As the conversation around wearable technology continues to be fueled by the fashion, entertainment, and technology industries, many of us wonder how and when these technologies will be adopted by the average consumer. We’ve addressed questions like this through analysis we’ve done at PSFK Labs and continue to report on them on a daily basis. But while these are great ‘prototype’ examples, clients are often more likely to ask about what is technically possible and when consumers will reach the point of adoption.
One resource to answer such questions is element14, which is essentially a community of design engineers and tech enthusiasts within Newark, an Electronics components distributor. Some of their top groups include energy harvesting, sensor technology, and wireless power. We connected with one of the community’s leading thinkers, Christian DeFeo, to discuss the rise of wearable technology and how various topics will bolster the maturation of this new area.
Tell us about your background. Any foundational principles/perspective you might have on wearable tech.
I’ve been working with technology since I was 9-years-old. I’ve been in the New Media Industry since 1995 and have worked for blue chip firms including the Trader Media Group and ebookers.com, the European brand of Orbitz. In my current role as e-supplier manager for Newark element14, I oversee wearable showcases and partnerships with manufacturers like Texas Instruments and Adafruit.
I’m also overseeing a wearable technology challenge, in which designers and engineers around the world are developing new products using the latest wearable microcontrollers provided to them by Newark element14. In examining new technologies, I look at their potential to impact people’s lives. I often ask: how will this story play out? For example, in the case of Wireless Power, I saw the “story” going on to the following conclusion: my grandchildren or great grandchildren will hear of how we plugged things into the wall and wonder what the heck we’re talking about.
With Energy Harvesting, the narrative was similar: I can see kids in the future reading about how much waste we created by using batteries and shaking their heads in disbelief in the same way we now look at people in the 19 any concern for the environment. Wearable technology also possesses a compelling narrative: technology has become pervasive. It’s tough to escape the Internet. The next logical step as technology draws even closer is integrating it into our clothing. Future generations will wonder why we bothered with keys and laugh at our tales of losing them, when all they need to do is tap their NFC Ring against a panel on the door.
What are the key implications of wearable computing becoming more mainstream?
We’re in a period which is rather similar to when the Internet was first adopted; there is a lot of experimentation going on. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is a good example. Samsung seems to think that wearable technology means a mobile phone you strap to your wrist. This misses the point. Wearable technology means a “thousand flowers will bloom” – there will be rings which open doors, GPS sensors which tell a visually impaired person they’re near home, sensors which are embedded into the robes of people living by themselves that will be able to detect a fall and alert first responders. There will be and are specialized wearable technology applications for different needs. I think we’re at the very early stages of comprehending this. Consumers will be thrilled, and possibly scared, particularly given the recent revelations regarding data collection by the government. Eventually, I suspect, wearables will become as ubiquitous as the Internet is today.
Which regions and countries do you think are showing signs of adoption? How does the American/UK consumer fall on this grid of interest?
America is well ahead on the curve with developers like Adafruit producing wearable electronics platforms like the FLORA and partnering with distributors like us to deliver them. And of course there is Google creating the Glass. The U.K. is also well represented, in particular West Yorkshire, where the NFC Ring was invented to store data and unlock our phones and doors. Wearables are welcome: there are a number of leading figures in Bradford, West Yorkshire, who have expressed to me the hope that wearable technology combined with local textile expertise will lead to a renaissance in local industry. Finally, when it comes to any new technology, always keep your eye on Japan. On the one hand, we’re seeing more and more smart watches/glasses/shoes and yet, there seem to be obstacles on the consumer side to some of these innovations.
How do you explain this activity in the market? Are companies trying to force this trend onto consumers?
I would again draw the analogy to the early stages of the Internet being adopted. People forget this, but when the Internet first showed up in homes circa 1995, it required flaky modems and users experienced terrible download speeds. This didn’t mean that the Internet was less significant; sometimes the technology is ahead of being fully practical. Broadband and 3G eventually came and we’ve forgotten that people thought the Internet was all hype and no substance.
Companies are trying to muscle into wearables because they know it will be fully practical one day soon, and they’re still adhering to the dot-com bubble era idea of “first mover first” – the perception that if you don’t get there ahead of your competitors, they will carve out a lead you can’t overcome. I don’t agree with this, but the psychology remains. There will be a number of products which make little sense as a result. This should, however, be considered as a natural part of the creation and adoption process.
What’s a trend that makes you optimistic about the future of wearable tech?
I love seeing wearables being taken up by the Maker Movement: DIYers, hackers and electronic enthusiasts. This uniquely positions wearables at the pivot point between technology and crafts. This is going to make electronics more accessible to those who are inclined to develop crafts, and crafts more accessible for those inclined to develop electronics. I believe this “democratization” of the development of wearables is going to lead to the “thousand flowers blooming.” We are going to see a lot more wearables, some useful, some amusing, some just bizarre. All told, they will become as pervasive as mobile phones are today.