The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Spring 2014

"Beyond the Hype of Wearable Technology" by Katherine Oosterbaan


Smart phones are so passé. They’re old news, and everyone has them—it’s time to move on to something better, something you can more easily take with you everywhere—wearable technology. Or so many big technology companies believe. From the Google Glass to the highly anticipated Apple iWatch, wearable tech is popping up all over the place, and is widely touted in Forbes as the future of consumer electronics.[6] Imagine being able to type essays just by saying them out loud, or drawing a number in the air to pay a bill. It’s not science fiction—these things already exist. Is it worth jumping on the wearable technology bandwagon, or is it just the latest fad that’s bound to die out? 

Wearable tech began in the 1980s with the introduction of the calculator watch, which was a revolution of its time for small computing. As computing power advanced and it became easier to scale down computers, the potential for wearable devices skyrocketed. One of the first companies to bring this technology to consumers was Nike.[1] Its fitness wristband, the FuelBand, was capable of measuring steps taken, calories burned, altitude climbed, and more, and then sending that data back to a person’s home computer. These simple devices were considered the first modern wearable technology to really take off, and healthy lifestyle wearable technology became more common. However, even though these products were well received by a small niche of people, they’ve already begun to die out in favor of the ever popular, more widely accessible phone app. Instead, wearable tech has begun to move in new directions. 

One of these is healthcare.[2] This most practical direction could allow people to spend less time in a hospital and speed up diagnoses—people with chronic conditions could wear a small device that constantly monitors their condition and sends periodic updates to doctors, as well as alerts the patient if something’s wrong. Additionally, combining the data from millions of people could allow doctors to aggregate population information and produce new data on diseases. This could help cut the cost of healthcare, a perpetual concern, and patients would have a greater ability to take their care into their own hands.[3] Additionally, wearable tech could help to create a community of people at a national or global level who are all suffering from the same disease, or who all want to lose weight.[2] For example, instead of having just one workout buddy who also suffers from diabetes, you could virtually connect to dozens across the country who have the same condition and are the same age. This opens the door for the popular concept of “gamifying” fitness, where people compete against each other to lose weight, quit smoking, or other various activities. Although these practical applications are far-reaching, there is another arena of wearable technology that is garnering a lot of attention. 

Personal computing has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and technology companies are constantly seeking to one-up each other to create the “next big thing” that will define the new must-have personal device. For many, it’s wearable devices, the prime example of which is the Google Glass.[4] Complete with a built-in sound system that uses bone vibration, this device, which still requires a smartphone connection, can enable you to call people, send texts, take pictures, give directions, look up what movies that guy’s been in, view your social media feed, and much more. Another popular device is the SmartWatch concept[5], which also works with phones to give consumers a more limited range of functions, such as message alerts, voice control of phones, and social medial updates. As wearable tech takes off, companies expect to be able to turn these devices phone-independent, and even though most aren’t on the market yet, the amount of investment being funneled in shows that these firms truly believe wearable tech is the future.[6] 

Despite the many benefits of wearable tech, there is one huge drawback—privacy. While it’s great to aggregate healthcare data from wearable technology users, it’s hard to guarantee their privacy, and new laws and regulations would have to be formulated to specify exactly how and when it’s okay to source data from these users. Far more concerning than these ramifications, however, are those for everyday wearable tech like Glass. If you can and do wear your Glass all day every day, what’s to stop the Google from selling your information-- like favorite restaurants, or transportation preferences, or basically any other information that they can glean--to advertisers? In the wake of the recent spying scandals in the US, there’s even a fear that government organizations could watch people through their wearable technology, which poses a whole host of problems about the line between privacy and safety. Even though wearable tech seems to be the future, it’s clear that some serious considerations have to be made before we view our world through technology-tinted lenses.


[1] Wallop, Harry. “Is Nike ‘pulling FuelBand’ the end of wearable tech?” The Telegraph. Last modified April 22, 2014. Accessed May 12, 2014. 
[2] Afshar, Vala. “Wearable Technology: the Coming Revolution in Healthcare” Huff Post Tech. Last modified May 4, 2014. Accessed May 12, 2014. 
[3] Schull, Natasha D. “Obamacare Meets Wearable Technology” MIT Technology Review. Last modified May 6, 2014. Accessed May 12, 2014. 
[4] Shanklin, Will. “Review: Google Glass Explorer Edition 2.0” Gizmag. Last modified January 4, 2014. Accessed May 12, 2014. 
[5] “Smart Watch Review” TopTenREVIEWS. Accessed May 12, 2014. 
[6] Spence, Ewan. “2014 Will Be The Year Of Wearable Technology” Forbes. Last modified November 2, 2013. Accessed May 12, 2014. 

UChicago Triple Helix