It’s Jonathan Henderson’s first day in his new job at the warehouse of a large electronics corporation. He sets off from home early, accessing a map and navigating the unfamiliar route on his smart glasses.

On the train he watches a ‘welcome video’ streamed to his glasses by the HR department. Later, when working in the warehouse, his armband automatically tracks the goods that he needs to move along the aisles of shelves, while the sensors in his ID badge analyze the motion and time that are involved in completing a particular task.

Gone are the days when Jonathan would have had to sit at his computer to travel down the information superhighway. The advent of tablets and smartphones has allowed us to carry the Internet in our pocket or bag. We could be anywhere and still be able to log on and start surfing.

Now another change is beginning to make big technological waves: the growth of wearable tech. Google Glass and, more recently, the Apple Watch have probably been the most high-profile wearable devices in terms of media coverage. Yet the market is much bigger than that: virtual headsets that stream 3D entertainment direct to your eyeballs, jewelry that counts your steps and smart clothing that has built-in LEDs for extra visibility or monitors the calories its wearer has burned. Even fashion designers are getting in on the game. Ralph Lauren has developed a wearable tech version of its classic polo shirt, which will be available this year and can track and stream real-time biometric data directly to a smartphone or tablet. And big name brands such as Adidas, Fujitsu, Nike and Philips are behind the newest developments in fitness trackers, including headbands, posture monitors and 3D trackers.

In fact, wearables represents the fastest-growing sector in global computing, with market values set to rise from $20 billion in 2015 to almost $70 billion in 2025. Yet while smartwatches regularly top the ‘most wearable tech’ lists, it’s wearable mobile health technology in the form of medical and fitness trackers that currently dominates the sector. Some health professionals believe that good medical information from patients collected on wearable tech – on calorie intake and heart rate, for instance – would better inform their conversations and help them deliver a higher quality of care. Mobile health technology was worn by 14.3 million people worldwide in 2014, with this figure predicted to rise to 78 million over the next five years as new trends for equipment featuring body sensors become more popular.

Body sensors are already fitted into sleep trackers by companies such as iHealth and can tell you whether you are sleeping ‘efficiently’; and they can be found in a potentially life-saving device from Medtronic which has produced a wearable ‘artificial pancreas’ that monitors blood glucose levels non-invasively and can even inject insulin to a specified level. The potential for sensors is clearly huge. Market research company IDTechEx estimates there will be over three billion sensors in wearable technology devices by 2025, with the market for wearable sensors reaching $5.5 billion by 2025.

Broader interest

Once these could be dismissed as niche products or even a fad; but is wearable tech now positioning itself to become an important part of our future? “Wearable products today are definitely at a stage where they are interesting for a broader group of consumers,” says Christian Stammel, CEO of Wearable Technologies AG. “Acceptance of these products has grown tremendously in the past year alone and wearable technology will soon connect all electronics into one fluid movement of human, environment, and technology.”

Forward-thinking

“For impact to market you couldn’t get bigger than Google Glass,” says James Hayward, Technology Analyst at London-based IDTechEx. “While it succeeded in attracting a lot of media attention, Glass faced criticism for being underdeveloped.” A new, more stylish version is coming soon in collaboration with an Italian eyewear designer.

The virtual world is advancing too, with the advent of Google’s complete virtual reality platform made out of – really – cardboard. Hayward believes that many thought Google Cardboard was a tongue in cheek product. “They may have a point,” he says. “It only costs $30! The product works by placing your phone at an optimal distance away from the lenses fitted into the cardboard headset. Then, by using compatible apps, the lenses create a 3D effect when held up to your eyes.”

Other virtual advances include Oculus Rift, a head-mounted fully immersive 3-D augmented reality display, set for commercial release in 2016. Paired with headphones it makes games, virtual worlds and live events feel ‚real‘. But it’s not just the gaming industry that is likely to advance. The commercial world is set to gain too. The system has already been trialled by DHL and Ricoh at a warehouse in the Netherlands where it gives visual cues to warehouse workers as to what items should be retrieved from shelves. Workers reported a 25% increase in efficiency on a sample of 20,000 orders, resulting in shorter retrieval times and fewer mistakes.

In June, the New York Business Journal asked “when will wearable tech be ‚gotta-have-it tech‘?” It‘s a good question, especially as the publication also noted that “a killer app” has yet to materialize. Well, true, we‘re not at the ‚gotta-have-it‘ stage yet. Not quite. But a vast number of companies around the world are working hard behind the scenes on a huge range of products to find that app, and make that day a reality. — Angela Singleton

Published: September 2015

Graphics: Dieter Braun