Wearable intelligence

Establishing protocols to socialize wearable devices.

The age of ubiquitous computing is accelerating, and it’s creating some interesting social turbulence, particularly where wearable hardware is concerned. Intelligent devices other than phones and screens — smart headsets, glasses, watches, bracelets — are insinuating themselves into our daily lives. The technology for even less intrusive mechanisms, such as jewelry, buttons, and implants, exists and will ultimately find commercial applications.

And as sensor-and-software-augmented devices and wireless connections proliferate through the environment, it will be increasingly difficult to determine who is connected — and how deeply — and how the data each of us generates is disseminated, captured and employed. We’re already seeing some early signs of wearable angst: recent confrontations in bars and restaurants between those wearing Google Glass and others worried they were being recorded.

This is nothing new, of course. Many major technological developments experienced their share of turbulent transitions. Ultimately, though, the benefits of wearable computers and a connected environment are likely to prove too seductive to resist. People will participate and tolerate because the upside outweighs the downside.

“It’s going to have dramatic effects on the way you live your life — or rather, on how you choose to live your life,” observes Joe Burton, chief technology officer at Plantronics, a lead manufacturer in intelligent wearable devices.

Burton cites three linked factors driving the wearable revolution:

“First, obviously, is big data. In two years, there will be data equivalent to 72 million Libraries of Congress available online. The second is the ubiquitous, connected network that will make that data instantly available to anyone, anywhere. Finally, we have powerful and rapidly evolving analytics — the means for finding any particular needle you want in the ever-expanding data haystack.”

This nexus of wearable intelligent devices and ubiquitous wireless connectivity will greatly amplify our essential powers, says Burton. It will expand our senses and our abilities, and the control we exert over our lives.

“Health is a major application,” he says. “As the Quantified Self trend moves deeper into the mainstream, its advantages will become obvious to people other than technophiles.”

That applies most pertinently to people suffering from chronic conditions.

“Say you’re a 48-year-old man with some cardiac issues,” says Burton. “The connected environment could monitor everything from your blood chemistry to your physical appearance, to your perspiration rate — and match that to a profile of potential cardiac arrest candidates. If you were alerted that you have a 27% chance of suffering a heart attack in the next 48 hours, you’d probably consider that a good thing.”

But in a larger sense, continues Burton, wearables will function as personal concierges, accommodating your specific needs to the connected world. He likens it to the entourage that surrounds the President of the United States wherever he or she goes.

“People are always clustered around the President, looking into screens, talking into headsets, bending over to whisper something urgent in his ear, handing him a paper or a phone with a text message that he needs to read,” observes Burton. “At any given moment, a large number of people are gathering, filtering and organizing the information that he requires. Wearables will essentially perform the same function for all the rest of us. They will be our ‘personalizer’ for the Internet of Things.”

To some, that may seem like information overload, but Burton feels the process will ultimately feel unobtrusive and instinctive; it will merge into our quotidian activities rather than dominate them.

“It’ll manifest in things as basic as returning from work,” he continues. “As you approach your home, sensors you’re wearing will communicate with your house. Your skin temperature will be evaluated; if you’re feeling too warm or cold, the house will adjust the thermostat accordingly. Your identity will be confirmed as you approach, and the door will unlock. Your favorite music will play. If you have medical issues, your stress levels and vital signs will be scanned, and appropriate recommendations will be made. In the end, it will be about streamlining your life, not complicating it.”

That’s not to say that all the issues have been resolved on this road to sublime connectedness, of course. As noted earlier, the recent tiffs over Google Glass indicate some basic ground rules have yet to be thrashed out. We’ll probably have to expand the concept of “netiquette” to accommodate wearable computing etiquette.

“People have the right to expect they won’t be quantified without their consent,” Burton says. “That’s why there can be objections when someone is wearing Google Glass in a public place. On a personal level, I recognize this. I use Google Glass, but I’m careful where I wear it. I don’t want to offend people, or make them feel I’m intruding on them.”

Further, society ultimately will have to determine how quantified data will be used; how it is protected; and who, if anyone, gets recompensed.

“There are a couple of lanes to this,” says Burton. “First, any specific data that I deliberately generate because I use quantified sensors on myself and at home, and that can be linked to me, should be mine. I must have reasonable security, and if I choose to share it, I have to fully understand what I’m giving up and what services or compensation I can receive in return.”

But we will also generate anonymous quantified data that can enhance the public good, continues Burton — and that’s a different matter. Truly anonymous data — say, metadata that can be used to determine health risks, or track atmospheric pollution plumes, or predict traffic patterns — have great potential for improving all our lives with virtually no negative impact to the people generating the information.

“We should be willing to share that,” says Burton. “It benefits us all, and it’s simply part of being a good citizen.”

Data generation and utilization concerns are also apt to drive the configuration of wearable devices, says Burton. It’s already possible to design ubiquitous computing systems that fade deep into the background. But do we want the devices to disappear from sight entirely? Probably not.

“Certainly, if you’re talking about quantifying your own physical data, you’d be agreeable to small devices like rings or even skin [decals] or implants,” says Burton. “But for other devices — those that gather data from your environment or other people — not so much. That doesn’t mean you necessarily want to wear headsets or clunky bracelets. We may see a kind of socially acceptable standard evolving for the size of wearable devices: smaller than headsets, but bigger than jewelry. They’ll still be unobtrusive, but they’ll be large enough to signal their function.”

Burton will talk more about wearables at the O’Reilly Solid Conference May 21-22 at his session, “The Rise of Wearables: Innovations and Impacts.”

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