Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Wearable technology: beyond augmented reality
Article Type: Regular column From: Library Hi Tech News, Volume 31, Issue 9
In a relatively short period of time, smartphones have transformed the habits and information-seeking behavior of mobile phone users. With smartphones, people around the world are able to incorporate the power of modern computing into many aspects of their daily lives. Now, to expand that power, companies are investing in wearable technology that will dramatically alter the scope of where and how computers can be used. These devices, commonly known as wearables, have been around for a while, but they have yet to be fully integrated into most people’s everyday lives.
Previously, this column explored the potential for one subset of these devices, augmented reality (see Vol. 31, No. 1 and 3), to place a virtual filter on how we view the physical world. In this issue, the scope expands to include a wider range of devices that interact with the world and track our movements to expand our understanding of ourselves.
Wearables: definition and brief history
Wearables include all forms of computational or sensory electronic devices that can be worn with clothing or on the body. In the broadest sense, any computer device that is carried with a person to assist them could conceivably be called a “wearable”. As wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann, a professor, researcher and inventor whose pioneering work in the area has earned him the moniker the world’s “first cyborg”, explains:
[…] the definition of wearable computing can be kind of fuzzy itself. Thousands of years ago, in China, people would wear an abacus around their neck – that, in one sense, was a wearable computer (Bilton, 2012).
Arguably, the first wearable computer of recent times was an easily concealable device the size of a cigarette box. Developed in the early 1960s by professors at MIT, this tiny computer was intended to give its creators access to computer-generated algorithms while playing roulette. This device included many of the important features now found in the newest wave of wearable technology: it was relatively small, extremely portable and designed to give its user access to computer-assisted support in the physical world.
Since at least the 1980s, there have been attempts to add advanced computer functionality to existing devices such as the wristwatch. For example, companies like Seiko and Casio began to incorporate calculators and games into wristwatches. Potential applications for wearable technology have grown exponentially as modern computers have become smaller and easier to produce. This transformation has been made possible in part because the technology itself is now easier to use and the digital ecosystem of hardware, software and services around it has continued to evolve.
Many of the features of those early devices have been folded into smartphones and other internet-connected devices, which provide tools to track an increasing array of personalized user information, as well as communicate with other nearby technology. Wearables apply that same logic to a vast array of new applications that are meant to be worn continually and often function automatically in their environment. Wearables can then provide their users with computer-assisted advantages.
The Disney example: interacting with the world
One of the clearest examples of a fully integrated experience using wearables is at Walt Disney World. Visitors to Walt Disney World, a popular theme park in the USA, will now encounter the MyMagic+ program. MyMagic+ incorporates a wearable MagicBand that uses a number of technologies, all designed to enhance the user’s experience and provide useful data to Disney.
The MagicBand uses Bluetooth and radio frequency technology in a wristband that can interact with a number of the theme park’s systems. For instance, park visitors can make reservations for rides to avoid long wait times. When they show up at the ride for their pre-arranged appointment, they can simply wave the MagicBand near the check-in machine to announce their presence. Similarly, on-site meals or other purchases can be easily charged to patrons’ Disney hotel room using the wristband. In this way, wearables enable their users to manage simple, context-based interactions with their environment.
These wearables also collect and transmit data about their users to allow for new connections across services. For example, the MagicBand allows Disney to easily track the movements and actions of park visitors, so that staff and services can be efficiently allocated to meet emerging needs. If a kiosk is constantly getting overwhelmed, or the lines for a ride are getting too long, staff can be sent to help alleviate the problem.
The MagicBand also connects to other services offered in the park, such as photography. For example, the Disney Memory Maker program enables the theme park to track all photographs of a particular visitor taken by park photographers throughout the park. A visitor might have a picture taken by a park photographer with Cinderella in one part of the park, and then later have a photograph automatically taken while plummeting down the Splash Mountain ride. At the end of the trip, these images are already tied to that user, and the visitor can easily claim and purchase copies in a variety of ways. In the future, Disney has also expressed an interest in providing even more customization for their visitors. For instance, the costumed characters in the park could use the system to identify children they encounter and address them by name without having to be introduced.
