Identity, control, safety: The next generation of wearable tech

The future of wearable technology is going to involve new uses for the devices we put on our bodies, says Sonny Vu of Misfit. We discover his views on how the tech will evolve

Identity, control, safety – these are the three areas where wearable technology will evolve in its next generation, according to Sonny VU, CEO of wearables company Misfit.

“Right now, in a current world of wearables, we’re still very much in a 1.0 world”, he says.”If you think about it, the use cases for wearables right now are still in some ways very limited. Sensing and wearables are almost synonymous, which they really shouldn’t be. There are many more things that you can do with wearables than just sensing, but that is all we can do right now.”

Inline images courtesy of Misfit

Inline images courtesy of Misfit

Vu has a point. Beyond the current ability to record data about our activities there isn’t a whole lot that this first generation of wearables can do.

The products at the forefront of this first generation tend to be specialist medical devices that can be expensive but provide a specific service to the user. In most cases they improve a person’s life and well-being – think along the lines of the Medtronics adhesive heart monitor which can detect and diagnose irregular heartbeats.

Meanwhile a fitness band that gathers data about steps walked, heart rate, calories consumed and so on allows people to be more aware of their health but won’t necessarily change the wearer’s life. Current consumer wearables are devices that need constant monitoring and unwavering dedication to personal metrics.

“That’s a good start from, say, 2011 to 2014,” Vu says. “But people are getting kind of angsty because they want more.” Functionality was one of the reasons why Vu teamed up with former Apple CEO John Sculley and Sridhar Iyengar, former CTO of Aga Matrix, to found Misfit in 2011.

Right now we’re still very much in a 1.0 world

The idea was “to make products where the technology would become invisible and people wouldn’t really be talking about technology, but they would just notice that things in their lives are just easier to use, more convenient, and they have more functionality without having to bother with it really,” he explains. Since then the company has launched a range of wearables, sleep monitors, accessories and most recently a smart light bulb – as well as raising $40m in funding in 2012.

So how will we get to the second generation of wearable technology, which, according to Vu, will make our lives easier without us even noticing it?

“I actually think that part of the future is that we’re going to graduate into a world of Wearable 2.0 use cases,” he explains. “I think there’s going to be three main use classes that we are going to see emerge from the next generation of wearables.”

The three cases revolve around the user’s identity, the ability to control other devices, and the safety of the user and others. All three will be “truly compelling uses cases”, Vu says, pointing out that this doesn’t necessarily mean a complete re-thinking of what wearable technology looks like as it might still be the same hardware.

Identity

The next generation of wearables will know who we are, personally – not just in terms of our physique and activity, but in a much more comprehensive way. Vu describes his as “a device that you wear that tells the world and your devices – your car, your home, your door lock, payment kiosks – who you are and physically authenticates who you are”.

misfit1Naturally, there will be infrastructure challenges to set this system up as a user isn’t going to solely trust their wearable if it can only identify them in 90% of situations; it has to be 99.9% of cases.

A system needs to be in place to allow a level of trust where a wearer is happy to leave their wallet at home. Despite the developments needed for a system like this to be set up Vu is confident that it will become a reality. “It’s not whether it is going to happen, it is when,” he says.

Questions will also need to be asked about the level of identity that wearables are able to access.
Authentication is an important part of developing future capabilities for the devices. Once a wearable is able to verify who we are, it will be able to control many other elements of our lives.

Control

Another area for which wearables will become increasingly relevant, according to Vu, is control.

This could be the biggest game changer for the wearer as it will allow them to activate other devices with either a push of a button or by moving their wearable in front of a sensor.

Devices will unlock my phone, turn on the lights, make my drone follow me

“Devices will unlock my phone, turn on the lights, make my drone follow me, open my door – there are countless things that I cannot even imagine,” Vu says.

In this field wearables could really become an indispensible part of our future lives, opening up a host of new possibilities for interaction with the technology and the everyday objects around us.

For instance, a car could be started just by the driver getting into it – after their identity has been verified.

However, if wearables are to gain greater power of control, it is important that they allow the wearer to customise just how they want them to operate.

Safety

The third area of use cases is centred on safety, Vu explains, in the sense of “having devices that you monitor, maybe not yourself but someone else – for example, you can track your kids, can track your grandparents, or your pets.”

Out of the three functions highlighted by Vu the safety element is the one mostly likely to arrive first. Companies are already starting to produce wearables that can be used in hospitals, not only to help patients but also to support hospital staff in doing their job. Phillips, for instance, has created a wearable patient monitor that is worn around the neck and allows medical professionals to easily check a patient’s vital signs and their status.

“There are a lot of possibilities there – we’re only now starting to see start-ups get into that space,” Vu says.

Getting connected

All three of these new approaches rely upon the connectivity and how wearables will work and connect with other devices. Connectivity growth is an area that Misfit and others are currently working on. In particular, Vu said, wearables will soon be working with smart homes to make them more functional.

“Smart home products right now suffer from a chronic lack of usability,” he explains. “If I have to turn on my smart light bulb by finding my phone, turning on the phone, finding the app, then making sure the app and the smart bulb are connected, and then switch it on, that defeats the point.

issue11“The whole point was to make it easier, not more complicated. You could just flick a switch on the wall and you’re done. But you could have a wearable device where you just tap a button and it turns your bulb on or off.”

To make the smart home more intuitive Misfit is adding a button onto wearables that will allow the wearer to turn lights on. If the application is successful, this could offer an early glimpse of the potential of the second generation of wearable technology.

Meanwhile one thing is certain – wearables will have a lot more to give in the coming years.

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