Wearable technology is approaching a point at which users themselves become part of the city-as-a-system.
Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 print edition of FutureStructure. You can download the issue here.
While new wearable technologies such as Google Glass and FitBit have recently captured media and consumer attention, they’re really just the vanguard of a larger story — wearables’ potential for making cities smarter through connecting systems, analyzing collected data and making policy decisions based on the results.
In a recent study conducted by the Governing Institute, 27 percent of respondents said that wearable technologies’ data collection would make for better decision-making, while 14 percent said it would increase communication between government and citizens. When asked if connecting through devices to the network creates better places to live, 19 percent agreed and 32 percent agreed somewhat.
Given the newness of their market entry, wearable technologies have not yet made a significant impression on government leaders entrusted with bringing systemic innovation to the infrastructure, buildings and municipal facilities of the future. Many public entities are interested in the potential of wearables, but the great majority are taking a “wait and see approach,” particularly when preoccupied with persistent budget cuts and fulfilling commitments to existing technology initiatives.
Wearable technologies will have an impact on cities and urban centers, which will use them to assist and engage citizens as connected entities. Integrating devices within the greater city infrastructure will form a new kind of hybrid that is part individual, part systemic node — linking people to private and public infrastructures and the services that run through them: electricity, transportation, water, waste, etc., anticipating need and delivering these things more efficiently.
What follows is a look at a few of these emerging wearable technologies and how they can be used within the built environment and personal practices, leading to a well-informed and constructed network of linked entities.
All around us, wearables ranging from sensors to communicative responders to hands-free devices are at or coming close to market release, and their value to people, industry and government is becoming ever clearer.
The next wave of wearable technologies will likely consist of devices that integrate augmented reality (AR), an environment superimposed over the real world (think Google Glass), or a virtual reality (VR), where the user is immersed in an alternate environment. Currently utilized in gaming, VR could help in defusing bombs, exploring unreachable areas or interacting during remote surgery.
But founder of wearables strategy agency Amyx+McKinsey, Scott Amyx, said that VR devices such as Oculus Rift could actually recreate the built environment as we know it. In an article for Motley Fool, he reasons that such new “immersive” headsets could create true virtual work environments. “This eliminates the need for a laptop and desk, even an office. Your environment can become virtual. Work can take place anywhere.”
Imagine clustered office campuses as largely a thing of the past, or at least greatly diminished. Where collaboration was once encouraged through shared physical space, it will occur through networked “live” environments from wherever employees live or prefer to be. This could have enormous impact for both the public and private sectors, in terms of urban planning, and where housing, transportation, retail, restaurants and urban amenities are located.
Wearing and Sharing in the Public Space
In the public sector, Utah was the first state to take wearables for a test drive.
Dave Fletcher, chief technology officer of Utah’s Department of Technology Services, has been involved in establishing a growing digital presence for Utah since 1993. Under his direction for the past 20 years, the Utah.gov domain has remained a long-time “Best of the Web” award winner.
In 2014, his team released UT OnTime, a transit tracking app developed for the Utah Transit Authority, which includes a Google Glass-enabled version. The app shows users bus schedules, delay alerts and other pertinent information for the transit system. Although the number of people able to access the Google Glass app is small, it’s giving the state valuable experience with wearable technology.
“When more of these things start to proliferate, we’ll have some background on wearable technologies,” Fletcher said. “We want to be able to respond quickly. When we did our first iPhone app, it took off pretty quickly, so we want to be ready when the wearables market takes off.”
Looking ahead, Fletcher sees wearables lending themselves naturally to enhancing productivity for field workers such as inspectors, facility managers and social workers, who would benefit from capturing data hands-free while interacting with people and instantly transmitting valuable data back to the home office.
“It would enable employees to work in a more efficient way,” he said. “But you’d want to develop software that can automatically capture relevant information and plug it into a report structure on the other side without a lot of manual intervention.
Within vehicles, such assistive systems are designed to help prevent accidents by sensing dedicated short-range communications from an approaching pedestrian’s smartphone. The vehicle alerts the driver via an audible warning and visual “brake” alerts on the vehicle’s display and navigation screen — in some cases the vehicle may apply the brakes automatically.
Honda was one of those demonstrating its new V2P/B technology. “The creation and deployment of advanced, intelligent transportation systems represent the new frontier in the effort to one day eliminate traffic collisions, injuries and fatalities,” said Frank Paluch, president of Honda R&D Americas, Inc.
