The Time is Changing

Published:  March 3, 2015
Doug Ross

The gesture ‘to tell the time’ — the raising of the arm, the scrutiny of the wrist — is a movement ingrained in social ideology. Since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the human wrist has played host to this attachable mechanism, but it was over 200 years ago that Hubert Sarton patented idea of the ‘perpetual watch’ – a wearable piece of tech that harnessed the energy of the user’s arm movements to power its internal gears. With an eerie foresight, Sarton had preceded the popularisation of the watch’s form, with a clear distinction between its form and its potential.

Since Sarton’s time, the watch and its wrist have remained in a somewhat unchallenged partnership. Now that technology can do more at a smaller scale, the classic ‘wrist gesture’ has been appropriated to a range of wearable tech ideas, all retaining the same principles that have shaped watch fashions for over a century.

The designers of these wearable tech products have replaced the time of day with priorities adapted to the digital age. Motorola and Samsung have been designing and producing such technology for several years, long before the excitement of the Apple Watch ever impacted the collective consciousness. When it comes to the onset of the ‘smart watch’, Apple is relatively late onto the market when it comes to wearable tech, relying heavily on its existing customer engagement to drive sales. Even Will.I.Am, pop star turned entrepreneur, beat Apple to manufacture with his Puls (pronounced pulse). Will.I.Am insists that it could make the smartphone redundant, carrying its own operating system and simcard. But for critics like The Verge, it is a device that is “thick and inflexible” both in its physical design and in its technical engineering.


Puls by Will.I.Am

Yet this tech can go beyond the Android Wear that sends you texts, the Fitbit that monitors your heart rate and the design-conscious Nike Fuelband that tracks your physical activity – there is potential where the connection between daily life and sleek wearable tech merges into something revolutionary.

The Nymi could change the way our identities are electronically authorised. The simple black wristband uses sensors that monitor the unique pattern of your heartbeat, so your devices – such as your smartphone, computer and car ­– know to authenticate you when you are nearby. It is a simple tool now, but could have much wider future implications.

The Nixie, however, could change the way we have fun. This micro-quadcopter takes off from your wrist, weighs less than 50 grams and can capture HD images while its owner is rock-climbing or biking. As for its design, there is not one addition that isn’t integral to its form, with the ‘wings’ elastically snapping and unsnapping to form the wristband.

The Nymi

The Nymi

But this tech can go further. It doesn’t have to just enhance your daily life – it could change it.

“The people who could most benefit from this technology — the old, the chronically ill, the poor — are being ignored,” proposed J.C.Herz in Wired magazine. “Companies seem more interested in helping the affluent and tech-savvy sculpt their abs and run 5Ks…”

This is changing, however. In 2014, under the support of Intel and its EDISON chip, engineers were given the chance to compete for a $500,000 prize for the development of new wearable tech. One finalist, The Wristify, melded existing ideas of wearable fashion with new technology. Sculptural in form, it is made to detect the wearer’s body heat and adjust it, with the ability to make quick changes in temperature on the wrist (an area of high blood flow) able to cool or warm the body at a rate of about 0.4 degrees celsius per second. This could potentially have a global impact on how people use heating and air conditioning.

Remote Patient Monitoring is a quickly developing area of wearable wrist tech, like the Sotera’s ViSi which can transmit “heart and pule rates, ECGs, blood oxygen saturation level, blood pressure, respiration rate and skin temperature, both in and out of bed and in transport” to nurses and doctors wirelessly. The important factor here is that it doesn’t require the patient to understand or interact with the technology themselves.

These developments are a reflection of a saturated commercial market. And where there is a saturated market, there are individuals striving to develop innovative solutions, to break away from the pack and to target smaller demographics in the ongoing and instinctive pursuit to find solutions to collective or individual problems. And as wearable tech blurs the lines between design’s conceived role as an aesthetic component of a technical whole, the impact that these devices have on our day-to-day lives can be as little, or as great, as we choose.

Recently, MIT’s Media Lab have proposed 3D-printed wearable skins, designed to facilitate synthetic biological processes that could allow humans to one day survive on other planets. Gazing into a future such as this, the meaning of wearable tech is likely to have left the archaic action of ‘wrist glancing’ behind – a strange muscle spasm seen only in twenty-first century films.

Illustration by Daniel H Gray

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