Back in 1980, the height of nerdy chic was the Casio C-80 calculator watch. This boxy little bad boy had a stopwatch, a full numeric keyboard and dedicated buttons for all of your favorite basic mathematical functions (sorry trigonometry fans, no sin or cos). And it told time!
Fast forward to 2015. With all of the groundbreaking technological innovations we've witnessed in the past 35 years – including the advent of the Internet, e-mail, HDTVs, smartphones, touchscreens – the most hotly anticipated high-tech gadget of the year is ... a watch.
The Apple Watch, debuting in 2015, is the latest iteration of wearable technology, or "wearables" as the industry types say. In 2014, consumers worldwide bought around 21 million wearable devices for tracking their physical activity, monitoring their sleep, counting calories and generally making themselves feel superior to people without such gadgets [source: The Economist].
If the Apple Watch has the same effect on the wearables market as the iPhone and iPad had on smartphones and tablet computers, then wearable tech is set to explode. But what does our desire for gadgets like Fitbit or Nike+ FuelBand – and the reams of data they collect – tell us about ourselves? Here are 10 things we've learned so far.
We're Life Hackers
The popularity of wearable devices like Fitbit is fueled by the addictive logic of the quantified self movement – if we can collect enough data about our daily routines, we can tweak our behavior to live healthier and be happier. Living a better life doesn't have to mean dramatic changes – getting a new job, moving to a new city, cutting out carbs (no!) – it can be as simple as taking 1,000 more steps every day and sleeping 20 more minutes each night.
This is the life hacker mentality, in which everything can be improved and upgraded for maximum performance, including ourselves. Wearable devices provide us with concrete data about the minutia of our daily routines. They can tell you exactly how long you've been sitting, sleeping, biking, running or standing. And based on what's "healthy" for someone your age, height, and weight, you can set goals to improve on those numbers.
There's no doubt that we'd all be healthier if we slept more, exercised more and ate less. But is data collection the surest route to self-discovery? A discussion panel at the 2015 SXSW Festival took up the topic "Wearables and the Happiness Quotient," asking whether ubiquitous computing and biometric data could lead to a "happiness algorithm" [source: Interbrand]. Is there an app for that?
Motivation is key to any successful fitness routine. It's what drags you out of bed on a cold winter morning to hit the gym before work. And it's what convinces you to skip that second slice of cake at the office birthday party. But motivation can be hard to maintain.
That's where competition comes in. Some of the top wearables for fitness have built-in systems for challenging and competing against friends (and strangers) to reach fitness goals.
Nike designed the most elaborate competition scheme, not surprising for a brand so closely tied to sports. While most fitness trackers collect raw data like the number of steps taken each day, or the number of miles you run or bike, the Nike+ FuelBand isn't so concerned with specifics. Instead, it gives all physical movement equal credit and calls it "NikeFuel."
You earn NikeFuel by walking, dancing, playing tennis or wrestling with your kids – anything that gets you moving and your heart pumping. The system awards points based on the "energy required to do an activity" [source: Nike].
In a gamification twist, once you sign up with NikeFuel, your results are compared to others in the community, including social media friends. During the summer of 2014, Nike issued weekly challenges to the NikeFuel community – earn 28,000 NikeFuel in seven days, earn 2,000 NikeFuel between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. – and tracked winners on a leaderboard. The folks with the highest number of points won a day of sports training with experts followed by a night in Las Vegas [source: Nike]. Reportedly the company has discontinued selling the wristbands but is still committed to the NikeFuel concept through an iPhone app [source: Warren].
We Want to Look Cool
Google does a lot of things very, very well: intuitive Web searches, glitch-free e-mail, insanely accurate online maps, stable mobile operating systems, the list goes on. But even the greatest heroes have their Achilles heel (Achilles, for one). Despite its incredible success, in the minds of most Americans, Google will always be a big nerd.
