Wearable technology is exploding in popularity, and Apple will add fuel to the fire next week by unveiling its ‘iWatch’ – but eventually the electronics will disappear inside our brains, says Matthew Sparkes.
Suddenly, wearable devices are everywhere. And, on Tuesday evening, Apple is rumoured to be releasing its own take: the “iWatch”.
It’s hardly a shock. The company has a long history of bringing “new” formats to the mainstream which have been hiding in plain sight for years. The iPad gave the world the tablet many years after Microsoft and Nokia had tried the same and been met with apathy. The iPhone was preceded by dozens of smartphones which failed to hit the big time.
Apple’s expedient knack is for releasing a polished product, designed in-house from top-to-bottom, at just the right moment in time to catch a receptive public and convince them that it is exactly what they’ve been waiting for.
In early 2010 I thought tablets were a niche product, but today wild horses couldn’t drag my iPad from me.
Shareholders will be hoping that it can repeat the trick with wearables.
The sixth-generation iPod Nano had a 240 x 240 pixel display which accessory companies soon turned into a proto-smartwatch by releasing a range of straps. Apple hardly discouraged it; updated firmware offered 18 custom clock face screensavers.
But the seventh-generation Nano switched back to the original tall-and-thin silhouette, putting an end to the experiment.
The iPod Nano was a proto-smartwatch
Perhaps what we’ll see next week is a slicker, faster, more refined version of the wrist-worn Nano, with iOS 8 and support for apps. There’d certainly be a market for that.
Perhaps it’s something altogether more exciting – maybe the first truly big innovation of the Tim Cook era. Nobody would be more pleased at a shock announcement than me. It feels like it’s been quite some time since the last one.
You can trace a lot of the current wearable excitement back to simple fitness trackers like the Fitbit Flex, which are worn as a bracelet and count how many steps you take in a day. These cheap-and-cheerful devices, designed to keep you active, have acted like the thin end of a wedge to allow more advanced wrist-top computers to squeeze into mainstream acceptance.
Now we have a range of devices like the Samsung Gear S which offer integration with smartphones and advanced features like the ability to read and reply to text messages, run apps and play music and videos.
This is all well and good, but it’s been a long time coming. If you scour the archives you can find a wake of prototypes.
Seiko’s Data 2000 watch, launched in 1983, had a tiny keyboard and could store 2000 characters of text, then came Casio’s calculator watches and the Nelsonic gaming watches produced for Nintendo and Sega.
In 2000 IBM demonstrated a watch running Linux, later collaborating with Citizen on the WatchPad that had a 320 by 240 pixel display, Bluetooth, 8MB of RAM and 16MB of flash memory. The planned price for what was then quite advanced hardware was just $399.
In 2003 Fossil launched a watch running Palm OS (which I lusted after at the time, as a Handspring Visor user). Even Microsoft had a go with the SPOT watch in 2004.
Quite what Apple has up its sleeve will become clear on Tuesday, but a simple fitness tracker would be underwhelming so I’m inclined to believe it’s much more advanced.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has said wearables could be a “hard sell” for the company, but getting it right would mean yet another hugely profitable format to join laptops, desktops, tablets and phones – analysts predict that the wearable technology market will be worth $30 billion (£18bn) by 2018.
It has already gathered such a pace that if Apple shoots and misses on Tuesday it risks being left too far behind to ever grab a significant slice.
Juding what the iWatch needs to be is not easy. Just like laptops, phones and cameras, different people demand different things.
Joggers want a smartwatch which operates independently of a smartphone so they don’t have to carry anything, and rate a waterproof case, accurate heart rate sensor and myriad nerdy stats over email notifications or the ability to make calls via your wrist. Others will just want a cheap device that counts their daily steps. Some even want Google Glass-type devices.
It will be fascinating to see where Apple pitches its own device.
The future of wearables
Where this technology goes from here is hard to predict precisely because of this fragmentation. But the smartphone-type smartwatch could conceivably do away with phones altogether (in fact, poor versions of this idea have been available since 2008): holographic projection will ultimately provide us with screens far bigger than the compact devices which contain them, and separate earbuds can handle audio.
Many say that people will be self-conscious talking into their watch like a comic book spy. Instinctively I’d agree. But to see how quickly these things change you need only look around on a train and watch people video-chatting on smartphones, enjoying a film on a tablet or reading an e-book.
In terms of the fitness devices, I can easily see them disappearing into tiny sensors which are embedded in our clothes or bodies. Want to measure how far you walk, your heart rate or blood sugar level? Simply inject this microscopic chip between your toes – like a cat being microshipped at the vet – and install the app on your tablet to analyse the data.
Beyond that, it’s imaginable that the hardware will disappear totally inside us. Instead of a device on your arm that shows you emails via a screen, you could have implants that directly beam that information into your brain. You will see a user interface overlaid on your vision, just like Google Glass, but rather than originating from an external light source it will come from electrical impulses directed straight into your nervous system. Ultimately, what’s the difference?
To input data you will no longer type messages with your fingers, or even use Siri-like voice recognition, but merely think commands like “open new document” and then dictate like a telepath.
Coventry University’s Kevin Warwick has been experimenting with basic versions of these sensors for years; as early as 1998 he had an RFID chip implanted under his skin and was using it to control doors and lights in his laboratory.
We have, in reality, been cyborgs ever since we began carrying mobile telephones everywhere we went. Internal technology will just make it official by stashing the electronics on the inside rather than the outside.