billion dollar industry by 2023. 

What drives the core of this prospective growth is a simple concept: integration. Unlike a smartphone, a smartwatch is adequately and constantly connected to your body. Depending on the biometrics it records, which will do nothing but increase in number as development progresses, your smart wearable device has constant, up-to-date information on the inner, biological you. If that weren’t enough, a smart wearable is capable of using this information to create a continuously updated register of personal health. If the product in question is anything like an Apple Watch Series 4, which can connect to the internet without necessitating an accompanying device, it is immediately able to relay this information to any parties that might need it. For many patients, like those in the video below, an operative, fully-fledged wrist-computer, that is as well connected to your body as it is to the internet, rapidly revolutionizes self-monitoring, rendering both treatment and diagnosis infinitely easier. 

What is even more impressive, when we analyze the wearable tech industry in the long run, is the myriad of directions this technology can now begin to undertake. Having established a framework easily accepted by the average consumer, as we’ve seen with the Fitbit and the Apple Watch, wearable technology more specific to particular conditions can finally start its meteoric rise towards medical specificity. The same Juniper report, as a matter of fact, indicates that by 2022 the sector will touch the value of 40 billion dollars, as novel forms of “smart” hearing aids hit the shelves, with the promise of integrating traditional hearing aid technology with artificial intelligence infused, internet-ready devices that will discern language with massively improved precision. 

Currently, then, we find ourselves in front of a nascent industry set to explode and find its way, much like the smartphone did years ago, towards every-body and any-body. What is strangest, however, is that a device like the Apple Watch Series 4, which can independently access the internet and make phone calls on the one hand, and independently run an electrocardiogram on the other, is already edging towards a slice of futurism we perhaps did not fully expect to find ourselves at so soon. Yes, the almost ridiculous hi-tech vision presented by Men in Black so long ago is now a much, much more powerful reality, leaving us both in absolute awe of our own advancement and in hopeful anticipation of the wearable technology that is yet to come.