Google Glass was supposed to be Google's revolutionary entry into the world of wearable technology. Introduced in 2013 as a limited beta release, Google Glass was hailed as the first mass-produced smart glasses, letting users search and browse the Web, get directions, take photos and video, all with a tap of the finger or a simple voice command.
But from the start, something was off about Glass. Even with the exclusivity of the beta release – early "Glass Explorers" paid $1,500 for first dibs – and the appearance of Google Glass on fashion runways, something about the smart specs was patently uncool [source: Metz].
It wasn't just that they looked geeky; it was the reactions they inspired in strangers. People don't like the idea that the guy in the bar with the weird glasses might be videotaping them. And why is he talking to himself and twitching his head side to side? Google Glass looked like it was trying too hard to be cool, and failing, which is almost too sad to watch.
Google quietly abandoned Glass in November 2014, though the technology may well turn up in other products.
We're Not Sleeping Enough
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults age 26 to 64 require seven to nine hours of sleep each night. (Nine hours – that would be amazing!) According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night, with 14 percent getting five hours or less [source: Jones]. That explains the line at Starbucks.
One of the most alluring promises of wearable technology is that these wrist-bound gadgets can actually help us sleep more and sleep better. Movement trackers like Sony Smartband and UP from Jawbone pair with smartphone apps to decode your sleep patterns. Are you getting enough deep-sleep REM cycles every night? Are you waking up at the wrong time? Are you going to sleep too late?
Once the apps diagnose your sleep issues, they can help you solve them by sending you reminders to shut off all electronics a half hour before bedtime, or even pair up with a smart thermostat like Nest to adjust the air temperature to match your sleep cycle.
We're Eating Too Much
The mathematical formula for losing weight is annoyingly easy: Calories burned must be greater than calories consumed. The hard part is resisting that post-meal craving for sweets or steering clear of the drive-thru window on your morning commute.
One proven method for eating less is to keep a food journal. Researchers have found that writing down what you eat increases awareness of eating habits and leads directly to better choices [source: Cleveland Clinic].
Wearable fitness trackers like Fitbit now include options for entering food items and entire meals into their smartphone apps. The apps keep a running tally of calorie intake and compare it to calories burned during exercise and other physical activity. They can even help you set up a meal plan that's in line with your weight loss goals [source: Fitbit].
The Fitbit app maintains a huge database of both homemade meals and store brands, and it even has a barcode-scanning function, but logging meals by hand can still be a pain. A controversial new wearable device introduced at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show claims to automatically track caloric intake by measuring the water content of cells through the skin. The makers of the device claim 84 to 93 percent accuracy, but scientists are highly skeptical [source: Kelion].
We Need a Coach
"You call that a push up? Pick up the pace! One more lap, full speed!"
Anyone else having gym class flashbacks? The truth is that when it comes to staying motivated to exercise, we can all use a strong push. One of the greatest benefits of wearing a fitness tracking device is that it can continuously remind you of your fitness goals and motivate/guilt you into achieving them.
The UP24 from Jawbone buzzes you when you've been sitting too long. It can also push text notifications to your smartphone to scold you when you stay up past your prescribed bedtime or send you a helpful reminder not to eat that last doughnut for breakfast .
It's not all about guilt trips, though. Fitness tracking devices also send you positive feedback, congrats and kudos when you achieve goals, the virtual version of a gold star on your homework.
To step up your exercise routine, you can sign up with the Nike+ Training Club. Download more than 100 free workouts that are synced with the NikeFuel activity tracking system. It's like a gym teacher in your pocket.
We Have Lousy Posture
Pop quiz, how many of you just sat up straighter when you read the words "lousy posture"? You're not alone! If you spend tons of time sitting in front of a computer screen, then your back probably looks like Quasimodo by the end of the day. Slouching not only looks bad, but poor posture can lead to a host of health problems including chronic neck and back pain [source: Gandhi].
Wearables to the rescue! The ingenious Lumo Lift clips to your clothing and uses biofeedback to gently buzz you when you begin to slouch. Named one of Time magazine's 25 best inventions of 2014, the device records your ideal posture and continuously coaches you to a taller, more confident you.
