My life as a cyborg
SEATTLE -- It was an unseasonably warm June evening, the kind of day locals rave about because they come so rarely. At 6 p.m., I hopped on my bike for an evening spin.
My heart-rate quickly raced up to 157 beats per minute as I picked up my pace to 14 miles per hour up a gradual rise in the road. At the same time, my blood-glucose level dropped to 62 milligrams per deciliter, low, but not dangerously so for a non-diabetic. All in all, pretty solid data, given that the night before I slept six hours and 21 minutes, waking for brief periods 21 times during the night.
Welcome to my cyborg life. Google has generated tons of press in recent days with its Project Glass, computerized glasses that lets users take pictures and find information. But it's hardly the only company pursuing wearable computing. And while Project Glass won't be commercially available for another two years at the earliest, there are plenty of companies selling devices that consumers can slip into and strap on to collect reams of data about their daily lives.
To get a glimpse of that future, I strapped on a bunch of those gadgets. Here's what I learned.
In all, the gadgets I tested collectively ran into the thousands of dollars. I was decked out from head --with Zeal Optics Z3 ski googles that track speed and map locations -- to my feet -- with Adidas Resolution running shoes with the company's miCoach Speed_Cell sensor that keeps tabs on speed and distance run. I gathered a ton of information about health and fitness, though it wasn't my most fashion-forward moment. There were times, when wearing everything, I looked like a high school science experiment run amok.
Wearable gadgets have been around for some time. Heart-rate monitors have been standard training devices for athletes for more than a decade. Pods that runners slip into their shoes have been around for years as well. And a new batch of gizmos have emerged that let users keep tabs on the number of steps they've taken, a popular new category that I also sampled.
The business of wearable computing is on the cusp of becoming mainstream. That's because the cost and size of the sensors the devices use has dropped significantly over the years. And the ability to transmit the data those gadgets collect and receive has become seamless as many connect with the mobile smartphones that folks slip into their pockets or purses everyday.
The opportunity is so vast that Google isn't the only big computer company circling the waters. Microsoft has a group of researchers focused on wearable technology, hoping to help the company come up with a breakthrough that could emerge into a new computing goldmine. And Apple, with its iPhone and iPod gadgets, has one of the most pervasive platforms that makers of wearable gadgets want to connect.
"There are a lot of players trying to figure this out," said Jennifer Darmour, a user experience designer for Seattle's Artefact and the author of the Electric Foxy blog that focuses on wearable computing.
As more people slip into or slide on computers, the data they collect will grow by terabytes at a time. And the implications of that offer opportunities for individuals to monitor their health, improve their athletic performance, and track their daily lives. There is the potential to sift through all of the data from vast numbers of users to find trends in healthcare, for example, that might help researchers better understand diseases. And there's the potential for abuse as private information about a person's fitness level or location at a specific time pools on computer servers run by companies that might not have the best data protection policies in place, or might not have consumers' best interests in mind.
But those deeper questions weren't top of mind during my bike ride. I was trying to figure out if I should be concerned about my blood-glucose levels. I'm not a diabetic, so I don't regularly keep track of that metric. Actually, I never keep track of it. So 62 milligrams per deciliter seemed pretty low to me, even though I felt fine. It had been a few hours since I had eaten, and I wondered if I need to grab a bite of an energy bar.
Turns out, I didn't need to. Within a few minutes, my blood-glucose level climbed back up to 79 milligrams per deciliter. My body did what it was supposed to do. It regulated itself, producing more sugar, which turned into energy that I needed for my effort. The Clif Bar stayed in my cycling jersey pocket.
The ability to find that data at a glance is, in many ways, the promise of wearable computing. Athletes who are a whole lot more fit and far more dedicated than I are beginning to be able to monitor critical performance metrics that used to be the domain of medical professionals. And they can do it with glance in real time.
While users can see all sorts of data quickly, they still need to look at an array of devices that collect the information. At one point during my cyborg adventure, I had four different devices attached to me in one way or another. Each had their own way of displaying the information they gathered, either on the face of the device itself, or by connecting to my iPhone. And some, like the Nike+ FuelBand, had its own proprietary metric to measure my performance for the day.
