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

Nike has a hit on its hands with Fuel, a wristband that monitors your activity and acts like a personal trainer. Tellingly, Apple chief executive Tim Cook wears one.

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley and business partner Sonny Vu have a new venture called Misfit Wearables that has developed an activity tracker as sleek and shiny as a silver coat button that will send all your data to your favored device. Sculley has been mentoring healthcare experts in recent years, one of many Silicon Valley stars increasingly interested in the intersection between health and technology.

Governments around the world are also pouring money into wearable tech. US soldiers in Afghanistan have been testing a device called the shoulder worn acoustic targeting system, developed by tech firm QinetiQ, that can pinpoint the exact location of gunfire and display it on a small screen attached to a soldier’s body armor. Devices are being used to monitor soldiers’ health, such as their hydration levels, and to augment their vision. Many of these technologies are likely to filter down to civilian life.

Sonny Vu says wearable technology now appears to be poised to go mainstream.

“It’s still kind of limited in what it can do, and a lot of it looks unwearable. Google Glass makes you look so geeky,” he said.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin was recently snapped on the New York subway wearing the glasses and looking like a tourist in town for the marathon. However, geeky or not, Vu predicts that this year will see a major leap forward for wearable tech.

“It makes you look at technology in a different way. We are moving to a world where technology interacts with us, you are not just staring at a screen, it is suggesting things to you. Maybe go for a walk, or reminding you that you need to shop for food,” he said.

According to Vu, a lot of the tech out there now is not especially interesting. However, that will change. Britain’s Cambridge Temperature Concepts has developed a portable fertility monitor that can measure a woman’s body temperature 20,000 times a day at a precision of a thousandth of a degree. Apps are in development that will monitor for heart attacks and strokes — wearable tech could soon be like possessing a portable doctor.

However, these are still early days and for Vu a lot of the gear out there is too just fiddly — a lot of those wireless devices seem to come in boxes filled with wires. There will though be big winners, he said.

“There were MP3 players, then there was iPod,” he says referring to how Apple conquered the digital music player market.

This time around, Apple will face some tough competition.

Juniper analyst Nitin Bhas says the Apple news ensures that its competitors will be working hard to make sure they stay ahead of the curve.

“The Apple rumor will fuel demand,” he said. “Everyone will be looking at this.”

He said while today’s devices are concentrating on health and fitness, the next generation would be about entertainment and will have broader applications.

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