29 April 2016
Wearable Tech Looks to Upgrade from the Personal to the Professional
While wearable technology is still best known for its sports and fitness applications, it has begun to make inroads into several commercial, industrial and medical markets, according to exhibitors at the Wearable Technology Show.
Now in its third year at the ExCel site in London, the Wearable Technology Show bills itself as the largest dedicated smart technology event in the world and with some justification. This year, the event was co-located with the Augmented Reality Show and the IOT Connect Show, creating a huge shop window for developers, programmers and manufacturers of next generation technology.
As well as the usual roster of internationally famous brands, including Sony, Epson, TomTom, and Samsung, the show is especially adept at showcasing young developers, while allowing a new generation of entrepreneurs to promote their varying visions of the future.
Wearable Tech Goes Professional
Predictably, many of the exhibitors majored on the expected range of consumer wearables, with various incarnations of smart watches, smart glasses, and smart headsets all on show. There was also, however, an increasing number of devices that transcend the kind of 'tech bling' typically sported as electronic jewellery by the more ostentatious early adopters.
Indeed, many products seemed not to be designed for consumers at all. Instead, they had a refreshing focus on making the workplace smarter, safer and more productive. This was a testament to the huge strides that have been made in the world of wearable technology, with a number of companies – notably Sony, Epson, IMR and Atheer – debuting items that had serious commercial, industrial and medical applications. This, of course, doesn't preclude their more recreational roles, with many equally suited for entertainment and gaming uses.
A prime example here is the growing use of smart eyewear in the workplace. Using such systems, a worker can be remotely guided to the exact spot on a warehouse shelf where he needs to pick and pack an order for despatch. Similarly, an on-site engineer can be guided through a complex inspection or manufacturing process, complete with in-vision technical notes. The technology can even make a difference in actual life-and-death situations, with surgeons able to view notes hands-free while performing complex procedures, while also having access to real-time video support and audio guidance from colleagues, any of whom could easily be speaking from an entirely different continent.
As well as improving the efficiency and effectiveness of highly skilled medics, particularly surgeons, wearable tech also has the potential to transform diagnostics and emergency care. Simple wearable alert systems, such as Assure from UK-based Acticheck, use a wristband-mounted system to constantly monitor old or infirm people, sending out an alarm in the case of trips or falls. In the event of any such emergency, it can automatically contact nominated individuals or directly call for medical assistance.
At the more complex end of the spectrum, wearable devices can even help in diagnosis by constantly monitoring wearers for early indications of a number of conditions. Already, systems created by a number of tech companies, including Hamamatsu, Biolight, Firstbeat and ClearSky, have proved their worth in the fight against Parkinson's disease, a genetic disorder affecting one in 500 people.
Similarly impressive – and, again, on show at this year's event – was an electroencephalograph (EEG) device developed by advanced students at the Institute of Industrial Automation in Switzerland. While offering all the functionality of a medical grade EEG machine, it is actually no bigger than the average pillbox. Courtesy of its stand-alone Wi-Fi connection, it allows EEG readings to be accessed online, ensuring medical professionals can monitor and diagnose a patient remotely.
Making the Running: Fitness Monitors
With a notable crossover to the medical field, the sport and fitness wearable technology sector is also booming. From monitoring the fitness of professional teams and athletes to allowing amateurs to grade their own performance, this is a sector that is not just growing in popularity but is becoming increasingly profitable. This is partly down to its ability to attract major sponsors and command significant media, both of which have helped to swell its number of users.
With runners particularly in mind, Netherlands-based Ato-Gear was keen to highlight its new range of ultrathin intelligent insoles. These are said to monitor and measure running gait and then provide feedback, allowing runners to try and enhance their technique and performance. Going a stage further, Germany's Ambiorun Performance Monitor not only tells users how to optimise their performance, but also provides analysis and advice as to which make and model of training shoe best suits an individual runner's style.
Overall, the fitness monitoring market is clearly growing fast. As well as the innovative approach to smart clothing being taken by such companies as Myzone, Hexoskin and Antelope, there are a number of new wristband monitors and paired apps from MIO, as well as a very stylish finger-set monitor from Finland's Oura, said to be the world's first wellness ring. As the market matures, however, it is proving increasingly competitive, with a large number of brands and products essentially chasing the same customers, while struggling to find convincing points of difference.
Remote Home Monitoring Takes Off
While not strictly fitting within the show's wearable technology remit, several exhibitors chose to promote their home monitoring technology – systems that are accessible via smartphone apps.
Leading the pack here were such companies as UK-based Energenie, with its MiHome, or Panasonic, with the global giant this year looking to promote its Smart Home technology. Both systems offer remote monitoring, as well as the facility to control domestic lights, heating and home security installations, including cameras, alarms and movement sensors. With the sector having enjoyed rapid growth in North America, it is now enjoying a sharp uptake in a number of other regions across an increasingly security conscious world.
This year, the show's Wearables Awards attracted more than 200 entries across 11 categories, with some 64 companies shortlisted for final consideration. Commenting on this year's selection, John Weir, Chief Operating Office of Evolve Media, the UK company behind the Wearable Technology Show, said: "Huge congratulations to all of this year's Wearables Awards winners. An extra special round of applause, though, must go to Myzone – the very worthy Overall Wearables Award winner.
"Myzone is a true trailblazer in the sports performance market, continually pushing the technology to develop the most accurate devices on the market. We're excited to see what they'll be bringing to the show next year."
Based in the north of England, Myzone impressed the judges with its innovative heart-rate based product range, systems that use the cloud and wireless technology to monitor physical activity. Innovatively, it records heart rate, calories and time spent exercising, then converts this into 'effort points', with the focus being on rewarding effort rather than fitness.
Perhaps inevitably, the trend for human fitness monitors has now extended into the pet market. An early mover here has been Cambridge-based PitPats, with the company offering dog activity monitors capable of measuring fitness and activity levels even when a pet's owner is away. The system can even suggest an activity plan tailored to a particular dog's breed, age and weight. With more than four million overweight dogs in the UK alone, there is clearly a niche to be had here.
A similarly innovative approach was taken by Jaguar, Landrover's luxury vehicle brand. The UK-based company's new F-Pace SUV attracted considerable attention at the event, not least because it was considerably larger than all of the other exhibits combined. Meriting its place, this new 4x4 model comes with its own piece of wearable technology – a waterproof wristband proximity key. This allows owners to keep a set of car keys with them while skiing, sailing or surfing, without having to constantly worry about their whereabouts.
The Wearable Technology Show was held at ExCel, London, from 15-16 March. The event featured around 140 exhibitors, attracting more than 4,800 visitors from across the UK, Europe and beyond.
Philip Atkinson, Special Correspondent, London