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We’re just starting to see the early adopters of wearable computing wandering the streets gazing through Google’s head-worn computer or staring down at their Pebble smart watch. But a slew of researchers are already hard at work figuring out what will come next. Among the more outlandish ideas these researchers are experimenting with: sensors embedded in clothing and teeth, and—oh yes—a wearable computer designed just for dogs.

After languishing in research labs for years, wearable computing is suddenly a hot topic in technology circles. The introduction of technologies such as the Pebble watch, fitness-tracking devices like Jawbone’s Up, and Google Glass, which is currently available to developers and is slated for public release next year, have ignited demand for more wearable gadgets.

In all, Juniper Research expects nearly 15 million wearable smart devices (including glasses, health and fitness monitors, and other devices) to be sold this year, amounting to $800 million, and nearly 70 million to be sold by 2017. But the field remains experimental, and it’s still not certain what form most wearable computers will end up taking.

Like Google, a number of startups are betting on our eyes and ears as the next frontier in computing. For example, Atheer Labs, a young company nestled right next to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, is building software that will let users manipulate 3-D objects by means of computerized glasses (see “Why Google Glass Is Just the Beginning”). While Google Glass is currently limited to Google’s special eyewear, Atheer wants its software to be loaded onto lots of wearable devices.

“If we are trying to get information to you in an easier way, it will be focused around your eyes and ears—it can be glasses, it can be lenses,” says Atheer founder and CEO Soulaiman Itani. Itani doesn’t expect things like fabric with embedded electronics, which hasn’t gotten much mainstream attention, to gain popularity as quickly.

Yet while head-mounted displays are getting (and have always gotten) lots of attention, Kristof Van Laerhoven, general chair of the International Symposium on Wearable Computers and leader of the Embedded Sensing Systems group at Technishe Universitat Darmstadt in Darmstadt, Germany, says that researchers are investigating many more types of wearable technologies and applications than he’s seen in the past. Papers set to be presented at the annual ISWC conference in Zurich, Switzerland, in September explore not just head-mounted devices but topics like how fabric that incorporates gas sensors could be used to monitor your health, or how a tooth sensor could monitor what you eat.

As weird as these ideas might sound, “two or three years ago, people would have said ‘This area is dead—nobody’s going to wear these goggles,’” Van Laerhoven says. But with the arrival of Google Glass, interest has been renewed. Now, he says, “I wouldn’t count out any of these other technologies.”

And wearable tech needn’t be just for people. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, associate professor Melody Jackson, professor and Google Glass technical lead Thad Starner, and research scientist Clint Zeagler are working on a system called FIDO, which stands for “facilitating interactions for dogs with occupations.”

Jackson, who has been training assistance dogs for about 18 years, says FIDO is meant to make it easy for the animals to communicate clearly with their handlers (whether a disabled person or a police officer) by activating a sensor on their vest or collar to transmit a verbal command the handler can hear through an earpiece or see on a head-mounted display.

In an early study, the researchers equipped a dog vest with an Arduino microprocessor and tested four different sensors that dogs could activate by biting, tugging, or putting their mouth nearby. The three service dogs participating in the test quickly learned to activate the sensors to set off a tone, Jackson says. A paper detailing the group’s initial findings will be presented at ISWC.

Beyond helping disabled people navigate more effectively, FIDO could enable bomb-sniffing dogs to communicate with handlers remotely about what specific type of bomb they’ve encountered, and rescue dogs could remotely alert a human team that they’ve found an injured person. A grant from Google will allow the researchers to study some of these applications. Eventually, Jackson could even see a device that would let a pet dog alert you if it’s hungry or needs to go out.

Whether such devices will be worn on your head, wrist, or dog’s collar, though, plenty of obstacles need to be overcome before they reach the mainstream. Probably the biggest issue right now is battery life—a problem affecting most portable devices, because battery technology hasn’t kept pace as gadgets get smaller and more widely used. Beyond the rechargeable batteries most of us are used to, there’s also the possibility of, say, smart glasses that recharge using solar power, or a smart watch that charges kinetically using power generated as you walk (a paper by UCLA researchers that will be presented at ISWC explores this second option).  

Another big problem is durability. Jawbone, which started creating wearable devices in 1999 with its Bluetooth headsets, learned this in an embarrassingly public way in 2011, when the capacitors in early adopters’ Up wristbands started failing because of water exposure. The company felt compelled to offer their money back, and Brad Kittredge, director of product management, says the experience (which he calls “the world’s biggest beta test”) taught Jawbone how important it is for a wearable device to be able to stand up to spills, bumps, pressure changes, and hand washing—basically, everyday life.

There’s also the challenge of getting people to wear these devices in the first place. While Google Glass and Pebble are garnering lots of attention, it’s unclear whether most people will want to use devices that could be seen as social intrusions. And like any accessory, they must be good-looking as well as useful. “I think it’s a lot more complicated than everybody thought,” says Van Laerhoven.

Despite the difficulties, researchers, startups, and major electronics companies feel certain that—as with the adoption of cell phones over a decade ago—it’s just a matter of time until we get comfortable with wearing smart gadgets instead of putting them in our pockets. “At first people are going to say it’s weird,” Jackson says, “but then everybody will want one.” 

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Credit: Adil Dellawalla

Tagged: Computing, Business, Communications, Web, Google, 3-D, augmented reality, Google Glass, apps, smartphone, Jawbone, mobile, Atheer, Thad Starner

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