Conveniently, the Lumo Lift also doubles as a fitness tracker, clocking your steps, distance walked and calories burned, as well as your daily good posture hours. All of the data can be sent to your smartphone for easy access. Here's a tip, though: Hold the phone up to eye level to avoid slouching.
Perks Trump Privacy
Wearable devices collect enormous amounts of personal data. And by syncing these devices with our smartphones, we're uploading reams of highly personal information about our every move, nap and meal into the cloud.
For most of us, the convenience of wearable fitness trackers trumps any concerns over information privacy. In fact, we're willing to give away even more personal data if it comes with a perk.
For example, a recent poll by consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 70 percent of consumers said they would voluntarily wear an employer-provided fitness tracker if it lowered their health insurance premiums.
Americans lag far behind the rest of the world when it comes to wearable tech adoption in the workplace. According to a 2014 Kronos survey, 82 percent of adults in India and Mexico, and 81 percent in China have worn smart headphones or smart badges at work, while only 20 percent of U.S. workers have used similar workplace devices [source: Kronos].
Even though U.S. workers are slower to adopt workplace wearables, it's not because we're afraid of Big Brother. According to the Kronos poll, a third of U.S. adults had no concerns at all about wearables in the workplace, and only 44 percent cited privacy as a potential issue [source: Kronos].
Wearables have the potential to truly be life-changing devices. For people who struggle with staying fit and healthy – yes, that would be all of us – these sleek little gadgets can subtly nudge us toward our better selves.
Unless we throw them away first.
A 2014 survey found that roughly one in 10 American adults owned a wearable gadget, but that half of them had stopped using it within a year. Even worse, a full third of consumers had abandoned their device within six months [source: Ledger].
Like starting a new diet or buying a gym membership, the purchase of a wearable fitness tracker is done with the best of intentions. But reality can be cruel to good intentions. In our time-crunched lives, it may take more than a text alert or a virtual gold star to significantly alter our daily routines.
Maybe the trouble with wearables is that they've been too fixated on functionality. The Apple Watch, for its part, is designed to be a stylish statement as much as a geeky gadget. And if you bought 18 karat gold Apple Watch Edition retailing for $10,000, hopefully you wouldn't let it sit in the sock drawer.
We're Stuck on Ourselves
If you watch enough online promotional videos for wearable gadgets, you start to notice a trend. The people using these devices are all attractive, healthy, single professionals in their mid-20s living in well-gentrified pockets of San Francisco and New York with ample free time and disposable income.
It's as if the folks developing wearable technology are stuck on themselves, unable to see past their own pet concerns – mostly feeling good, looking good and achieving their maximum potential – to some the broader health problems plaguing society.
Writer J.C. Herz asks an intriguing question in Wired magazine: Is wearable technology failing the people who need it most? What if this biometric technology was put into the hands – and on the bodies – of people suffering with chronic health conditions like diabetes? It's not as sexy as a shoe clip that automatically calls Uber when you click your heels three times (yes, that's a real gadget), but we might actually save some lives. Forty percent of American adults with a chronic disease track their health indicators – and because of what's at stake, they won't stop doing it the way a weekend athlete might. The real money (and potential), Herz says, is in wearable medical devices rather than fitness trackers.
MIT's AlterEgo allows people to control computers without ever uttering one word. HowStuffWorks looks at how this could change the way we communicate.
Author's Note: 10 Things Wearables Have Taught Us About Ourselves
I'm a late adopter by nature. You'll never see me waiting in line outside the Apple Store when a new must-have gadget debuts. It's not that I don't love technology. The truth is, I was burned once. When I was 12, I got it into my head that girls would take me more seriously if I carried an electronic pocket organizer. (This was during the same unfortunate period that I took to wearing Drakkar Noir cologne and a gold chain.) I saved up for a year to buy this high-tech wonder that could store all of my friend's phone numbers – all six of them – tell me the time in Paris, and keep track of my busy social schedule. Like an idiot, I left it in my locker one day during lunch and returned to find my bookbag swiped and the prized pocket organizer with it. So now I flinch at the thought of throwing down hundreds of bucks on an unproven device that may eventually break my heart. Better to wait two years until the new model comes out and pick up some bargains on Craigslist.
