The wearable future

Keeping track of ourselves

By Antoinette Price

In our mobile world, we carry our lives in our portable devices and expect to be able to access information anytime, anywhere. On a train, in a shop, out walking, we surf the net, communicate through social media and messaging and listen to music on our smart phones. We have also entered the age of continual self-monitoring, be it the number of steps we take, our heart rate, glucose levels or sleeping patterns, because it can help improve our lives and just because we can.

Thevergecom-Microsoft_Band_Hero Fitness tracker (Photo: Microsoft)

It's all down to the technology

We’ve come a long way since the world’s first wearable computer was invented in 1961 in the US by a mathematics professor, Edward Thorpe. Today, wearable smart devices (WSDs) are smart electronics that can be embedded in accessories or clothes. Glasses, jewellery, headgear, belts, arm and wrist wear, leg and footwear, skin patches, exoskeletons and e-textiles are being developed to allow for convenient use and improved monitoring of different aspects of our lives. These smart devices gather, display or process information to give us easy access to all the facts we require throughout the day.

Health and well-being WSDs can be applied directly to the skin; for instance, a temperature reading patch or continuous glucose monitoring system. They can also be implanted in the body in the form of pacemakers, cochlear implants or electrocardiogram monitors which record the heart’s activity over extended periods of time. It is expected that many more health monitoring devices will have diagnostic capacities in the not too distant future.

A booming global industry in need of standardization

The value of the wearable electronic technology market will rise from USD 20 billion in 2015 to USD 70 billion by 2025, according to research company IDTechEx. This is hardly surprising given that some of the largest technology, medical and sports companies are heavily invested in developing the industry. According to this research, healthcare is the biggest sector, comprising medical, fitness and well-being.

As millions of people use wearables every day to check their health, fitness and to provide a broad array of other services and products, they will want to be sure that this technology is safe, reliable, compatible with other technologies and functions as expected.

The improvement of smart textiles will mean new areas such as fashion, industrial, commercial and military will join the wearables domain.

The IEC Standardization Management Board (SMB) has set up Strategic Group (SG) 10: Wearable Smart Devices, which is tasked with establishing the terminology, agreed understanding of WSD, market needs, inventory of activities within and outside of IEC, priorities of work and coordination of activities within IEC.

This Group can pool expertise and knowledge from several Technical Committees whose work is relevant to this area; for example, audio/video, electronic display devices, medical equipment, environmental, safety of electric equipment, semiconductor devices including sensors, electromagnetic compatibility and printed electronics, to name but a few.

What’ll they think of next?

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this year, fitness topped the wearables section. As well as making the hardware more appealing to wear, some of the products have evolved in terms of what they can do with the data they gather.

Fitness trackers

A number of fitness trackers now offer an increased number of functions including: keeping users connected (calls, texts, some alerts), tracking heart rate and recognizing the type of sport and recording exercise once users begin. A variety of sports can be monitored, including tennis, football, basketball, treadmill, Zumba, swimming, weight lifting, running and walking. Some trackers now provide advanced guidance and coaching during exercising, making better use of the personal data gathered.

A sports bra has embedded sensors that monitor breathing and heart rate, which are then transmitted to a smartphone app.  This information allows workouts to be performed at the safest level possible. The app also tracks pace, distance, cadence and calories.


An anti-sickness bracelet has been designed to relieve nausea.

A UV patch stretchable electronic skin sensor monitors the wearer’s exposure to sunlight. Ultra sensitive dyes alter colour depending on the UV rays detected and the data collected is synced with a phone app.

A smart wireless baby sock, aimed at preventing sudden infant death syndrome, tracks a baby’s vital statistics (heart rate and oxygen levels). If the range is not normal, the data is visible on the iPhone app and the independent base station shows a red light.  

A hairband laser device uses laser light to reenergize hair follicles and improve hair growth, while a helmet-like wearable emitting low-level light therapy stimulates hair growth.

Well-being and safety

A pair of X-ray-like smart glasses built into a helmet for industrial use lets wearers see inside objects, such as pipes or machinery, while they work. The aim is to maximize worker safety, well-being and productivity.

An alarm embedded in attractive costume jewellery is an added function of one of the many smart bracelets on the market. If wearers run into trouble, a double tap on the bracelet sends their location and SOS message to their emergency contacts.

Sea of wearables data leads to new services

Wearable technology will continue to boom as it offers all sorts of possibilities which will disrupt and reshape industries and how we live our daily lives. From health and personal fitness monitoring to smart devices that work continuously in the workplace, homes and cars, our daily activities are becoming more connected than ever, thanks to this technology, but it doesn’t end there.

In time, more services and products will be created using the data gathered by wearables. For example, a UK insurer is offering customers the chance to reduce their car insurance premiums if they use an app to monitor how they drive. This will apply to safer drivers who reach a certain score. In the US, a number of companies have established corporate wellness programmes and given employees fitness trackers with the incentive of lowering their healthcare premiums if they do a certain amount of regular exercise. Some healthcare insurers are already considering how they can use this data – which concerns users’ health, fitness and well-being – for risk mapping, to set their premiums.

The IEC will continue to monitor this rapidly expanding industry and develop International Standards for the electronics used in wearables, which cover terminology, dependability and safety. This will allow manufacturers of components to be aligned when it comes to the technology. Additionally, IEC Conformity Assessment Systems, based on IEC International Standards, provide independent testing and certification to ensure the safety, reliability and performance of products and the systems within which they work.

Nike Plus Smart trainer When paired with an iPhone or iPod, these sensor-laden basketball shoes can measure on-court performance (Photo: Nike)
AIQ smart clothing Fitness tracker (Photo: Microsoft)
Thevergecom-Microsoft_Band_Hero Integration of technology and apparel (Photo: AIQ Smart Clothing)