Sun, Feb 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Privacy advocates shiver as era of wearable technology begins

Apple and Google are just two of the giants working on gadgets that were once the realm of sci-fi — but that also push the frontiers of the privacy debate

By Dominic Rushe  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Apple has already transformed two industries — music and computing. Now, as the company reportedly attempts the redefinition of the watch — one of man’s oldest pieces of technology — the next phase of the techno revolution is hoving into clear view.

Welcome to the age of “wearable tech,” with a gadget available to cater to your every need.

Wearable technology is hardly a new phenomenon. Conrad von Soest depicted an apostle in reading glasses in the Niederwildugen Altarpiece in 1403, and there are mentions of the use of eyeglasses dating back to antiquity.

Wearable watches have been in circulation since the 16th century and English inventor Alphonsus William Webster received what is believed to be the first patent for a hearing aid — a curved earpiece worn behind the ear — in 1836.

However, thanks to the Internet and Moore’s Law — the theory that the number of resistors on a chip will double every two years — a whole new world of possibilities is opening up, and with it comes a host of questions that look set to eclipse all previous debate over online privacy.

Inevitably nicknamed the iWatch, the Apple device, on which the company is characteristically not commenting, has the tech world in a frenzy of sci-fi speculation. James Bond, Dick Tracy, Inspector Gadget — the techno watch has been a mainstay of fanboy fiction for generations.

However, the Internet revolution seems to have largely bypassed the watch, until now.

Apple reportedly has 100 employees looking at the device, which will take advantage of recent developments in high-tech curved glass, cheaper sensors and better voice recognition software.

What will the iWatch do? Monitor your health? Act as a credit card? A wrist-bound global positioning system? Laser cannon and teleporter? We will have to wait and see, but to be honest, if that is all it does, you may as well strap an iPhone to your arm.

Apple has a history of delivering surprises and the iWatch would be its first big new product since the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs. The company will want to make a splash, especially because archrival Google has its own “smart watch” in development and is already testing Google Glass, Web-connected glasses. Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are also monitoring developments and have their own plans.

Last year, analysts Forrester issued a report describing wearable computing as “the new platform war.”

Tech analyst Juniper Research estimates that wearable computing will generate US$800 million in revenues this year and US$1.5 billion next year. Annual unit sales of wearable computers will rise from 15 million this year to 70 million by 2017.

Others have already blazed the trail for smart watches. Pebble, a smart watch company, raised a record US$10.26 million from funding site Kickstarter last year. The watch will link to iPhones and devices running Google’s Android mobile program, letting you know who is calling, taking text messages and showing e-mails. It will also run new apps, such as acting as a bike computer for cyclists.

Pebble plans to produce 15,000 watches a week and made its official debut at the Consumers Electronic Show in Las Vegas last month. This is the electronic industry’s showcase, and this year, wearable tech was ubiquitous.

Alongside Pebble, a company called Basis Sciences displayed a chunky wrist-device that can monitor heart rate, sleep quality and more. A football helmet with pressure pads inside promised to monitor players’ health and any damage from tackles — increasingly a major issue in the sport. Verizon demonstrated a wearable, wireless computer designed for firefighters that can stream regular and infrared images.

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