More Great Links
- Casio. "January 1984: Release of Databank Telephone Number Storage Wristwatch." (March 13, 2015) http://world.casio.com/corporate/history/chapter02/contents09/
- Cleveland Clinic. "Keep a Food Journal." (March 13, 2015) http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/healthy_living/getting_fit/hic_Maintaining_a_Healthy_Weight/hic_Keep_a_Food_Journal
- The Economist. "The Fuss Over Wearables." March 11, 2015 (March 13, 2015) http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/03/economist-explains-9
- Fitbit. "How do I track my calories, make a food plan, and set a weight goal?" (March 13, 2015) http://help.Fitbit.com/articles/en_US/Help_article/How-do-I-track-my-calories-make-a-food-plan-and-set-a-weight-goal/?l=en_US&c=Topics%3AFood_Calories&fs=Search&pn=1#FoodPlanDef
- Gandhi, Neha. "7 Myths About Bad Posture, Busted." Fitness Magazine. (March 13, 2015) http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/7-myths-about-bad-posture-dispelled/
- Herz, J.C. "Wearables Are Totally Failing the People Who Need Them Most." Wired. Nov. 6, 2014 (March 13, 2015) http://www.wired.com/2014/11/where-fitness-trackers-fail/
- Interbrand. "Ready Set Rocket & Interbrand Team Up at 2015 SXSW." Feb. 20, 2015 (March 13, 2015) http://www.interbrand.com/en/newsroom/48/ready-set-rocket-interbrand-team-up-at-sxsw
- Jawbone. "The UP System." (March 13, 2015) https://jawbone.com/up
- Jones, Jeffrey. "In U.S., 40 Percent Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep." Gallup. Dec. 19, 2013 (March 13, 2015) http://www.gallup.com/poll/166553/less-recommended-amount-sleep.aspx
- Kelion, Leo. "CES 2015: GoBe Calorie Counter Wearable Put to the Test." BBC News. Jan. 5, 2015 (March 13, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30681002
- Kronos. "Kronos Survey Indicates Workers Around the World are Poised to Embrace Wearable Technology." Oct. 27, 2014 (March 13, 2015) http://www.kronos.com/pr/kronos-survey-indicates-workers-around-the-world-are-poised-to-embrace-wearable-technology.aspx
- Ledger, Dan. "Inside Wearables – Part 2." Endeavour Partners. July 2014 (March 13, 2015) http://endeavourpartners.net/assets/Endeavour-Partners-Inside-Wearables-Part-2-July-2014.pdf
- Metz, Rachel. "Google Glass is Dead: Long Live Smart Glasses." MIT Technology Review. Nov. 26, 2014 (March 13, 2015) http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/532691/google-glass-is-dead-long-live-smart-glasses/
- National Sleep Foundation. "How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?" (March 13, 2015) http://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need
- Nike. "Explore the Power of NikeFuel." (March 13, 2015) http://www.nike.com/us/en_us/c/nikeplus/nikefuel
- Nike. "Summer of NikeFuel." (March 13, 2015) https://www.nike.com/cdp/justdoit/summerofnikefuel/summerofnikefuel/leaderboard/
- PricewaterhouseCoopers. "The Wearable Future." 2014 (March 13, 2015) http://www.pwc.com/us/en/industry/entertainment-media/publications/consumer-intelligence-series/assets/PWC-CIS-Wearable-future.pdf
- Time. "The 25 Best Inventions of 2014: The Chip That Stops Your Slouching." Nov. 20, 2014 (March 13, 2015) http://time.com/3594971/the-25-best-inventions-of-2014/item/the-chip-that-stops-your-slouching/