x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Wearable tech is taking us on a journey through the looking glass

You meet someone and their profile pops up before your eyes. You put on your VR glasses and dive into a private world. This is where wearable tech is taking us, writes Adriana Rangel.

A programmer controls a drone toy drone using Google glasses. Kike Calvo via AP Images
A programmer controls a drone toy drone using Google glasses. Kike Calvo via AP Images

The International Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas showcased the latest trends in consumer technology such as connected cars, Ultra HD TVs, smart home appliances and 3D printing.

However, none came close to creating as much buzz or attracting more attention than so-called wearables.

According to IDC (where I am a research director), this technology can be divided into three categories: complex accessories, smart accessories and smart wearables.

• Complex accessories are connected devices designed to operate partially independently from other devices, but are only fully operational when connected to a smartphone, tablet or PC. This category includes fitness trackers such as the Nike Fuel Band and the Fitbit, which are well established and commonly adopted devices.

Smart accessories are devices that allow the installation of third-party applications such as Twitter and Instagram, but depend on other connected devices – usually smartphones or videogame consoles – to work. Smartwatches such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear fall under this category, as do smart glasses such as the Oculus Rift.

Finally, we have smart wearables – computing devices that can function completely independently of any other devices. Google Glass is in this category.

Smart glasses can fall under any of those three categories. They can also be split into two distinct areas: augmented reality (AR) glasses and virtual reality (VR) glasses. AR glasses allow us to expand the world we see. Through their lenses, we can get additional information of our surroundings, such as weather and landmark information, walking or driving directions to a destination we can visualise, text translations for store and road signs, or train and flight schedules.

While wearing such devices we could also record or photograph whatever we see.

As AR glasses are constantly connected to the internet, they offer the potential to give their users immediate access to all kinds of data, serving as knowledge-expansion devices. When combined with the profiling capabilities currently being developed by several companies including Google and Facebook, they will, at some point, enable us to shop smarter. For example, while facing a store in a shopping mall, we can get instant information about what goods it offers, whether we have shopped there before, what it was that we bought and, based on our history of purchases and current store promotions, suggestions of things for us to buy at that moment.

However, if we extrapolate these capabilities a bit further, there may soon come a day when we’ll face another person and their complete profile will pop up in front of our eyes. This will, at the very least, change the present concept of “first impression”, as we’ll get to know far more about a person we are meeting for the first time than just our current visual-based gut feeling. The ability of recording or photographing anything in front of our eyes also brings to mind privacy concerns.

Google has made a point of creating visual indicators to let others know that the wearer of a Google Glass is either recording a movie or taking pictures at a given moment. However, how likely is it that people walking or playing around someone wearing Google Glasses, or any other AR glasses, will notice such indicators?

And than there are the VR glasses: headgear that allow users to have a more immersive experience of movies and video games. They range from personal movie viewers such as Sony’s HMZ-T3 headset to more sophisticated gaming-focused devices such as the Oculus Rift, which offers its users stereoscopic 3D views and low-latency 360-degree head tracking that allow them to seamlessly look around a virtual world as they would in real life. As well as the Oculus Rift, many other revolutionary devices are soon to be launched into the consumer market, such as Avegant’s Glyph, which is said to be part Google Glass, part Oculus Rift and part Beats by Dre. Apple is also said to be working on its own VR eyewear, though IDC doesn’t expect a launch anytime soon. Actually, according to IDC’s Consumer Technology Predictions for 2014, it is very unlikely that even iWatch – Apple’s own smartwatch – will be announced this year.

In further developments, Sony and Microsoft are expected to launch their own VR devices for their PS4 and Xbox One consoles. It is anticipated that Microsoft’s smart glasses will operate similarly to Google Glass, and they are said to be in only the very early prototype stages of development. PS4’s VR headset is rumoured to launch within the year, and different sources speculate that it will use PS4’s new stereo camera for head tracking and that its accuracy and resolution are to be higher than those of the Oculus Rift.

With the advances in gaming technology and the current state of high-resolution visuals, high-fidelity sound, and gamer interaction, virtual reality is the obvious next stage, and the gaming platform that offers it first will have a big advantage over the others.

In times when social media has already reduced human face-to-face interaction, we can already speculate that VR glasses and their immersive experiences will see our family members living in their own individual worlds inside our living rooms. We will be together, but living more separate lives than ever before.

Luckily, a recent IDC Connected Consumer Survey has indicated that, while wearable devices such as smart glasses have the potential to be a game-changing category on the level of smartphones, they are not yet ready for prime time in 2014 as there are still numerous tech limitations and the level of consumer interest is not yet very high.

The consumers surveyed still have many concerns relating to the cost and ease of use of such devices, and have very little understanding of their value proposition. Even though they expect companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony to offer trustworthy wearable devices in the near future, these companies will need to work hard on educating most consumers to understand the advantages of adopting such devices. Until then, our concerns around lack of privacy and isolation can wait a little.

Adriana Rangel is the SIS Research Director at IDC Middle East, Africa, and Turkey