Pulling a thread on the problems with wearable tech

wearable tech google glasses problemsWearable tech has been kicking around for quite a few years now, but developments like Google Glasses are starting to give concept momentum as the “next big thing.” The idea of wearing computers and electronics makes sense: Most of us already carry around a smartphone, but it requires us to take it out and operate it. Wearable tech could free our hands completely.

There’s also clearly a big market for smart clothing and smart textiles when it comes to the realm of health and fitness. ABI Research predicts 169.5 million wearable devices will ship in 2017 for fitness and healthcare, as compared to 20.77 million in 2011. Clothing that monitors our heart rate or body temperature and records our exercise sessions would be useful. Smart textiles capable of reacting to the environment around them could also be desirable – imagine your shirt was capable of cooling you down slightly or even controlling your body odor.

Possibilities abound, but before we burn our existing attire and start the cyborg transformation, it’s worth remembering that wearable tech has a lot of problems to overcome. Is wearable computing really the future?

Fashion driven e-waste

The ebbs and flows of fashion already contribute to our general wastefulness on a grand scale. Few people keep clothes in their standard rotation until they actually wear out. The cycle of new fashion rules and must-have items keeps a steady turnover in wardrobes across the country. If you thought the situation was bad in the clothing world then you’ll be horrified by tech where obsolescence is built-in.

Will you stop wearing your smart jacket because it’s out of fashion or because the tech guts are outdated? What happens when you no longer have a use for it? Electronic waste is a major problem already. According to the EPA in the US only 25 percent of the over 181 million mobile devices, televisions, and computers that were thrown away in 2009 were actually recycled.

google glasses sergei brinWe are buying more electronics with every passing year and the amount of e-waste we produce is rising. A report from the Electronics TakeBack Coalition pulls stats together from various sources to show that we are generating more and more e-waste and buying more and more electronics. The “solution” of sending our e-waste overseas to developing countries has led to toxic dumping grounds where the desperately poor expose themselves to harm in an attempt to harvest something of worth from our discarded electronics.

According to the Journal of Industrial Ecology, wearable tech will contribute significantly to our growing pile of e-waste. The problem isn’t just the volume of waste; it’s also the process involved in recycling certain devices. The article suggests that wearable tech will be difficult to recycle.

While some legislation aims to prevent e-waste being shipped abroad and to compel manufacturers to take responsibility for their products after obsolescence through recycling, you’d be naïve to put your faith in our governments compelling big business to do anything that cuts too sharply into profit margins. The adoption of eco credentials by manufacturers has been driven by consumer dollars more than anything else.

Comfort and practicality

If we take a look at Project Glass for a moment, a couple of immediately obvious problems present themselves. I’ve already seen many people comment that they wouldn’t wear them because of the way they look. The potential benefits will not be enough to entice them into walking the streets looking like a Borg (of course, that’s also a geeky reference they would never make).

The comfort factor has to weigh in as well. Who really wants to wear glasses? What if you already wear glasses? Will there be prescription Google Glasses? How practical would it be to walk down the street with a heads-up display overlaying reality? You can imagine the potential for distraction and accidents as people are accosted by all-singing and dancing pop-up ads as they walk past a store or a billboard comes to life.

wearable tech problems headerSimilar practical considerations plague tech clothing. How comfortable can a piece of clothing really be if it has a bunch of sensors and a battery woven into it? It’s certainly going to be a challenge for designers. What about the battery life? How long before it wears out and needs to be recharged? How do you recharge it? Current battery life limitations already seriously impair our mobile tech. It’s still the number one complaint for most consumers.

Another point that seems almost trivial on the surface, but could actually seriously wreck wearable tech is the ability to launder clothes. Conventional washing machines would probably consign a lot of smart clothing to the e-waste graveyard. Would we see specialist smart clothing laundries opening across the country?

What about security?

It’s an inevitable question with any tech advancement – how secure is it? Would wearable tech put us at risk from hackers or cyber-criminals? In general, I think these kinds of risks are overstated, and people can get a little paranoid, but with wearable tech the information being picked up could be extremely sensitive, and the potential to do us harm seems greater. A hacker gaining access to your smartphone camera might stare the inside of your pocket all day, but a hacker accessing your Google Glasses would effectively be able to see exactly what you see. Smart clothing that relies on Bluetooth pairing with another device like a smartphone to send data leaves the possibility of intercepted signals for anyone clever enough.

The possibility of someone hacking into your glasses and projecting something onto your HUD is pretty alarming, but when was the last time that happened on your smartphone? It’s probably not a major threat, but the implications demand stringent security, and you know it won’t take long for the first scare stories to emerge. Whether it’s a real risk or not, the security angle will put a lot of people off.

Do it right

Believe it or not, I’m actually excited about a lot of wearable tech developments, I just can’t help feeling that the whole movement is being talked up a little too much right now, and there are too many unanswered questions. Done right, wearable tech will take off, and the applications in fitness and healthcare are too obvious for it not to. But integrating smartphones or digital audio players into clothes seems pointless to me. Wearable tech has a lot of problems to overcome before it can claim anything more than a niche appeal.