Wearable sensors: Evolution, not revolution

The smartwatch has become the must-have gadget for the tech-savvy, heralding the dawn of a new age of computing: the age of wearable technology. Gartner estimates the market for wearables will grow by almost 20 percent in 2016, with sales reaching more than 322 million units by 2017.

Wearable sensors push computing forward

The emergence of wearable sensors is the natural next step in the evolution of computing. Just as clocks in town squares evolved into clocks in homes and then into pocket watches and wristwatches, the same model of falling costs, increasing sophistication, mass production and personalization applies to nearly every device people use in their everyday lives. Society has moved away from shared computing and toward devices that perform a particular function or set of functions specifically for the individual based on the particular characteristics of that person. In short, society has reached the age of intimate computing.

Though some people want to interact with their environment through their wrist or glasses, others may choose to manage or monitor certain functions through discrete devices such as fitness trackers. The wearable device is a new paradigm for computing, and there are already as many types of wearable devices as there are perceived uses.

Important considerations for effective wearables

What makes a wearable effective? It all boils down to the following three factors:

  1. Context: What is the situation? Where is the user? How is the user? What data is specific to his or her current situation?
  2. Insight: How can that data be applied? What does the data gathered from the situation mean? What can be extrapolated from that meaning?
  3. Action: How can the user act on the insights derived from the data? Taking into account the specifics of the situation, what interventions are available?

There are many devices on the market that effectively address these three factors, even if the current trend in smartwatches — the devices pushing wearable sensors into the mainstream — is as much a fashion statement as it is a means to improve quality of life. As wearables become less about “look what I’ve got” and more about “look what I can do better,” there will likely be much greater specialization in the devices themselves.

Business applications for wearables

What’s really exciting is if you look beyond the consumer to enterprise applications for wearable sensors. IBM’s Watson Health takes the data your mobile device or smartwatch is already tracking and infuses it with analytics and cognitive computing to generate a personalized view of the user’s health. Aggregating and analyzing data from users enables new insights to be unlocked — disease markers can be tracked, trends in diet or exercise can be extrapolated and the user’s understanding of how the body works can become vastly enhanced. The device is not just the point of data capture, though. It also delivers personal insights and guidance to the individual. For the wearable user, big data means personal insights.

There are similar applications in other industries. For instance, insurance companies deliver personalized services based on a user’s individual habits, rather than broad demographics. In relief efforts around the world, hazardous environments can be monitored, and the movements of relief workers can be coordinated to ensure maximum safety and impact. Scanning technology is giving way to devices as small as a ring scanner, a highly portable solution that boosts productivity by enabling workers to scan paperwork or other materials on the go.

The era of intimate computing is integrating man and machine. Wearable sensors mean that wherever users are and whatever they’re doing, they are able to do it smarter.

Written By

Andrew Davidson

Mobile Portfolio Marketing Leader, Europe at IBM

Mobile marketeer with over 20 years experience in telling stories about technology innovation and the way it shapes our world. Andrew is responsible for helping IBM develop and grow its mobile business in Europe.

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