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Wearables 2.0

From biometric shirts to 'tattoo' touchpads, the wearables space is going through an overhaul.
By Nidhi Singal | Print Edition: October 23, 2016
Wearables 2.0
ARROW SMART SHIRT Share your LinkedIn profile, Facebook profile or business card with a tap on the cuff (Photographs courtesy Companies)

Nice shirt."

You're pleased. "Hey, thanks."

"Looks comfortable?" he says, handing over his business card. And waits for you to reciprocate.

You ask for his phone instead. He is nonplussed. You tap it on the left cuff of your shirt, and hand back the phone. Your business card is on his phone screen. He looks up in surprise.

"It is also very smart," you say in explanation. His surprise doesn't go away.

This is, of course, an imaginary conversation, but one that would well be playing out in meeting rooms, where people sport a new smart shirt brought out by Arrow. The shirt's left cuff has an NFC tag, and combined with an app on the smartphone, enables others with NFC-enabled smartphones to receive a host of information from you, including your business card, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. The cuff also does a range of other stuff, including storing and playing songs, activating meeting mode in your phone and connecting to Bluetooth devices. The shirt is an evolved form of a wearable gadget, commonly known by the appellation 'wearables' - a category that is growing both in terms of development of technology as well as end-use gadgets.

In the not-so-distant-future, analysts believe wearables will be in the realms of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), in the form of headsets and glasses, for consumers and businesses/ enterprises. For consumer use, cardboard style VR and AR headsets (with an opening for camera) will take centre stage, whereas glasses like Google Glass and alternatives to Microsoft's Hololens are being worked on for enterprise use. Head-mounted displays that sold only 0.14 million units for 2015, are expected to sell 1.43 million units in 2016.

Smart clothing or smart garment, still in the early stages, is expected to become popular by the end of 2017. One can expect biometric shirts to monitor health to sports bras with heart rate monitors and shorts with sensors to track running metrics including cadence, bounce, ground contact time, braking, pelvic rotation and stride length. Work is in progress on solar clothes that can generate and store charge. What's more, MIT and Microsoft Research have come up with a temporary tattoo that can turn into a touchpad and remotely control a smartphone. Smart Stitches - tiny sensors embedded into thin silicon membranes, which are then wrapped around the polymer of a stitch - are undergoing medical trials. These will be able to send real-time data on tissue health and wound healing to doctors. Implants such as a wearable tooth, 3D smart organs and smart contact lenses are also being worked on.

Health monitoring is clearly a big market for wearables. "Wearables have today enabled companies to devise a new segment altogether, called the health tech space. It is believed that wearables as a category will soon take over the healthcare space; the healthcare segment will see a mixture of wearables and robotics. Even doctors today are embracing these technologies," says Arnav Kishore, Co-founder and CEO, Boltt Sports Technologies.

Take Your Pick

Wearables have come to be synonymous with smartbands and smartwatches. According to Gartner, 60.45 million units of smartwatches and fitness bands combined were sold last year. The forecast for the year 2016 is 50.40 million units for smartwatches and 34.97 million for fitness bands. However, their accuracy remains a bone of contention since the primary job of these bands is to track activities such as footsteps, sleep and calories burnt throughout the day. To ensure the fervour does not wear off, companies are focusing on the user experience by improving accuracy, enhancing apps and exploring new domains to retain the buzz around wearables. Below are a few devices that are ruling this category currently.

Wristbands: Fitbit has introduced new features and designs to its top-selling Blaze and Alta. These include extended smartphone notifications, the 'Reminder to Move' feature and new clock faces that provide a more motivating and personalised fitness experience. Goqii now offers features such as health locker, health assessment, doctor on call, lab test booking, contactless payment solutions and sending health data directly to the doctor. Currently, Goqii has only tied up with Max Healthcare for the bit on sending data directly to doctors, but that is how seamless things should be in the future. Microsoft is tackling the accuracy issue in its Band 2 (not launched in India yet), which has sensors to not just track activity levels and heart rate but UV exposure, location and more. For accuracy, it has a barometer that detects changes in atmospheric pressure -- useful when climbing stairs.

"On the consumer side of the wearable market, fitness bands are becoming cheaper and precise. With more sensors, accuracy can be achieved. Form factors are also changing a little. We are also seeing more personalised pendants and rings in the wearable space," says Akhilesh Tuteja, Partner and Head, IT Advisory, KPMG in India.

Wearable Jewellery: If you are a big accessories fan, there are rings, pendants and bracelets that are high on fashion and utility. NFC Ring can be used to unlock doors and smartphones, to make payments, transfer information and connect people. Ringly - the most fashionable of all - has been designed to fetch basic notifications from smartphones. FinRing is a Bluetooth ring that turns your hand into an interface. Activities of connected devices can be assigned to each segment of fingers that work as hot keys, and you can tap and swipe with your thumb. Safer by Leaf is a smart pendant that can send emergency alerts when pressed twice.

Smartwatches: According to Gartner, smartwatches will clock 66.71 million units in sales in 2017. Manufacturers are constantly trying to improve the hardware and focusing on the right target audience. Garmin's smartwatches don't look fancy, but sports enthusiasts swear by the watch's efficiency. Apple, too, has come up with a Nike+ smartwatch with breathable band for athletes and added new features to the Apple Watch Series 2 - it can now be worn while doing water activities such as swimming and surfing; and at the end of the workout, the speaker itself ejects water. The Watch OS 3 can also help in guided deep breathing sessions for relaxation. GPS integration, fetching notifications and quick replies are some of the standard features in smartwatches today. Samsung's third generation Gear Watch lets you respond to call or read a message by turning the bezel. There is a built-in speaker for answering calls on the watch itself. The Bluetooth model requires a Wi-Fi connection and the voice call app for phone-free calling. Asus launched the ZenWatch 3 that runs on Google's Android wear OS. Most of these smartwatches track activities and have a heart rate sensor, too. Gaming on smartwatches is going to be the next big thing.

Trackers: Safety trackers for kids and pets are gaining popularity. Wristbands for kids are embedded with tracking features, SOS alerts and drowning alerts. Some of them are pocket-sized devices. The ones for elderly can notify in case of a fall or a medical emergency. There are wearable devices to track the location of your pets or keep track of their physical activities, as well as collars with cameras.

Hearables: Bluetooth headsets, having been around for a long time, are the biggest contributors to the wearable market - 116.32 million units were sold in 2015. Companies are now making them smarter by adding sensors and intelligent features. Samsung's Gear IconX is a wire-free fitness tracker that is not dependent on your phone for tracking activity. It is equipped with a heart rate monitor for tracking heartbeat while you work out. Apple has announced AirPods, Bluetooth enabled, which are very easy to pair. They can sense if they are in the ear or not and seamlessly switch between Apple products.

Vishal Tripathi, Research Director, Gartner, says, "The top technologies where wearables will have an impact are biometrics authentication, mobile health monitoring, battery, intelligent experience through virtual personal assistant (VPA), security, wearable processor, improved design, virtual reality and augmented reality, and motion detection for true accuracy." He adds that companies will have to ensure the devices are affordable, easy to use and offer accuracy.

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