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Hearables and Energy Harvesting, Oh My!

Wearable Technologies Conference

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Wearable Technologies Conference, and I’m happy to report that there is a lot to get excited about in the world of connected devices. Some innovations were made purely for entertainment. Others aimed to end worldwide problems. But what really made me optimistic about the future of wearables, was the number of devices that were NOT made for your wrist. Here are the four biggest trends I witnessed in San Francisco last week.

1. Hearables are the new wearables

The next body-part boom at this year’s Wearable Technologies Conference was the ears, but there’s a lot more to this story than music. A connected ear piece can measure your heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature, all while streaming your favorite tunes from your smartphone via Bluetooth.

A German company called Bragi is already winning the race to our ear-space with their product, The Dash. The Dash is a brilliant pair of earbuds that contains thermometers, accelerometers, gyroscopes, Infrared sensors and a slew of CPUs that sound like something that could barely fit in a laptop, let alone in-ear headphones. The one thing they don’t have is a cord, which is likely where the industry is heading.

If you’re impressed, you’re not alone. Bragi’s Kickstarter campaign earned them 15,998 backers, resulting in $3,390,551 of funding. But Bragi can’t rest on their laurels. Rumor has it, Apple’s next generation of earbuds will also be able to track the wearer’s vitals. With HealthKit, their new earpieces, and the iPhone 6 on the horizon, Bragi better get to market ASAP.

2. Batteries aren’t the only energy source

Another big initiative in the wearables community is finding an answer to the increasing demand for power on the go. As wearable devices become more complex, their batteries are constantly being put to the test. One company called EPIC Semiconductors believes the answer is getting rid of batteries altogether.

EPIC has created a skin-friendly sticker containing a tiny chip and two electrodes that run entirely off of the electrical signals sent from your body. These tiny sensors can detect everything from a person’s biometric data to the ripeness of a banana, with no additional hardware required (including batteries).

Another example of battery-free power came from a McMaster University student named Sean Hodgins. Sean invented the Peltier Ring, which uses the body heat from your fingers to activate a tiny blinking LED light. Although the Peltier unit in the ring won’t be powering a watch or fitness tracker anytime soon, it does an excellent job of demonstrating how thermoelectricity could eventually replace the batteries in our wearable devices

3. Haptics are going to be huge

Haptic feedback is also becoming more prevalent in wearable devices. David Birnbaum, Senior UX Design Manager at Immersion Corporation, led a talk about the number of ways subtle vibrations can enhance the wearables experience.

The We:eX Alert Shirt puts this to practice by helping Australian rugby fans “Feel what the players feel.” The key is a sensor-laden shirt that produces harmless vibrations whenever a player is tackled or put in a high-pressured situation. It’s the same kind of haptic feedback you get from your gaming controller while playing Madden, only, you feel it all over your torso instead of just your hands.

Birnbaum also mentioned some more practical vibration solutions, like alerting diabetics when their blood sugar is off or letting you know when you’ve received an email or text message. He even mentioned the possibility of senders being able to indicate the urgency of a message according to the severity of the vibrations. If Birnbaum is right about haptic responses, feeling is the future wearable tech.

4. The road to production is a bumpy one

John Dwyer, VP of Engineering and Technology Development for Flextronics Consumer Technology Group, reminded all the innovators at the Wearable Technologies Conference that they picked a tough path. There’s no shortage of things you have to get right when bringing a product to market. You have to pick the right materials, sensors, product design, user interface, energy source, and communication strategy, and that’s just in the prototyping phase. Finding the right mix of materials and marketing strategies takes multiple iterations.

Deepa Sood, Founder and CEO of Cuff, recalled how her product started as a personal security device and transformed into something she’d be proud to wear through Bryant Park. She even hinted at more designs and features that will come about through future iterations, especially once they open up their API to developers.

Babak Parviz, the man credited with inventing Google Glass, is certainly no stranger to the iteration process. He saw Glass go from an amalgamation of leftover Google equipment to a polished piece of hardware that will soon be making its way to the general public. Point is, no invention finds success without multiple iterations.

See you next year

My final takeaway from the Wearable Technologies Conference is that it was definitely worth the investment to attend. The talent, passion, and knowledge of everyone from the speakers to the vendors was astounding. If you thought the advancements in mobile moved fast, then wearables is a high speed train evolving at a rapid clip by the second.

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