Google Glass, Samsung Galaxy Gear and the rumored Apple iWatch have turned up the hype-o-meter on wearable tech to deafening levels. You'd think they were the only players in the game. But such powerful gadgetry isn't the future of wearables, only a part of it.
At least that's the thinking from Christian DeFeo, e-supplier manager at Newark element14, an electronic design community for engineers and a component retailer. Instead of wearing $1,500 Google Glasses that delivers a sci-fi experience, he says, you're more likely to slip on an affordable ring equipped with near-field communications (NFC) technology that unlocks your car door.
"Google Glass is kind of an elite product that's only for a select few," because of the expected sky-high retail price, DeFeo says. "We see wearable technology being much more democratized than that."
Unlike the Green Lantern's glowing superpower ring, the NFC ring won't try to do everything. It won't act like a minicomputer delivering services like a smartphone, rather it will be an invisible yet practical tool in our everyday lives. And it certainly won't run into giant obstacles that can trip up more ambitious projects, like Google Glass and smart watches.
Wearables Meet Reality
Mobile experts agree that expensive, high-profile wearables will bump up against certain technological realities today, most notably power consumption and retail cost.
Google Glasses will reportedly break the $1,000 barrier, while a Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch runs $300 and must be used in conjunction with the upcoming Galaxy Note 3. Will people fork out hundreds of dollars merely for the convenience of glancing down at a 1.6-inch screen instead of whipping out their smartphone and looking at a 5.7-inch screen?
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In the power consumption arena, smart devices still have a long way to go. Wireless charging technology and energy harvesting (such as solar, motion, thermal and magnetism) are still in its infancy.
Smartphones can barely make it through the day on a single charge. Glasses and smart watches lack the battery space of a smartphone while attempting to do basically the same things. It's unlikely people will want to recharge their glasses or smart watch several times a day.
Wearable technology can get around the power problem by working in tandem with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Wearables loaded with sensors or displays can let the smartphone do the heavy lifting, such as back end data processing and connectivity to cloud services. Samsung claims its Galaxy Gear smart watch has a battery life of about 24 hours.
"I think that the phone is becoming more central and more important," Jef Holove, CEO at smart watch maker Basis Point, said at the MobileBeat conference in San Francisco earlier this summer.
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Wearables Won't Work as Fashion Statements
Another trouble spot to mass market adoption for high-end wearables such as Google Glass and Samsung Galaxy Gear is that they enter into the realm of fashion. They are fashion statements worn by the sort of characters in the hit television show "Big Bang Theory," which celebrates the geek subculture.
But fashion is fickle.
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A wearable technology has a better chance at success if it isn't a slave to the fashion industry, which is entirely different than the tech industry. Fashion is better left to the Versaces and Guccis of the world. Wearable technology, on the other hand, should melt into everyday clothing, or at least not become fashionable.
By staying on the sidelines, or perhaps partnering with designers instead of leading fashion trends, wearable technology can have mass market appeal without having to change its look after every Hollywood movie blockbuster. By limiting functionality to solve a specific problem or two, wearable technology can also keep both power consumption and retail prices low.
The NFC ring fits this criteria nicely, but it's only one of many possibilities in affordable wearable gear. Newark element14 is currently running a competition for inventors to come up with ideas, and there's been no shortage of them. While most wearable watchers are stirred by the hype of a few high-end gadgets, the low-end of the market is buzzing, too.
"We're seeing a thousand flowers blooming," DeFeo says.
Here are three wearables in Newark element14's competition that stand out:
The "baby costume" will contain conductive fabric, an accelerometer and sound sensor. Light patterns will be triggered by the baby's movements and cries.
The "travel cap" will have an embedded compass and programmable GPS for navigation. Lights on the underside of the cap's brim will guide the user to a specific destination or display a light show when the destination is reached.
The "umbrella," which is still in development, will display a light show when, say, a visually impaired user nears his home. The picture shows the inventor holding orange paper over the color sensor to trigger the LED lights to flash the same shade of orange. This makes the umbrella sensitive to outside light and darkness and can match the color of the user's rain gear.
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at email@example.com