Things we learned at the Wearables + Things conference

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Washington DC recently played host to the first Wearables + Things conference. It featured a cross-section of product vendors, software and hardware engineers, and aspiring technologists, all with a keen desire to share knowledge around wearable technology and the fledgling Internet of Things. There were a lot of amazing products, technologies and ideas on display there. Here are a few that particularly caught my eye or fired my imagination:

Prototyping platforms

The first day of the conference was a hackathon focused on projects that integrate hardware and software in interesting ways. There were a number of platforms in use for doing hardware prototyping: Arduino has been the go-to system for hobbyists and inventors for years, and for good reason. It’s fairly low-cost, integrates easily with switches, potentiometers, LEDs, LCD displays, servo and stepper motors, and has a huge community of helpful users. The Light Blue Bean adds Bluetooth to the Arduino equation, making it possible both to program the bean without ever plugging it in, and to support wireless apps using only a coin cell to power the board. Finally, Intel made their Edison platform available–a tiny system that is designed for both prototyping and production runs of internet-connected devices, and which adds Wifi and Bluetooth while retaining Arduino compatibility.
Web Service Wrangling

There were several vendors on hand with products designed to make it easier to share and manage the servers to which all of these new Internet-connected devices will talk. Mashery provides API Management and Gateway services to consolidate and secure web services. (The best part? You don’t have to implement OAuth yourself!) Buddy makes it easy to gather and analyze data from your devices, delivering insights in the form of live dashboards or business intelligence tools that CEOs love. On the other side of the API equation, LynxFit is making use of the data that a variety of devices provide to create a hardware-agnostic fitness-tracking platform; by tapping into the hardware vendors’ web services, they can aggregate data from all kinds of devices into a single unified service.

The future of health

Fitness has been a focus of wearable devices since they first appeared, but the industry is increasingly expanding its focus to include healthcare. This is more of a challenge, due to a larger scope and much more stringent regulations surrounding the field, but the rewards are substantial, both financially and in terms of human welfare. Apple’s HealthKit is leading the way toward providing a common platform for storing and exchanging health data; one of the few sessions that went deep into programming focused on this framework.

Another healthcare panel discussion also touched on computer diagnostic systems and how using them can help improve efficiency and reduce errors in medical diagnostic work. One panelist pointed out that merely staying current on new research would require a doctor to spend 22 hours a day reading medical literature! Adding a computer-based expert system improves diagnostic accuracy and helps avoid unexpected drug interactions, resulting in fewer deaths and better healthcare outcomes.

Devices in the car

The next tech battle seems to be heating up behind the wheel of the car, where there are particularly interesting interaction design challenges to be met. When drivers are only able to spare a tiny fraction of their attention from making sure their car doesn’t run into things, it becomes vital to embrace simple, intuitive, “glanceable” interfaces that accommodate different screen sizes and to avoid relying on tiny virtual buttons. There are four major vendors working to establish a beachhead here–Blackberry, Google, Apple and Microsoft–but no clear winner has emerged yet, and each comes with its own set of pros and cons.

Pebble

The Pebble smart watch is one of the oldest wearable products out there, and has only continued to get better since its launch. While the hardware has remained stable, the software and OS have progressively gotten more capable, bringing recent advancements such as using the built-in magnetometer as a compass and fitness tracking capabilities on par with many more expensive, purpose-built devices. Combined with its newly-lowered $99 price tag, 4 day battery life, and wealth of development tools, it’s easy to see why the Pebble continues to be a favorite of programmers and those who like to customize their wearables.

Sony SmartEyeglass

While the SmartEyeglass in its current form looks like the result of a tryst between Google Glass and a pair of ski goggles, it is among the first fairly complete platforms for hands-free augmented reality. Rather than being confined to one corner of your field of vision like Glass’s display, the Sony device can project imagery anywhere. This makes it possible to highlight a trouble area for a surgeon in the middle of an operation, to provide landmarks for pilots flying in fog, or to have zombies in an augmented reality game appear from anywhere. The current version of the display is fairly low resolution and limited to a single color, but will undoubtedly continue to improve in future iterations.

Atlas fitness wearable

“Why on earth do we need another fitness wearable device?” you might justifiably ask. The interesting thing about the Atlas is that it has a substantial motion database that allows it to automatically recognize what exercise you’re doing and track it. Peter Li, the company’s president, started a demo by doing jumping jacks, push-ups, then (at the crowd’s suggestion) burpees. The tracker recognized each exercise almost immediately and began counting reps and showing them on screen. It also includes a heartrate monitor, making it easy to correlate activity to cardiac impact. And, if you want to help make it smarter, you can go do a workout at Atlas HQ to contribute to their Motion Genome Project, which will be sharing its data with the rest of the world.

Dorothy

One of the more amusing product introductions was Dorothy: a tiny sensor that slips inside your shoes before a social occasion you fear might turn awkward. If you find yourself in need of extraction, you simply tap your heels together three times and the device triggers a fake call on your cell phone, or quietly texts your location to three preselected friends along with a “come rescue me!” message. (Dorothy is built with the previously-mentioned Light Blue Bean.)

miCoach

Adidas showed off a whole line of miCoach products designed not only for individual athletes who want to train effectively, but also for entire teams. The coach of a soccer team could, for example, use sensor-enabled shirts with GPS and ECG functions to simultaneously track each team member’s performance and vitals while they train. Adidas also sells a sensor-equipped soccer ball that provides feedback on a player’s kick, giving specific instructions on how to “bend” a kick, deliver a knuckleball, etc. They particularly emphasize that rather than providing tons of raw data, they synthesize it from many sources, analyze it, and then provide concrete suggestions on which a coach or player can actually act.

The Feds

One of the best talks of the conference was given by a Department of Homeland Security representative. The original speaker was dealing with Ebola issues, so we had a sub. I didn’t get his name, and can’t find it on the website, but he discussed the specific need of first responders to have accurate, up-to-date, actionable data, ideally delivered through existing gear. For example, a fireman’s jacket could be used to monitor location and biometrics, giving the commander up-to-date information on the location and condition of his firefighters.

The shield on a fire helmet might provide a firefighter details of where people needing rescue have been spotted, what parts of a building are about to collapse, etc. Helmet-mounted cameras will provide a record of a rescue and allow responders to analyze and learn from those experiences. DHS plans to open a new website on November 17 which will invite others outside the government to help participate in its innovation initiatives, providing lots of opportunities for interested engineering companies.

Oddities, novelties & curiosities

There were a number of interesting projects and products that used these fledgling technologies in interesting and entertaining ways. Robot in my Pocket is an interactive, Arduino-based character designed for pediatricians and others involved in children’s healthcare to carry around in a vest pocket, engaging with the kids they work with. Old Navy’s Sefiebration project (now concluded) allowed Twitter users to tweet a selfie with an appropriate hashtag, and have that selfie rendered as a 15 foot tall, halftone portrait using automatically inflated balloons. Last, but certainly not least, there was Nixie, a camera-equipped quadcopter that can fold into a bracelet.

Wrapping it up

The conference provided not only a wealth of information on vendors and their products, but also a glimpse into what the future holds for developers and users of wearable technologies and Internet-connected devices. The rate of change and innovation around these devices is staggering, and shows no signs of slowing. If you want to be a part of shaping what our technological future will be like, wearables and the Internet of Things are clearly great places to be.

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