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

Sun, Feb 24, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.

“The hurdle will be: ‘Why do you need another device?’” Bhas said.

However, he said that it was clear Apple, Google and Microsoft all believe that computing is about to make another shift. The PC gave way to more mobile devices and now they are getting more portable still.

Amid all the technologically driven excitement, privacy advocates are increasingly concerned. Watchdog group Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is compiling a report on the safety of data generated from mobile devices. Director Beth Givens warns that people need to be very careful about the ways in which they adopt the new technology.

“You need to read their privacy policy. Quite a lot of these companies just plain don’t have one. There is always an issue with secondary users of the data. Who else is seeing this? Employers? Insurance companies?” she said.

Much of this data will be stored in the “cloud” — streaming to remote servers that Givens said “are not inherently secure.”

This is just the start. Google’s glasses will potentially be watching your every move.