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What wearable computing is really all about

Mike Elgan | Aug. 19, 2013
Wearable computing gadgets aren't toys for lazy geeks or harbingers of a dystopian future. Here's why you're going to love wearable computing.

Most of the criticism about wearable computing technology is about social acceptability. "Nobody wears a watch anymore." "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing Google Glass."

The rest is about utility. "Smartwatches and Google Glass can't do anything that a smartphone can't do."

These arguments are based on a misunderstanding of what the wearable computing revolution is all about.

It's not about devices. And it's not about the convenience of leaving your phone in your pocket.

Wearable computing is nothing less than a fundamental shift in our relationship to computers and the Internet.

Meet your WPAN
A "personal area network," or PAN, is a network centered around an individual person. And, of course, a wireless PAN, or "WPAN" is such a network that uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or NFC (near-field communication).

In the past, the PAN concept involved a central connected laptop. It was portable (movable from place to place) as opposed to mobile (usable while moving). The wireless computing revolution will give every user his or her own mobile WPAN.

The WPAN model is comparable to a LAN, or local area network, which emerged as a normal way to connect in the '80s and '90s. Under the simplest version of that model, devices were connected to a nearby server via Ethernet, mostly — PCs, printers — and that server was connected to the Internet.

The future of personal computing, if you will, can be compared to the LAN. The smartphone is the Internet-connected server. Wearable devices are the primary user devices where most input and output occurs.

Just as the adoption of LAN was driven in part by the evolution and standards formation around Ethernet technologies, the wearable movement's WPAN adoption will be driven by the new Bluetooth Low Energy standard (the wireless specification formerly known as Bluetooth 4.0). The new Bluetooth, first adopted by iOS and recently integrated into Android, will enable power-sipping devices with very small batteries to function, wake each other up and exchange rich data.

That means wearable devices will be able to receive not only words, pictures and sound, but video.

The wearable WPAN market will get huge fast

Prognosticating pundits say the wearables market will get huge fast. The UK research company Visiongain says wearables are a $4.6 billion market this year with " explosive growth and high adoption rates" over the next five years.

Juniper Research predicts that nearly 70 million wearable devices will ship in the year 2017 (up from 15 million this year).

ABI Research disagrees, and projects that the sports and health wearables market alone will see 170 million devices in 2017.

Here comes a world of new gadgets
The wearable movement will be dominated in early days by health, fitness and " quantified self" applications. The reason is simple: It's less complicated.


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