Wearable Tech – How We Got Here from There

Wearable Tech History

Among the hottest current trends for gadgets, technology, and even gifts, is wearable technology. It’s not a fad, like Pet Rocks or Gangnam Style were. I would define a trend as something that picks up rapidly in popularity, but has long-term staying power.

Mobile telephones, for instance, were a trend in the late 1980s, and now are a central part of many people’s daily lives. But, before the 80s or 90s, how many people had mobile telephones? So, a trend quickly grows but eventually becomes mainstream.

Wearable technology is transitioning as we speak from trend to mainstream. Besides fitness trackers and smart watches, things such as cordless audio, VR headsets, and personal cooling devices are among the many items we’re seeing virtually everywhere.

Early Wearable Technology

The earliest examples of wearable technology are closely related to military applications. Egyptians, Macedonians, Greeks, had such innovations as small shields strapped to one’s forearm, metal reinforced leather body armor, and helmets with arrow, rock, and hot liquid deflecting designs.

As far as items meant to improve everyday life, eyeglasses and portable watches began to be seen from the late Middle Ages on. An abacus ring dates from the 1600s, and Victorian Era gentlemen could avoid overheating by wearing ventilated top hats.

So, we see visual enhancement, calculating devices, even personal cooling products have been on the minds of inventors for quite a while.

Then, the early 20th century saw an explosion of the popularity of the wristwatch overtaking pocket watches, as daring aviators in the news could be seen sporting them. Additionally, miniature photographic equipment could be mounted inside watches, hats, and fashionable vests.

Coming up to the mid 20th century, a huge array of intriguing things began to be seen.

Modern Innovations

The Space Age seems to have really accelerated wearable technology innovation. In order to go into Earth orbit, the moon, or beyond, devices had to be smaller and lighter than ever before. In the early days of the Space Race, miniaturization became a buzzword for inventors, designers, and engineers.

If a tech item could be made small enough, wearing it becomes an option. Popular magazines of the 50s thru 70s on science, mechanics, and photography showed us TV tubes worn like eyeglasses, phones that could fit into a bag, cameras that shot through a shirt pocket, and calculators worn on the wrist like a watch.

Wearable Tech

Fictional entertainment gave us ideas like Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone, Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio, Batman’s multi-function tool belt, and the numerous spy gadgets that James Bond 007 used.

When the Trend Started Going Mainstream

The wearable technology trend got a huge boost in 1979 when Sony introduced the first Walkman portable cassette tape player. It was battery powered, could be worn on the waist, included small headphones, and enabled the wearer to listen to their favorite recordings while engaged in any activity.

It was definitely a case of the right item showing up at the right time. Introduction to the market of Walkman type devices corresponded to a proliferation of musical recordings by artists across all genres. Also occurring around the same time period was a growing awareness of fitness and other personal improvements.

Walkman ImageThis confluence of trends was happening right at the time that the personal computer industry took off. Everyone knew about computers already. Many people worked everyday with some form of computer or the processes used by computers.

But by the 1970s and 80s, affordable home-based computers were some of the biggest, fastest growing industries around. The current industry giants Microsoft and Apple saw huge growth during this period.

Soon, all those worlds began to mix together, bringing the possibility of very full-featured wearable technologies. Let’s now look at more recent developments.

There are several different technologies that can now be worn one way or another. Here is what has happened with a few.

Portable Music Players

Though the idea had been around for a while already, and there were even small transistor radios and tape players available, the original Sony Walkman of 1979 is truly a big deal when examining the history of wearable technology.

Everybody wanted one. Young and old, everyone was fascinated by being able to listen to what you wanted, when you wanted to, regardless of where you were or what you were doing. Many manufacturers were making similar items, and competition was fierce.

Improvements kept coming. AM/FM radios were added, players were designed to be water-resistant, and they all kept getting smaller while providing higher quality playback. In 1984, Sony introduced the Discman for playing CDs.

Digital audio players, also called MP3 players were in development in the 80s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that a portable MP3 player was actually brought to market. Two noteworthy developments came from computer industry companies Apple and Microsoft. Apple iPod was introduced in 2001, Microsoft Zune in 2006.

Virtual Reality Headsets

Immersive gaming by means of virtual reality provides an entertainment experience that is as close to being inside the action as possible. Early virtual reality needed a huge console in order to immerse the participant in the action. Examples were displayed at consumer electronic shows as early as the 1960s and 70s.

Commercial and military flight simulators have been training pilots and astronauts since the beginning of the Jet Age and Space Race, but these are huge, room-sized special purpose machines.

Advancements in technology have enabled virtual reality to be shrunk down to a size that can be worn on the head over the eyes and ears. Consumer available VR headsets are still relatively new. In 2012, the Oculus Rift headset was introduced. And, 2014 saw Sony add a VR headset to their popular PlayStation game system.

