A race is on to connect, transform and digitise mundane household tools. The outcome is set to have repercussions for industry and for everyday life. But will smartwatches and the like take off or will privacy concerns grind innovation to a halt? Jessica Kennedy finds out
There's a new cold war underway. The modern version doesn't include a race to the moon but it could end with us looking out of this world. It doesn't feature Russia or America but the victor will more than likely vanquish the stragglers. It doesn't feature threats of nuclear war but it's an arms race.
It's the race into wearable technology and it's a battle being fought by innovation and tech giants Apple, Google, Samsung, fitness brands and the indie start-ups.
"There's always a race on the latest bit of tech, whether it's a phone, TV or running shoe. When it comes to screens though, it's always incredibly fierce," says production company Finch's director of applied technology, Emad Tahtouh.
Google Glass ignited the fire, and rumours of an iWatch are keeping punters on their toes, with Samsung recently unveiling its first smartwatch at the IFA 2013 consumer electronics show, and also the Kickstarter funded Pebble watch.
In September Nissan become a surprise player in the war launching its smartwatch Nismo – which monitors the biometrics of the wearer as well as the car – at the Frankfurt Motorshow. There's Nike's FuelBand, MisFit's Shine and FitBit all aimed at the more athletic consumer.
Then there are the more 'out there' advancements such as self-cleaning fabrics and Nokia's patent for a vibrating tattoo.
The race is definitely on but speed to market is not going to define the winner, it will be the inventor who gets it right that will win. As it stands, will wearable technology ever be mainstream or is it innovation for innovation's sake?
"Wearable technology will become part of our everyday life in the same way that we use the internet for online banking, or use our mobile phones to do a host of things other than talk to our friends," says CumminsRoss' new chief digital officer Scott Heron.
Andy Lark, chief executive of Group Lark, believes that we will all have two or three wearable tech items on each of us down the track.
"Much in the same way as it was impossible to sit out the smartphone revolution, this one will also be impossible sit out," Lark says.
Mindshare's chief digital officer questions the longevity of smartwatches that "basically duplicate smartphone functionality". "The watches don't do it for me; they're 21st century Dick Tracey watches," says Ciaran Norris.
But Lark, the former marketing lead at Commonwealth Bank, says it is important not to focus on their current form and instead cast your mind forward.
The race to wearable technology may be on but it's only in its infancy. "When they work out how to shrink lithium-ion batteries to the size of an ant, that's when you know the floodgates are about to open up and the big boys are going to come out and release something groundbreaking," Tahtouh says.
When they do hit a chord, Heron predicts the adoption rate will be very fast, akin to what we saw with the arrival of the iPad. New players will rise to prominence and household names may fall behind.
Either way, when this happens the devices are sure to shake up the media landscape.
When wearable technology takes off, Lark says the effect will be significant. "They will underpin a new era in relevant marketing and communications," he predicts.
The rise of wearable devices will drive the adoption of Bluetooth low energy (BLE), according to Tim Devine, creative technologist at DT, who believes this in turn will "finally forge a path for digital payments".
When content is able to more easily shift between devices, wrist devices may be able to control bigger screens.
"You might pick up any tablet or smartphone and it doubles as your device. I like the potential for 'shell devices' populated by your cloud account, this would open up new media channels," he explains.
Data, data, data
Enhanced personalisation of offers and a boost in location-based marketing are the more obvious outcomes of a flood of always-connected, data-gathering wearable tech products.
A wealth of gritty data opens up opportunities but it also leads to greater complexity and changes consumer expectations.
"With the self quantified, through sensing and processing data from all aspects of your life, advertising and marketing may need to reassess what the value is in a quantified value exchange," according to Devine.
For example, the common concept of offering a discount when a consumer parts with a set amount in one transaction, or offering one free coffee in every six will be seen as "programmed and dull".
"Random moments in life are often the best," adds Devine. "Maybe we'll end up in a Skinner Box rewarding more exaggerated behaviour." (see below)
Google Glass has given rise to "untold issues that need to be covered off", according to Norris, and these concerns are likely to rise in prominence, thanks to fear of the unknown, before they subside.
For instance, the Wall Street Journal claimed Glass is "years away from hitting the European market" due to privacy concerns.
Ensuring companies use the data for good and not for evil is tantamount to making consumers comfortable.
Picture this scenario painted by Heron: "If I am wearing my iWatch in an area of town where there is a crime – is my insurance going to go up?
"People will only use these devices if they feel their data is being respected and protected."
Being visually and audibly recorded is quickly becoming the norm, not the exception, according to Tahtouh. "The term 'right to privacy' itself is what's going to go through the biggest change. Ultimately I think people have to either be more vigilant about what they want to protect, or start letting go of what they traditionally considered to be private."
The race into wearable technology may be heating up but the starting gun has only just been fired. Smartwatches, fitness focused armbands, sensors in your shoes. All the developments on the market so far only automate an existing technology or behaviour.
"That's great but hardly revolutionary," says Lark. "The real breakthroughs in wearable technology are yet to come. We have real problems to solve and what we have today is, well, a small step for mankind."
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