Widely connected vehicles bearing automated, wearable and embedded guidance systems such as V2P/B and V2V could lead to a time when city traffic is optimized, safety is enhanced and insurance liability costs are greatly diminished.
More Effective Public Safety
Wearables offer invaluable situational awareness, enable hands-free information gathering and generation, and can automatically relay data to off-site personnel for real-time direction or analysis and overall program enhancement. Capabilities such as these could prove useful for public safety. For example:
• Helmet-mounted cameras and sensors that respond to head gestures and voice recognition, access building schematics, and can transmit data to central command off site, alerting first responders to hazardous situations and whether someone is incapacitated within a building and requiring assistance, or to evacuate the area around the structure.
• Data-transmitting pills (or implants) can be swallowed to measure firefighters’ heat stress on scene and convey to team leaders whether they need backup or to be called away from the conflagration.
• Suits that measure exposure to dangerous gases and liquids could help prevent on-the-job injuries and fatalities among first responders. Such suits might actually permit greater access in emergency situations, knowing that responders’ whereabouts and well-being will be closely monitored within structures.
Frank Roma, a 36-year firefighting veteran who is currently fire chief of Auburn, Maine, points out that advances in firefighting wearables are almost all spinoffs from the U.S. space program and defense industry. “Materials giving astronauts protection from flash fires and exposure to high heat naturally transitioned to the fire service,” he said.
Firefighters undergo extreme physiological stress in the course of their duties. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Fire Administration, stress and overexertion account for over 50 percent of firefighter deaths while on the job.
“We will, in the future, see the ability to incorporate thermal imagery as an intrinsic element in face-pieces, where that image, along with air consumption, ambient temperature, vital signs and other critical parameters will be seen on a display,” Roma said. The data generated by such wearables could be broadcast to a wide variety of connected agencies in real time, leading to swifter response from EMS, law enforcement, hazmat, etc., apprising occupants of co-located structures of possible danger, and providing systemic advances in firefighter and fire victim safety.
Small wearable video cameras are a fast-growing trend in law enforcement, too, which automatically transmit video to Web-based storage and enable viewing by investigators, command staff, court officials, attorneys, etc. The cameras — small enough to fit on a vest, an officer’s collar or on eyewear — cost $500 to $1,000 each and help improve evidence collection, public behavior and police accountability, something of great interest among government leadership and the general public. Today, more than 1,000 U.S. police departments utilize body cameras.
Location sensors that monitor biophysical activity — such as blood pressure or breathing — can also tell remote staff monitoring sensors whether an officer is running or has fallen down, and can trigger police backup if needed.
Another tool close to reality are smart glasses that obtain information about a person within the officer’s field of view using facial recognition software. The glasses respond to a voice command to take a picture and then send it to a cloud-based service where facial recognition technology can match pictures in a law enforcement database. That data is then projected into the officer’s field of vision, alerting him or her if the person is a wanted suspect. Such communication between a police officer and the technological back end will lead to potentially safer interactions between police and citizens, and more effective law enforcement in cities.
The Wearable Wave
Many believe the greater connection of city systems and citizens is a positive development, but in adopting new communication choices, consideration must be given to how this paradigm shift could alter the way governments and industry conduct business — particularly when privacy concerns are raised. The importance of confidentiality around personal data cannot be stressed enough, and that issue will continue to drive public discussion for years. But once comfortable footing is found, the technologies that enable new practices within city infrastructure will not just become second nature — we won’t be able to do without them. The public and private sector alike will benefit greatly from commodification and absorption into overall city systems, yielding connections that may ultimately save time, money and lives.
Continuously collecting, sharing and quantifying data about our movement, needs and behaviors is leading us to the brink of a new model — one where information from wearables will be interpreted and consulted before creating policies. And as its usage scales upward and outward, it will make the cities we live in function better through intelligent design and well-informed action.
But exactly how will that work? Wearables devices will link to infrastructure components via a sensor network with nodes installed on objects, in vehicles, environments, and, of course, people. In a smart city, wireless technology for remote monitoring and network virtualization will provide the low-cost, efficient communication networks.
Sorting through the privacy implications of wearable technology will be the subject of ongoing debate. But the data generated by wearable and other technologies may ultimately lead to better information — and better information usually leads to better decision-making by city and regional leaders.
The promise of wearable technology will be realized as it moves from devices that simply observe us to platforms that provide timely, actionable data from those intelligent observations.