This is what's next in wearable tech

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Wearable technology has earned an unfortunate reputation for looking clunky and gimmicky. Google Glass and the Apple Watch might both provide myriad benefits in our daily lives, but they’re far from inconspicuous fashion accessories. But as apparel companies and innovators pour millions into research and development, we’re beginning to see a brighter future in the latest wearable technology.

Fashion

For people to adopt the next wave of wearables, product developers have realised they must prioritise comfort and looks. Take Ralph Lauren’s Polotech shirt for example, which has sensors in it and works with the iPhone to capture workout data – the shirt looks good, the technology is invisible and calculates valuable biometrics information.

According to Kate Parker, head of marketing and communications for Google’s Made with Code initiative, foregrounding fashion in the wearables industry is likely to attract more female coders into the male-dominated field. Speaking at interactive festival SXSW, Parker presented a Zac Posen dress covered in LED lights that was designed by teenage girls as part of the Made with Code program. The girls attended Posen’s New York Fashion Week show and watched supermodel Coco Rocha, strut down the runway, wearing their work.

‘When they saw Coco come out and their work was reflected back, their eyes lit up,’ Parker says, adding that while the lack of gender diversity in wearable technology is a problem, she’s beginning to see a shift in perception and believes the future is bright for anyone who’s looking for a career in wearables.

Health

One of the biggest growth areas in wearable technology is of course health and fitness. Also speaking at SXSW, Shelton Yuen, vice president of research at Fitbit, said wearable technology can help us to learn about our bodies and lead healthier lives.

Yuen says Fitbit data has revealed many interesting insights, such as that users have walked the equivalent of Earth to Jupiter 11 times, or that men sleep 15 minutes less per night than women. But, he says they’re mindful of the ethical issues that come with using consumer data to undertake research and development. ‘We want to use data in a way that’s respectful to our users,’ he says. That’s why Fitbit worked with the Centre for Democracy & Technology to establish a standard for ethics and privacy. Ultimately he says the data generated belongs to the individual. So Fitbit don’t use the data for marketing or revenue initiatives.

Data and privacy

Standards for data collection vary, so consumers need to be aware of the information that corporations are filing away about them when using wearable technology. Privacy will become increasingly important as medical professionals use wearables to track patients, for example.

Deakin University Associate Professor Pubudu Pathirana is conducting clinical trials in the use of wearable devices in the health industry and says these advances are important because ‘physicians want to monitor patients as much as possible in their own environment and send them home without jeopardising their quality of care.’ He has worked with a research team at Deakin to develop the BioKin range of motion capture wearable products. With a simple sensor-controlled jacket, a patient could be watched from the safety of their home instead of travelling to appointments.

While wearable advances will allow medical professionals to track our health more closely, they also could mean that our private records are available to people beyond our doctor for example, or that our health problems more widely discussed.

Affordability

Assoc Prof. Pathirana says that while these advances are exciting, wearable technologies must be accessible to those that need them most. ‘There’s a gap between the technology and the support from Medicare,’ he says. ‘To get these technologies covered is hard. A lot of Australian wearables manufacturers go overseas.’

He concludes that no matter what purpose a wearable device serves – from fashion to health care – it can’t be prohibitively expensive for the average person to purchase. When that’s the case, the manufacturer is taking a bigger risk. However, ‘If products are $30 to $40 Australian dollars for example, the market will be massive,’ he says.

Young Australians with a desire to work in the wearables space are well placed to contribute to the impending boom. Like any emerging industry, there are still many challenges to overcome, but the ways that technology and clothing can intersect are limited only by the imagination of the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Interested in a career in wearable technology? Check out the range of engineering courses at Deakin University.

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Associate Professor Pubudu Pathirana
Associate Professor Pubudu Pathirana

School of Engineering, Deakin University
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