Virtual Reality Image

Besides the obvious fun for gamers, VR is also very useful for training by means of simulation. Imagine flight simulation that can be accessed remotely instead of inside a large machine.

Fitness Trackers and Smartwatches

A simple pedometer measures how far a person has walked by using a pendulum based mechanism to count steps. Leonardo DaVinci described one in his engineering drawings possibly all the back in about 1475 or so. A mass market pedometer came out as early as 1965.

Electronic pedometers were added to Apple iPhones and other smartphones in 2012. Fitbit introduced their wrist born fitness trackers in 2015, supplementing their pocket trackers first seen in 2007.

Smartwatches like the Apple Watch incorporate fitness tracking in their set of available features. Apple’s smartwatches were first sold in 2015 with improved models coming to market continuously.

Other Wearable Technology

Using a very broad definition of wearable tech, we can add personal cooling devices to the list. More than a battery powered fan, since about 2010, personal cooling devices can be active or passive and are generally worn around the neck and shoulders to provide comfort on hot days. Embr Wave from 2018 is an example of how small these can be, small enough to wear on our wrist.

Headphones and earbuds have progressed to the point where one can wear what is essentially a surround sound system on their head or shoulders. The just introduced in early 2018, Sony Xperia Ear Open shows us what is possible in regards to personal sound.

Fishermen, skiers, and campers have long used battery powered heated socks. Now, we have options of heated gloves, vests, and hats, some with computer controlled thermostats.

Today’s Hot Items

Smart glasses are the current hot trend. Smart glasses have been in and out of the news since Oakley started looking into putting small cameras inside their sunglasses frames in the late 1990s. Developments beginning in about 2010 have put smart glasses in the front running for being the next big thing.

Google Glass was introduced in 2013. It was very expensive, around $1500, but held promise of bringing smart camera technology and augmented reality to wearers. It never really got good footing, partially due the high price, but also because the computer interfacing just wasn’t very capable.

Apparently, true augmented reality devices are going to take a while to make their way into the mainstream of the consumer public. Some advances are needed to make it usable and affordable. In the meantime, Google has announced two new products in 2018 based on Google Glass.

Google Glass Enterprise Edition is a blend of technologies with application primarily for business interests. Think of it as Siri or Alexa with a heads up display. Already in use at some Boeing plants and in use in at various large hospitals, GGEE promises to be a real boost in regards to improved business production.

Google Lens is the second item introduced in 2018. A smart camera headset that links to an Android phone to provide certain tasks to the wearer.

Snapchat Spectacles

Snapchat Spectacles were first introduced in 2016, with a new, updated version released in 2018. These are smart glasses that connect wirelessly to smartphones running the Snapchat app to add live handsfree video and images to chats on the Snapchat feed. Around $150, these are basically eyeglass mounted cameras with an app interface.

Amazon Focals is an interesting use for smart glasses. Introduced in 2018, they are a heads up display linked to Alexa on your Amazon account. Probably the closest thing we have now to AR, augmented reality.

Some basic applications are real-time access to online information about a business you’re walking into, or a way to ID people, places, and things while you’re looking at them. Still a little pricey for the average consumer, coming in around the $1000 range, but the smart glass trend looks to be going mainstream, which will make them more accessible to a wider variety of people.

The Future of Wearable Tech

How far will currents trends progress? What is coming in the near future and what else is possible? Extrapolating from current features and sizes, a wrist-worn smartphone doesn’t seem too far out of reach. Combining personal cooling and heating devices with wearable surround sound and VR headsets, all controlled by a miniature pocket computer, could give us the ultimate entertainment possibilities. Not too far removed from a Star Trek holodeck.

In fact, it seems that looking to fiction for new possibilities is actually reasonable. We’ve already got cell phones that act like a Star Trek communicator. Every day, we use PDAs and smartphones that allow remote computing and connectivity as envisioned by other sci-fi through the ages.

Could an invisibility suit as imagined by the Predator movie series or Harry Potter books be far behind? Already, we’ve seen prototype cloaks that mimic that in a very limited way. And what some cosplayers are doing in real life to imitate animated characters and their devices is truly stunning.

Imagine a wearable device that includes visual by means of glasses, audio via ear buds, and can access a virtual assistant such as Alexa or Siri, with a processor worn on the wrist. That is what may be coming as the very next thing. Augmented reality is apparently already on the minds and drawing boards of designers and engineers in numerous fields of technology.

Wearable Tech Is Here to Stay

No mere craze or fad like Pet Rocks, wearable technology is a trend that has already become mainstream in gaming, digital media playback, and fitness tracking. Other technologies are being introduced at each new electronics show. I can’t wait to see what is coming out next!

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