The Disney example highlights how powerful wearables can be in a controlled space, when the number of variables are limited. They can enable new kinds of interactions and transfer data to make for a more pleasant experience. Because this effort has cost Disney nearly $1 billion to implement, one might ask: Could wearables be equally effective outside of a theme park?
The quantified self
Wearables do not have to interact directly with the environment to be effective. Instead, they can reduce the number of variables down to only the person using the device and take advantage of one of the things that computers are very good at – accurately tracking data. Every day we all take actions that we quickly forget about. If tracked over time, many of these actions can be perceived as patterns, and that information can give us new insight into our own behavior. Wearables can be used to augment our own memories as well as track biometrics that would be difficult for us to observe and record without assistance. The “quantified self” is a movement to use technology to aid individuals in learning about their own behavior. As wearables can be designed to be constantly running in the background, they are particularly well suited to helping us track our activities and movements.
Some of the most popular wearables on the market today are activity bracelets that track the user’s movement each day to help them meet fitness goals. Knowing how many steps you took or how far you traveled can be a powerful tool when paired with interfaces that let you set goals and view patterns of behavior.
Increasingly, these devices are able to track more than just steps. Devices are being designed to easily allow users to measure a wide variety of exercises and movements, as well as vital statistics, such as heart rate, sleep patterns, body temperature or blood pressure. There are also specialized devices being developed for a wide variety of specific sports movements and other physical activities. This information is then usually transmitted from the wearable to an application running on a computer or smartphone where the user can interact with the data and receive customized feedback and advice. These applications, when combined with wearables, can function as a fitness coach, dispassionately watching what the user does and providing suggestions about what changes the user can make to achieve certain goals.
Wearables can also be adapted to let the user track the actions of others. For example, wearable technology can help us track a companion animal’s movements and health. Attaching a device to a dog would allow easy monitoring of its behavior so that, for instance, over time, a connection might be seen between taking the dog for a walk and its sleeping patterns.
One of the areas in which companies have been investing heavily is wearables for children. Wearables for children would allow parents to track the activities of their infant or preschooler. For instance, these wearables could tell parents where their preschooler is using global positioning system (GPS) coordinates, as well as allow them to make audio contact with their child. Wearables are also being developed that can attach to an infant’s diaper to tell caregivers in what position a baby is sleeping. Over time, these data can be combined with programs that help the parent make sense of it. Ideally, this technology would help by either providing reminders to caregivers or by enabling caregivers to see patterns in a child’s behavior.
Interpreting the data
Ultimately, all of these data are only as good as our ability to effectively use them. The capability to automatically track daily movements can be very interesting, but it is only helpful if we can then access the data, for example, in the context of fitness advice and goals that help us make meaningful changes. For the data points to be effectively used, they must be interpreted in a context. For the MagicBand+ that context is the Disney theme park. For other wearables, the context may be trying to understand the movements of a child or meeting personal fitness goals.
The majority of these wearables report their data to another interface. Often, the data set is transmitted through an intermediary, such as a smartphone or other device. Then the data are displayed alongside other information sources to create an overall experience. One of the key differentiating factors going forward will be the quality of these interfaces, which is why one of the most important developments in wearables has been the recent trend toward integration with existing devices and service ecosystems. The designers of two of the major smartphone operating systems are now creating wearables that will complement their smartphone operating systems. Google has smartwatches on the market, and Apple has recently announced that they will be producing one as well. In both cases, the goal is to harness the power of their existing information ecosystems to improve the services and connectivity of their wearables.
Who sees the data?
When it comes to harnessing the power of wearables, some very important privacy questions become immediately apparent. Do children have different privacy rights in relationship to their parents than they do to Disney? Activity trackers can be powerful self-motivational tools, but what if they become mandated by employers to help reduce sick days?
As Helen Nissbaum, professor and director of the Information Law Institute at New York University, has highlighted in her research, many of these complicated privacy questions can be answered only in context (Nissenbaum, 2009). Our understanding of privacy violations is often linked directly to who has power in the relationship, and who is benefiting from the arrangement. For example, the same data can be used by an individual to meet personal goals, shared with health care providers to provide a more accurate diagnosis, or shared with insurance companies to help determine individual rates. All three of these scenarios have different privacy implications. In each case, the interaction between the use of the wearable and the benefit to the user is of crucial importance in determining the privacy implications.
