Wearing the Future on Your Sleeve
by Anna Gawel, Managing Editor of the The Washington Diplomat| View online: Diplomatic Pouch
Google Glass put the Internet smack dab in front of our faces. The high-tech eyewear was cool and, well, eye-catching. It was also a commercial flop, rushed to market before its time, some experts say.
The uneven trajectory of Google Glass, and possibly Apple’s new smartphone watch, mirrors the evolution of wearable technology — a nascent field that has produced some remarkable breakthroughs, but has yet to break into the mainstream.
“Wearables are like the early days of mobile phones [when they were] bulky bricks. We still have a long way to go,” Lea Shanley said of the technology, which includes clothing, watches and other accessories worn by consumers that incorporate computer technology.
Shanley — a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) working on crowdsourcing initiatives at NASA — spoke on the future of wearable technology during a March 24 event hosted by the Institute for Education (IFE) and held at the Belgian ambassador’s residence off Foxhall Road.
While wearables is still a niche industry, Shanley noted that it represents a $4.6 billion market, with over 90 million devices expected to be shipped next year.
Wearable technology is already making a real impact in the healthcare arena. Panelist Andrea Ippolito, a PIF working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, noted that an array of apps helps people track how much exercise and sleep they’re getting. There are even apps that buzz to alert you when your posture sags.
Ippolito added that wearables are being implanted in prosthetic arms and legs to detect, among other things, sweat, glucose and even stress levels. She said wearable technology also holds great promise in preventative medicine.
“Imagine if we can prevent a heart attack or an asthma attack?” she said. “A few years from now we’ll see clinicians prescribe [wearable technology] and insurance companies will cover it…. But we still have a long way to go.”
For example, she pointed out that many health-conscious consumers already have apps that help them keep track of their diet and exercise habits. The trick is getting unhealthy people — those more at risk for serious diseases — to buy into the phenomenon.
Ippolito also recalled one promising innovation that went bust: a device embedded into hip replacements so that “if you fall, an airbag cushion blows up. People didn’t like this, of course, because you had a giant airbag around you.”
Despite the setbacks, the panelists said wearable technology is expanding, and not just in the healthcare field. Among other pioneering examples they cited: smart thermostats that help regulate the temperature in homes and offices; smart clothing and fabrics that measure a user’s heart rate and skin temperature — useful information for doctors and athletes alike; and “augmented reality” devices such as the Daqri Smart Helmet, an Android-powered hardhat that helps engineers, construction workers and other industrial employees gather digital information about their environment.
But the revolutionary new frontier of wearable technology comes with its own set of challenges, including myriad privacy and security concerns.
Panelist Gajen Sunthara, a PIF working on the MyData Initiative at the Department of Health and Human Services, said his agency is examining how to aggregate the vast amounts of health data now being collected and analyzed through wearables such as Fitbit, which helps people track their calorie intake and daily activities. Equally important, Sunthara said, is developing security methods to safeguard against the abuse or hacking of private, wearables-collected information.
Moderator John Paul Farmer, who co-founded the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program and now works at Microsoft, recounted an encounter at an unnamed embassy shortly after Google Glass had debuted. A guest at a reception was wearing the somewhat-clunky eyewear and was quickly approached by embassy officials who were concerned he could be secretly recording or photographing the event.
During the audience Q&A, Faida Mitifu, ambassador of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, raised another concern: the long-term health implications of the materials used in wearable technology.
“One of the biggest gaps is that companies haven’t tested them for long-term effects,” Ippolito said. At the same time, she said that despite the dangers and unknowns, people will ultimately care about wearables because “people care about health, the environment and general well-being.”