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Back to the Future of Wearables

Dr. Mitra Memarzia describes how innovations in wearables promise to transform our lives

“I never think of the future, it comes soon enough” (Albert Einstein)

The Future. Faster is the new strapline for the Knowledge Transfer Network. It is a pertinent statement describing the speed at which technology continues to transform our lives.  For me, it also conjures up films such as Back to the Future, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Star Trek and Logan’s Run.

I grew up with these futuristic films and in my lifetime many of the visions depicted are now all around us. The Oculus Rift in Back to the Future, Artificial Intelligence and tablet computers in A Space Odyssey, wearable technology in Star Trek, and as for Logan’s Run… lets keep with the utopian optimism. As technology continues to develop, the time between what we dream up and what we are actually capable of achieving is shrinking.

According to Moore's Law, the exponential growth of technology doubles approximately every two years. Computers double their capabilities and so do the information technologies that use them. In ten years time we will be thousand times more advanced, in thirty years we will be technologically one billion times more advanced. Hard to comprehend, but this is the point of Singularity, in which some believe artificial intelligence will exceed human intellectual capacity.








This may sound far fetched, but we are already well on our way with the development of quantum computers that can perform data tasks and reach answers instantaneously and neuromorphic chips that crunch data using pulses and patterns similar to our brains.

In the book of Genesis, God created the universe in six days, he created man in his own image, and on the seventh day he rested. We are now building the world in our own image and it’s getting faster. The relationship between human and technology has fascinated us and continues to inspire science fiction and science fact. Perhaps not quite Singularity but the seeds or more like circuits are beginning to fuse. Wearable Technologies are giving us a glimpse into the future. The Chris Dancys of this world - self-described as the “most connected guy in the world” - are already dipping their circuits in.

It is estimated that 1.75 billion of us now carry mobile phones and most of us are rarely 'disconnected'. Our smartphones mean that we hardly need to know anything, remember anything, or even know how to find our way around. We just need to remember our phones. So it is no surprise that our First Encounter with wearables has been in the form of Smart watches followed closely by Fitness bands. The Google Glass has had its fair share of fame and shame and continues to be one of the most controversial of wearable devices. More recently the Microsoft Hololens has also been getting some limelight as a cross between the Oculus Rift and Google Glass. 

The CEO and founder of Wearable World, Redg Snodgras believes that connectivity to one another is making us more proactive and less reactionary. “This level of connectivity has brought us closer to each other, provided more opportunities for education, and given us a deeper understanding of ourselves. With wearable technology we are taking our ability to communicate, educate, and understand one step further. Wearables strengthen our intrapersonal awareness and refine our ability to empathize with ourselves, others, and our planet”.

Alongside all of this, we have the ability to capture and harness a diverse range of datasets using sensors and smart materials that can detect light, movement, biological and chemical changes, location, sound and even brainwaves. These technologies are being developed into a wide range of sectors such as healthcare, education, retail and media and entertainment.  But true mass consumption is still lagging.  There are two main reasons for this; one is that we are still figuring out how to manage and harness personal data and security. We need to create more robust and transparent systems that build consumer trust. The second reason is that that consumers want personalised devices that generally don’t make them look like cyborgs.

Jim Newton who is the market development director at McLaren Applied Technologies believes that: “The future of wearable innovation lies in creating technology that provides personalised, relevant, meaningful insight in accordance with an individual’s unique requirements; it should optimise both physical and mental performance to enhance overall lifestyle”.

New devices on the block are making use of specialised technologies, often with single functions such as SunFriend, the UV monitoring wearable, the crowd funded calorie-counting GoBe wristband and the Artemis jewellery for personal safety. So it appears we are on the right track with Function, but it is also important to consider the Form of wearables in order to make them truly wearable and ultimately desirable.

Consumers are now demanding more stylish wearables and designers are stepping up to the challenge to develop the market beyond early adopters, with brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Rebecca Minkoff, Opening Ceremony taking to the catwalks. Lynne Murray, Director of Digital Fashion, London College of Fashion speaks passionately about the importance of making wearables truly wearable. “The notion of 'wearing' technology appears very new- but the real reason people chose to engage with product and wear something is not truly about its rational functionality, but the way in which it emotionally connects to the wearer through the feelings it imbues on the wearer”. 

Exploration house The Unseen represent a great example of what can be achieved through exploring emotions. Blending clothes with technology and chemistry plus a sprinkling of magic to boot, they have been able to develop creations such as the emotionally responsive colour changing dress. Lauren Bowker, often described as an alchemist, is the multi award winning founder of The Unseen, creating beautifully poetic and tangible visions of the future, seamlessly fine-tuning the relationship between human and technology through intelligent fabrics. 

The serial inventor, Dean Karman with over 150 patents that include portable energy and water purification for the developing world is an advocate of the importance of emotion behind invention:  “Everybody has to be able to participate in a future that they want to live for. That's what technology can do”.  Neil Milliken, Head of accessibility and inclusion at Atos believes that by considering accessibility in what we create, we are ensuring that everyone is involved. "Ever since mankind first made tools from flint they have enabled people to do things that were formerly impossible. Today the same applies to information technology. Harnessing the potential that lies in the sensors and connectors of wearable technology will give people access to services and information that was previously unimaginable: By designing with accessibility in mind we ensure that the people with the very most to benefit from new technologies really are included."

To continue imagining the unimaginable and to create The Future…Faster, requires a great deal of cross-innovation. To support this, The Knowledge Transfer Network as the UK’s Innovation Network brings together sixteen industry groups that include, Creative, Digital, Design, Nanotechnology, Healthtech and Medicines, Materials and Energy Generation.  Wearables are perfectly positioned to benefit from the cross-fertilisation of these diverse technologies. There has never been a better time to plug into these networks and harness the power of technology and people to grow the UK economy and create a better future for society.

Future Competitions

Wearables Opportunity

Innovate UK’s IC tomorrow programme is currently running a Wearable Technology Innovation Contest outlining. There are six challenges areas offering up £35K funding per challenge area to develop and trial solutions with the partners; McLaren and Loughborough University, Disney, glh Hotels, Amey and National Rail, Atos and Queen Mary University London. Successful applicants will also benefit from the relationship with the contest support partners: London College of Fashion and Wearable World.

Application Deadline: Noon 10th March 2015

Full competition brief, guidance document and application, visit IC tomorrow.

Better interactions between people and machines

£500K Feasibility Funding Competition - launching 16th February 2015. For details visit Innovate UK.

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