Wearable tech is a work in progress

05/19/2014 12:00 AM

05/17/2014 9:18 AM

Smartphones had been around for years before apps came along. Suddenly, GPS, motion sensors and a high-quality camera powered the capabilities of countless apps and made the phone a device you couldn’t be without.

So far, you can’t say the same thing for the growing world of wearable digital devices, strapped to the wrist, face, chest or packed into a shoe.

There’s a lot of attention being paid to wearables by manufacturers and retailers. You can buy a dozen or so gadgets inside a Best Buy or Apple Store, and Amazon just opened a new portion of its online store dedicated to them.

Many of the gadgets in the first generation of wearables are designed to improve the health of its wearer, featuring a simple accelerometer like the one on your phone to track movement. Many also connect wirelessly to a modern phone to offload the data they record for analysis.

But so far no one has delivered a must-wear wearable.

Some are easy to lose. And some early adopters admit they just stopped using the gadgets after a while. If the tracker stays on, there’s the problem of making sense of the data.

For someone already fit and in tune with their bodies, said UC Irvine-trained neuroscientist Mitra Hooshmand, the trackers don’t provide much use.

“I have mixed feelings about these,” Hooshmand said of the wearables she was photographed with by the Register.

On the one hand, Hooshmand already has a good grasp on her activity levels. But she also teaches a new type of yoga that’s designed to change up heart rates. Collecting heartbeat data from students could be useful to her, especially if she’s developing new kinds of exercises. Interpreting that information, either by using human expertise or apps, could make it possible to individually design more effective exercise plans.

Developers are trying to build apps and services that will make wearables more useful. Google Glass is still sold in batches, not yet ready for mass-market delivery. And techies have been waiting years to see if Apple is going to produce a rumored iWatch.

In the meantime, here’s a guide to today’s wearable gadgets, what they do and what’s coming next.

Feast for the eyes

Google Glass can record precious moments as the wearer sees them. But how many people want to spend $1,500 on that? The fact that you can do pretty much the same thing, for now, by strapping a $200 GoPro camera to a motorcycle helmet or other parts of your body is a big reason extreme sports enthusiasts have been recording their adventures using that gadget.

Oakley has snow goggles for $600 that can display mph inside the frame, or display the location of a similarly equipped friend on the mountain. The Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based company also jumped on the Glass bandwagon; its agreement to work with Google on its products could inject some style-driven envy into the Glass experience.

Facebook is interested in taking over our eyeballs in very different ways, too, with its $2 billion purchase of Irvine, Calif., virtual-reality startup Oculus. Rift goggles, at $350, are only for developers so far, and they promise to transport you to other worlds by completely closing off the real one.

Tug at the wrist

The Pebble smartwatch can push new emails and text messages to your wrist, saving the effort and time of pulling a phone out of a pocket. That’s not the only thing it does – but still, is that enough to warrant spending $150?

Fitbit, Jawbone and many others are shaping their wearables as health-tracking wristbands in the $100-$200 price range. They can help nudge a wearer into a healthier lifestyle by vibrating or showing a colored light to remind desk-sitters and couch potatoes they need to stand up and walk around once in a while.

Some of the gadgets can track how well you’ve slept or your heart rate. As if to underscore the potential of the market, Intel snapped up one of these sensor-laden wristband companies, Basis, in March for a reported $100 million or so.

Samsung is going the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink route with its smartwatches. The $300 Gear 2 features a full-color screen like that of a smartphone, an infrared blaster to change the volume or channel on a television and a 2-megapixel camera to take selfies. For $200, the Gear Fit features a curved screen and 24/7 fitness tracking.

Making data useful

Most wearable gadgets use wireless technologies such as Bluetooth to talk to an app on a phone. But if you’ve got one app for tracking eating habits, another for following the number of steps you take in a day and another to tell you your heart rate over time, the data sits in different silos. That reduces its usefulness, especially because many of the apps don’t tell you much about what to do with the information.

The first challenge is to capture a mountain of accurate data. The second challenge is to boil that data down into actionable advice. And if the first generation of these gadgets is any indication, neither is a simple task – more than one of these health trackers had serious problems that led to recalls or refunds.

While there’s no equivalent of the iPhone for the wearable market just yet, Larry Smarr, an expert in the area of health data collection and founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego and UC Irvine, thinks a dashboard that pulls all the information together with personalized coaching is just around the corner.

“The fundamental thing I think is going to happen in 2014 is a move to the personalized integrated health dashboard,” Smarr said. “It’s really difficult for an individual to figure this stuff out on their own.”

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