It's a hodgepodge that's common as technologies emerge and companies push their own standards in the absence of broader industry ones. But it also makes using each device a bit more complicated because they don't work together.
"Consumers don't want to manage six disparate siloed devices," said Desney Tan, a principal researcher in the computational user experiences at Microsoft Research. "They want them to seamlessly plug together. In fact, you want it to talk to your phone, which then talks to your PC, which then talks to your Xbox or whatever other machines you have."
If Microsoft's original vision was putting a computer in every home, Tan's vision might be described as putting a computer in every eye or on every tongue. Tan has worked on a project baking computing into contact lenses to both create augmented reality displays as well as perform continuous healthcare monitoring on the wearer's tears. He's been part of a team that's embedded infrared optical sensors in dental retainers to sense tongue gestures to help people with paralysis.
Those projects may seem esoteric. But to Microsoft, they are on the evolutionary path of technology. Over time, the various devices will almost disappear. They will become seamless parts of the way we live our lives. And that changes the way companies such as Microsoft need to think about innovating.
"We don't want to think about computers anymore, we want to think about computing," Tan said.
To get there, though, wearable computers need to blend into our lives much better than they do now. The Dexcom Seven Plus is a nifty device for diabetics, giving them the ability to constantly track their blood-glucose levels. It's not a consumer device, though. I had to insert the sensor into my belly using a syringe-like gadget that jabbed a tiny probe into me that sat in the fluid-filled tissue under my skin. Then I needed to keep a cell phone-sized receiver within five feet of the sensor at all times to collect the data.
But even devices that are meant for consumer use are still challenging. I'm not much of a runner, but I gave Adidas' miCoach Speed_Cell a try. It's a little pod that slips into the sole of a sneaker to measure the speed and distance of each run and transfer that data wirelessly to a computer. At least, that's what's supposed to happen. But after weeks of back and forth with Adidas customer support, I was unable to make it work with my PC or my Mac.
There are plenty of happy Speed_Cell users. But the problems I had, and a quick Web search show others have dealt with as well, suggest a product with shortcomings.
Those inconveniences are sure signs of an immature industry. And until the experience of using the devices improves, wearable computing will remain on the fringes.
"The ease of use is necessary for it to become successful," said Sabine Seymour, assistant professor of fashionable technology and the director of Fashionable Technology Lab at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.
Moreover, wearable technology has to have some style. It turns out people care about what they put on their bodies. We want to look good. And gadgets that scream "Geek!" or are cumbersome won't fly with masses.
"If we're asking consumers to wear these, they've got to look cool," said Electric Foxy's Darmour. "You need to consider lifestyle and fashion. Don't make me look like a dork."
That's why Seymour also created Moondial, a company that develops fashionable wearable technology. She's something of a translator, connecting the disparate universes of technology and fashion.
"We're dealing with two different industries," Seymour said. "They don't understand each other."
Perhaps the best marriage of fashion and technology yet is the Nike+ FuelBand. It's a wristband that shows the number of steps and calories burned by the wearer, calculated using a three-axis accelerometer to measure movement. But the real success of the FuelBand is that it's attractive and functional. I didn't feel the least bit geeky slipping on the sleek wristband with its stylish LED display that also doubles as a watch. In fact, a friend went out a bought one for himself after checking out the FuelBand on my wrist.
Wearable computing will become more mainstream as businesses see the financial benefit from the data collection push to drive adoption as well. Right now, Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. offers drivers a discount on their auto insurance of up to 30 percent for putting a device in the car that tracks their driving habits. It's not hard to imagine health or life insurers offering users discounts for self-surveillance using wearable gadgets.
"Why wouldn't Group Health or name your insurance company of choice hand you a thing, and say 'I'm going to give this thing to you for free, and if you wear it for at least 50 percent of the day, your rates are likely going to drop,'" Microsoft's Tan said.
That's how many new technologies emerge. They find a niche where they can prove their worth.
"You start at the fringes, at places that you can present high value to a user," Tan said. "You have to sneak into culture."