Many of the privacy issues with wearables are predicated on the idea that the data gathered by wearables may not be securely stored. Moreover, there are some indications that the current generation of this technology has not been designed with security as a priority. A recently released report notes that applications related to the quantified self frequently have not implemented even basic encryption of their data (Symantec Security Response, 2014). This is particularly worrying, as many wearables constantly broadcast their data using Bluetooth and other short-range technology. These features facilitate easy transfer of data from users’ wearables to their other devices, but also make it easy for others to obtain that same data. While these basic security loopholes may be closed, the fact remains that the information contained by such wearables tends to be extremely personal in nature.
These difficulties highlight existing security problems inherent in our increasingly connected world. Issues such as personal information being hacked, and applications routinely asking for permission to track more information than they need are challenges that are likely to be exacerbated by wearables. The very thing that powers the ecosystem is its knowledge about the user, and the way that information is mediated, how it is used and who has access to it will have profound repercussions.
Role of libraries
Libraries have a key role to play with this emerging technology. If we wish to stay relevant to the information ecosystem of our patrons, then we must be aware of the technology they are using to interact with their environment. A recent survey indicated that nearly 70 per cent of Americans had heard about this technology, and nearly half said they were interested in purchasing a wearable in the near future (Risen, 2014). Major brands are pursuing aggressive marketing campaigns to demonstrate the convenience of using these devices in daily life. As wearables drop in cost and rise in popularity, libraries are an ideal venue for hosting conversations about the implications and uses of these devices.
Wearables stand as a nexus point for conversations ranging from the quantified self, to personal goal setting, to security concerns and libraries can support and encourage these conversations. They will be used to make everyday purchases, interact with the world and understand our own behavior. As a result, this technology provides opportunities for a wide range of collection development possibilities, prospects for providing technological expertise, as well as library-hosted workshops.
Wearables as a platform
Most of the tasks accomplished by smartphone applications were possible prior to the development of the iPhone app store, but that delivery mechanism revolutionized the accessibility of those applications, spawned other companies to create competing products, and provided developers with access to new consumers. Currently, most of the popular wearables being sold are custom-made devices for specific uses. However, when envisioning the future, we can expect more multifaceted devices capable of adapting to their environment.
As wearables become integrated into existing information and the ecosystems of online services, the devices themselves will become platforms for a wide range of interactions. At that point, libraries will have dramatically more abilities to build programs and applications that communicate with existing wearables. Users are unlikely to wear a bracelet that does nothing but reserve library study rooms or share their online search history for reference librarians to access. But they might be willing to download an extra application for their fitness bracelet that does exactly that.
Wearables will interface with technology around them and record information about their users and their surroundings. Libraries can develop applications and transform their spaces to facilitate these new interactions. If the patron chooses, the wearable could interface with the library to customize and improve library services. Libraries are both physical spaces and service points. Like Disney theme parks, they can use information to allocate physical materials, change layouts and allocate staff to meet their patrons’ needs. They can also customize services for their patrons better by knowing more about them.
Wearables have a tremendous potential to revolutionize both how we interact with other pieces of technology and what we know about ourselves. Looking forward, evidence suggests that library users will be employing a variety of wearable devices to assist them and interact with the world. This technology will be constantly running in the background, interacting with the technology in its environment that is ready to reciprocate that communication. Libraries have the opportunity to be the spaces that are ready to communicate back.
Bilton, N. (2012), “One on one: Steve Mann, wearable computing pioneer”, available at: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/one-on-one-steve-mann-wearable-computing-pioneer/ (accessed 5 September 2014).
Nissenbaum, H. (2009), Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life, Stanford Law Books, Stanford, CA.
Risen, T. (2014), “Survey: Americans uncertain about wearables-US news”, available at: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/04/21/survey-americans-uncertain-about-wearables (accessed 5 September 2014).
Symantec Security Response (2014), “How safe is your quantified self? Tracking, monitoring, and wearable tech”, available at: http://www.symantec.com/connect/blogs/how-safe-your-quantified-self-tracking-monitoring-and-wearable-tech (accessed 8 August 2014).
Peter Fernandez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is based at Research Services Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.