It’s the plot to countless movies, TV shows and books — the moral, ethical and technological dilemmas that arise when man and machine merge. Cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, serve as both the zenith of our technological potential and ultimate example of science gone awry. And while we’re seemingly still quite far away from automatons sheathed in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s skin, that hasn’t stopped some enterprising, and possibly somewhat mad, “biohackers” from attempting to create rudimentary cyborgs out of their own bodies.
In a fascinating and slightly disturbing article that appeared in the August 2012 edition of The Verge, writer Ben Popper profiled biohackers who have taken to experimenting on themselves. From magnets to electrodes and sensors, biohackers are intrigued by the idea installing hardware on and in their bodies to see what, if any, sort of sixth sense they can then conjure.
For the vast majority of us, however, the idea of DIY surgery to cram devices under our skin remains far too off-putting to ever consider. But wearable technology, like Google Glass and Samsung Galaxy Gear, are driving more awareness and interest in devices that we can temporarily attach to ourselves. And while certainly a compelling concept, what can these devices actually do?
Google Glass is without a doubt the most well known example of a wearable device. The device resembles a pair of eyeglasses but features a heads-up display, a camera, voice-recognition, and cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. Despite all the press it’s received, Google Glass is still being tested and is not readily available to consumers. However, some 10,000 Google Glass Explorers have been selected to participate in a sort of live beta test.
Photo: Wearable devices like Google Glass incorporate existing tech, which could simplify adoption in the workplace. Photo by Flickr/Wilberbaan
As much as many people seem to be enamored with the idea of Glass, an equal number seem wary of the privacy implications it and other wearable devices present. Understandably, some are not too keen on the idea of everyone being able to secretly video record everything all the time.
David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices.com, a voice-over agency, is one of the Google Glass Explorers. Based on his experience with the device, he thinks the privacy concerns are overblown.
“Privacy implications have largely been over-exaggerated,” he said. “Someone taking a picture with their smartphone, for instance, can be just as unobvious as someone taking a photo with Google Glass. In my experience as a Google Glass Explorer, people assume (incorrectly) that Google Glass is recording video continuously. As such, people have been more cautious not to say or do something that could be recorded. Still, to start a video recording, I’d need to either be swiping and tapping through a menu to commence recording, or, audibly say, ‘OK Glass, record a video.’ Either way, people around me would have a good idea that I’m capturing footage.”
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If Google Glass is not designed for surreptitiously recording the goings-on around a user, what does Google have in mind for the device? Thad Starner is a professor of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a wearable technology pioneer. He also is the technical lead and manager of the Google Glass program. Starner explained the actual features of Glass and what they might be used for.
“Glass is a lightweight wearable computer designed to be worn all day,” he said. “To the user, the display is mounted high in the visual field, similar to the rearview mirror of a car. Glass is designed for short micro-interactions and is controlled via head motions, speech and a trackpad on the right earpiece.”
More Wearables Are on the Way
Wearable technology was front-and-center in January at the International CES, the consumer technology industry’s glitzy annual trade show in Las Vegas. Intel CEO and event keynote Brian Krzanich, above, said a new generation of mobile and wearable technology is poised to hit the market this year.
“Most of my career, computing has been something you hold in your hand. Maybe it’s something in your pocket [or] something that sits on your desk,” said Krzanich, who became the company’s CEO last summer. “That idea is about to be transformed.”
One of his announcements was Edison, a Pentium-class PC the size and shape of an SD card. Krzanich said the miniature computing marvel runs Linux, has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and that Intel has designed an app store specifically for it.
Edison’s processing power and small size could facilitate rapid innovation and product development during the next era of technology advancement. Intel plans to spur innovation with Make It Wearable, a contest for entrants to submit their ideas for wearable products, powered by Edison. The company will dole out $1.3 million in prizes split among multiple winners and their entries. The top 10 contenders will work with Intel and industry partners to develop the products for release.
Krzanich unveiled other Intel wearables that were geared mainly for consumer use, though some could prove useful at work as well. They included earbuds with biosensors, headsets that integrate with digital personal assistant software, and a bowl that charges wireless equipment placed inside of it. — Hilton Collins, staff writer
While Google Glass Explorers continue to test the limits of head-mounted technology, health and fitness buffs have enthusiastically latched on to wearable devices — or, more accurately, the technology has latched on to them. Fitness bands from Nike, Fitbit and Jawbone are becoming more common on the wrists of people interested in computing how much physical activity they’re undertaking, how well they’re sleeping and what steps to take to improve their overall fitness.
Leveling-up the wearable fitness technology game, a Montreal-based company called Hexoskin is getting attention for creating fitness garments with integrated textile sensors. This clothing, the company says, measures among other things a wearer’s heart rate, breathing rate and volume, step count and cadence, activity intensity and calories burned.
