If you were to compile a list of futuristic technologies that were hyped to the hilt but failed to capture the public imagination, they’d be up there with the floating car, internet fridges and the irredeemably idiotic Segway. However, wearable computers – the stuff of Star Trek legend and every Tomorrow’s World technology story in the 1990s – finally look set to make the breakthrough from quirky innovation to fully mainstream technology.
Don’t believe it? Walk down your local high street and see how many people you can spot wandering around with a Bluetooth headset clipped to their ear. Devices such as mobile phones, laptops and PDAs introduced people to the idea of taking their technology with them; now, more and more people are warming to the concept of wearing their gadgets too.
Designer brands such as Oakley and Apple have helped to elevate wearable technology from geeky playthings to desirable consumer commodities. No longer do people have to walk around looking like an extra from The Terminator. Ever-shrinking technology and the rapid evolution of wireless technology have helped to deliver devices that don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
It isn’t only simple headsets that are gaining acceptance either – full-blown Windows and Linux handheld computers are being shrunk into devices small enough to be strapped to your wrist, helping professionals go about their work without having to lug around a laptop or tablet PC with them. And that’s just for starters. T-shirts that turn into huge Wi-Fi antennas and clothing that tightens on your body to warn of an impending danger are just a sample of the technologies being developed in research labs around the world. Unlike the floating car, wearable computers aren’t about to sink without trace.
Fashion statement tech
Until recently, wearable technology had an image problem. We’ve all seen pictures of prototype devices with men lugging around a rucksack full of computing equipment on their backs, using an ugly heads-up display that clips to their glasses and sprouting enough wires to rebuild a telephone exchange. Practical they may have been, but sexy? Please. Even relatively smart-looking devices such as the Olympus Eye-Trek – silver wrap-around glasses that provide a virtual widescreen television – looked like they’d been discovered at the back of Jimmy Saville’s closet. Only the hardiest of souls would have dared don a pair in public, not least because you couldn’t see a damned thing other than the film.
However, wearable gadgets are beginning to evolve from “wouldn’t be seen dead in them” to drop-dead gorgeous. Two of the world’s most fashionable brands – Apple and Nike – teamed up earlier this summer to develop the Nike + iPod. The device helps to turn the ubiquitous music player into a personal trainer for joggers. A small wireless sensor is fitted into the soles of an adapted range of Nike training shoes, which beams information, such as your speed and distance covered, back to the iPod nano. The player can then provide audio feedback on your performance and change the music track to a pumping tune if you need an extra spur on the home straight.
Unlike its cumbersome predecessors, the Nike + iPod is practically invisible. The sensor is contained within a pair of designer trainers and the iPod nano is small enough to slip into jogging bottoms. The only wires in sight are the headphone leads – nothing that would make you think twice before you stepped out of your front door wearing it. “Appearance is important,” says Joe Wilcox, senior analyst with Jupiter Research. “Things that people wear become fashion. There’s a jewellery aspect to it.”