My phone is never far. It’s the first thing I check in the morning, I physically can’t get to destinations without it’s step-by-step directions, and the endless content it provides generally fills the gaps in my day-to-day. I’m sure the same goes for most of you. However, I still take solace in the fact that I can put my phone away, remove myself from the incessant notifications (I’m not really that popular), and disconnect with a good book. Sadly, this opportunity for solitude is becoming less and less common as technology is increasingly integrated into our lives. From smart thermostats to toothbrushes, the “internet of things” (IOT) as it’s commonly referred to, is connecting the everyday objects we interact with to the internet. This connection allows devices to record data and communicate with each other which could have some exciting possibilities. As technology improves and shrinks, it seems the reach of the IOT is limited only to the presence of an on-off switch. What does this future look like? I’m not sure, but it’s going to be a lot harder to focus on reading a book when you’re glasses and watch are flashing or buzzing.
Not surprisingly, this type of technology and connectivity has reached a more personal level, the things we wear. According to industry analyst CCS Insight, the global wearable technologies industry is expected to hit $27 billion with unit sales of 233 million by 2020. This isn’t all that surprising when you just stop and take a look around. At least on BC’s campus, the traditional wrist watch seems to have been replaced by digital display. Eyes glued to their wrist instead of phone screens, students are checking the weather, sending texts, and cheating on exams; all with smartwatches. Fitness buffs and even my friend Peter, who makes it to the gym once a month, track their steps and compete for weekly goals with fitness devices like the Fitbit. Google and Snapchat brought eyewear into the technological picture with the introduction of Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles. While not widely adopted, these are first attempts at the potential of incorporating internet connectivity into our view of the world through eyewear.
There’s no doubt that integrating wearable technology into our daily lives has a lot of exciting potential. Not only do these wearable devices provide efficient ways to view notifications, but as a constant presence on your body, they continually track data about how you live your life. GPS integration, heart rate sensors, and movement identifiers all enable these devices to monitor your regular body activity, even down to your sleeping patterns. In concept, this information can be integrated into patient’s electronic health record (EHR) and give physicians insight into the context of medical emergencies as well as provide oversight of continued care plans like weight loss programs. Artificial intelligence applications could give way to things like heart attack and panic attack prediction, allowing for advanced notice and appropriate care. Disregarding data protection/privacy for a moment, the vast volume of continually-updating health data could prove unimaginable for medical researchers. Access to this data could give insight into patterns and predictors of health issues to guide research on the effects of social and living factors.
While maybe more trivial, wearable technology could help make our lives more efficient and secure. Gesture based controls could make your Sunday newspaper reading look more like a scene of Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Enhanced security based on wearable personal identifiers could eventually replace keys and prove helpful in solving sensitive issues like gun control. By putting on any networked wearable technology, we ourselves become a part of the IOT and connect our body to the digital environment around us. Imagine waking up to the smell of fresh coffee every morning because your fitness band communicated to your coffee maker that you’ve begun to wake up. You reach over and turn down the volume on your alarm clock with a hand gesture. After getting ready for work you walk out to your car. As you approach, the car recognizes your device and the door unlocks before you can even reach for your keys. These may seem like minor improvements or unnecessary luxuries but the increased adoption of wearable technologies is opening the door for a change in how we can interact with the things around us.
Sounds pretty cool right? Well yeah, I think so, but it’s worth considering the implications of the continued integration of these technologies. The wearable nature of these devices implies continuous data collection on all of the personal information discussed above, much of that includes health data (ie. heart rate, blood pressure, sleep quality). Health data collected from wearables like Fitbit for example, aren’t regulated by HIPAA Privacy Standards. This could pose risks to the security of this sensitive data. Much of the information collected from popular fitness trackers is governed through contracts and licensing agreements between users and the company. While security measures are in place, current arrangements lack strict oversight of data collection and usage. As wearables become more sophisticated and can collect more information from our body, the security of that data should be a consideration.
Wearables are relatively new, and there’s no disputing that their popularity is growing. The same CCS Insight study found that the market size of wearable technologies will double from 2018 to 2020. This rapid adoption shows a clear willingness to bring these personal technologies into our lives. Clothing and accessories are a few of the most outward representation of self-expression. For possibly the first time, we are beginning to recognize technology as part of our self-identity. Whether good or bad, it’s a reality that’s becoming a part of our daily life. Perhaps the days of sitting down with a book and disconnecting from the digital world are close to over, but at least I can change the color of my light bulbs from my wrist.