General health and wellness is seen as perhaps one of the ripest markets for wearable technology. Beyond devices for gym rats, there are a slew of innovative solutions for people wishing to improve their well-being. A company called LUMOback, for example, has a wearable posture-improving device that vibrates when a wearer is slouching. A number of manufacturers are working on wearable patches that offer transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation for chronic pain relief. There are even ingestible devices being tested by Austin, Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor and Proteus Digital Health in Redwood City, Calif. These devices are tiny, cheap and digestible microcontrollers than can wirelessly transmit data about the goings-on in a user’s guts.
One of the most interesting wearable devices currently available is the Tiger Eye Security Sensor. Developed by 10 for Humanity, the device is designed to deter violent crime and bullying before it can occur. The company’s CEO, CJ Scarlet, is a rape survivor and victims advocate who champions the Tiger Eye Security Sensor as a discreet, hands-free way to call for help. The device, which is fashioned like a small piece of jewelry, automatically calls police when it detects keywords like “stop” and “no” and when elevated levels of stress are present in the user’s voice.
Despite these innovations, however, it seems in general that Americans are exhibiting tepid enthusiasm for actually using wearable devices. Several recent studies peg interest in the middling levels with, not surprisingly, the younger demographic being the likeliest to want or acquire the devices.
According to the results of a Harris Poll of 2,577 U.S. adults surveyed online in September 2013, “nearly half of Americans are at least a little interested (46 percent) in owning a watch or wristband type wearable tech device, with over one-fourth specifying that they are very or somewhat interested (27 percent). While nearly half are at least somewhat interested in some other type of device (46 percent; 26 percent very or somewhat interested), fewer show an interest in owning a wearable tech device in the headset/glasses vein (36 percent at least a little, 20 percent very or somewhat).”
The poll’s results also suggest that younger Americans, who Harris terms “echo boomers,” parents with children under 18, and males are the demographics most interested in wearable technology.
IT security firm Fortinet conducted a 20-country survey of 3,200 employees ages 21-32 during October 2013. According to the results of that survey, “when asked how long it would take for wearable technologies such as smart watches and Google Glass to become widespread at work or for work purposes, [in the U.S.] 22 percent said ‘immediately’ and a further 29 percent said when costs come down. Only 8 percent of the entire sample disagreed that the technologies would become widespread.”
It would seem that while there’s interest in taking steps toward cyborg-hood, it’s not yet overwhelming. This is good news for those responsible for supporting wearable technology when it does enter the workplace. Unlike other revolutionary technology changes, there may actually be adequate time to prepare.
The moderate pace of adoption also is good for government agencies that want to thoroughly consider how best to incorporate these devices. Clearly health and safety are applications at the forefront. How else might wearable tech make an impact in the public sector?
Much like the tablet computers and mobile phones that preceded them, wearable devices are believed by many to be a way to revolutionize field work — whether that’s building inspections, public safety or health care.
Phil Bertolini, CIO of Oakland County, Mich., said he can easily envision a number of scenarios in which wearable devices could play a valuable role.
“Government is loaded with people who have to inspect property, businesses, etc.,” he said. “Imagine the ability to perform a hands-free inspection with data traveling wirelessly to a back-end system. If this is possible, I could see building inspectors, assessors, restaurant inspectors and code enforcers using this technology.
“Imagine public safety applications ... routing an officer on a 911 call, taking video and photos at a crime scene, capturing data for archiving purposes. A fire person could capture real-time intel as they arrive on a scene. If this technology is mature enough to allow the data to be offloaded wirelessly to a back-end system, then they may have something here. If the capture of data is strictly on the device, this may still work but may not be as effective. I think it would be very interesting to put this technology through a test to see if it is viable.”
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Bertolini and others, of course, share concerns about privacy, security and governance. But this is an emerging industry that leverages existing bits of current technology to create something new. The adopted pieces, like cellular and Wi-Fi networks, already have robust security baked into them. Back-end support for the amalgamated technologies making wearable devices possible also is well understood. At this point in the evolution of wearable technology, it probably makes more sense to speculate about what might be accomplished with these devices rather than anguishing over what sort of support strategies are going to be required.
So for the time being, sign up for the Google Glass Explorer program. Get yourself a Fitbit or Jawbone. Eat one of those microcontrollers and see what data you can glean about your innards. Wearable technology is borne of innovation but will require innovative people to help it reach its potential.
Not everyone wants to become a cyborg or a basement steampunk surgeon, but some of these devices really might make our lives better. Maybe it’s time you got your technology on.
Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.