Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Wearable Devices Are Coming for You

A place in your pocket is no longer enough for mobile gadget makers: now, they want your body.

If wearables take off the way some predict they will, their market potential is huge, and the space is still wide open, with no dominant player.

Vendors' rush to corner the market was perhaps best explained by Kaz Hirai, CEO of Sony, while speaking at CES.

"You have only two wrists and one head; you can't wear 10 different products," he said. "Once you secure someone's wrist with a particular product, they'll usually stick with it."

Here's a look at how some vendors are trying to capture your body.

Note: This slideshow was adapted from the article 'Invasion of the body snatchers: wearable devices are coming for you'. Click through for the full story.

From the ground up

The current boom in wearables can be traced back to around 2006 when Nike gave the pedometer a digital twist. Its small Plus device slipped into a running shoe and counted the steps taken and time elapsed on a run. The information was sent to an iPod application and to an online community where people could track and compare their workouts.

Other companies followed, and in late 2008 Fitbit attracted considerable attention with its namesake fitness tracker.


The second wave

Fitbit followed up with additional products. Its latest, the $130 Fitbit Force, is a wristband-type device with a small digital display. It's still based on the concept of step-counting, but the app extrapolates additional data including distance traveled, minutes of activity and calories burned. An altimeter estimates the number of steps climbed. If users keep it on while they sleep, it will even attempt to measure sleep quality.

Other fitness trackers:
Jawbone Up 24, $150
Basis B1, $199
Nike Fuelband SE, $150
Adidas Smart Run, $400

(Smart)watch and learn

Sony's Smartwatch 2 runs dedicated apps that bring Gmail, Twitter and Facebook to the wrist. The device has won praise for good looks, but a constant criticism has been the resolution of the 1.6-inch LCD screen. And notifications aren't synched: If a message is read on the watch, it remains unread on the phone.

Pebble, a startup, raised several million dollars through a Kickstarter campaign to fund development of its first watch. The $249 gadget combines the functions of a fitness tracker with a music player and app notifications.

Samsung jumped into the market with its Galaxy Gear range of products.

Related: 12 cool Pebble watch apps and tricks

The iWatch cometh?

In late 2012, news reports surfaced that Apple was developing a smartwatch with Intel. Apple hasn't confirmed that the project even exists, but its success in redefining the portable music and smartphone markets means a lot of attention is focused on the Cupertino company. The speculation was fueled in mid-2013 when news leaked that Apple had hired Jay Blahnik, developer of Nike's Fuelband, to work on its wearables team.

Apple's product, whatever it may be and whenever it's unveiled, could do a lot to shape the short-term future of the wearables market.


Google Glass has garnered significant attention, good and bad. The head-mounted display projects information onto a small prism above the user's right eye and has attracted controversy for its ability to record what the wearer is seeing. Privacy advocates charge that this function essentially turns Glass-wearers into mobile surveillance stations.

At $1,500, it's also well out of the range of the average consumer.

Perhaps Google's biggest contribution won't turn out to be Glass but Android Wear, a new version of its Android OS for smartwatches and other wearables.

Related: My week with Google Glass

Armed and dangerous

Thalmic Labs has developed an electromyographic sensor called Myo that's worn on the arm and picks up electrical muscle activity to interpret movements and gestures. A demonstration of the $149 device shows how a user playing a video game can simulate drawing a gun and firing it. Another clip shows a person steering a drone by twisting his arm back and forth.

"The relationship between people and devices is getting closer," said Stephen Lake, CEO of the Ontario company. "People are willing to wear different technology."

A hairy situation

While an armband might not be a stretch, how about a wig? Sony's Smartwig, revealed in a patent application, connects to a smartphone and might include a GPS, camera, ultrasound transducer and even a laser pointer. With enough sensors, the wig could read facial expressions by tracking the movement of skin, or figure out where a person is and what direction they're looking in. It might provide a discreet vibration when a message is received.

To be sure, the Smartwig isn't much more than a patent application right now. Sony has a few prototypes, but there's been no talk of a product.


Baby, I'm yours

At CES, Intel unveiled several prototypes based on a computer called "Edison." No bigger than an SD Card, Edison is a "full Pentium class PC" running Linux with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Intel showed a baby's "onesie" made by Boston-based Rest Devices, fitted with sensors that monitor the infant's temperature, pulse and breathing and broadcast that information to the parents -- on their coffee mugs.

Intel also showed a pair of ear buds that act as a heart monitor as well as play music. And a  smartwatch that works with a geo-fencing system to let parents know when their children stray.


In your eye

Google recently showed off a prototype contact lens that has an embedded sensor to measure glucose levels in tears. The idea is that diabetics can be alerted on their phone (or perhaps Google Glass) when their glucose level gets low. The lens is in the early stages of development.

Related story: Google testing 'smart' contact lens for people with diabetes

Martyn Williams / IDGNS

Mind reader

Intel, Honda, Toyota and various university labs are developing scanners that attempt to detect thought patterns. The technology, called BMI (brain machine interface), uses electroencephalography (EEG) to ostensibly translate thoughts into intentions.

Toyota showed a scanner in 2009 that allowed a person to steer a wheelchair through thought alone. With around 15 hours of training, the system could be tuned to a user's motor-control thought patterns to be 95 percent accurate so that basic left, right, forward and stop commands could be understood.

Related story: Toyota research achieves brain control of wheelchair

Mind control

Honda developed a prototype system that uses EEG and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), a technology that measures blood flow, to control a robot. In a Honda video, a researcher is shown a gesture printed on one of several cards -- moving the right hand, left hand, foot or tongue -- and then asked to visualize making the action. A robot then performs the action. Honda says it can get a success rate of up to 90 percent.

Intel recently demonstrated a system using NIRS that tries to figure out when car drivers are concentrating on the road ahead or daydreaming and adjust the car's environmental controls to keep a driver awake or give more or less control to safety features.