An App Up Your Sleeve

Mobile Computing Escapes From the Phone


A science-fiction curiosity for decades — think Dick Tracy‘s phone watch or the Terminator’s smart vision — wearable computers are now flooding into the market in the form of smartwatches and activity trackers. The devices, which let people check their e-mail, texts and heart rate without having to reach for their smartphone, are certainly cool, but their makers have yet to come up with the wearable killer app to make them best-sellers with consumers and business users.

The Situation

A market that didn’t exist a few years ago, wearable devices could top $32.2 billion in sales by 2019, up from $18.9 billion last year, estimates researcher IHS, whose forecast includes devices like hearing aids. The most anticipated new device is the Apple Watch, which can provide reminders of meetings, provide turn-by-turn directions and lets you send messages using voice commands. When synched with an iPhone, it can be used to detect pulse rate and has other health-tracking applications, as well as including apps for maps, photos, music and messages. (And there’s a gold version for just $10,000!) It’s a field with many competitors. Gear Live and Gear S from Samsung, Motorola’s Moto 360 and LG’s G Watch R smartwatches offer email, SMS and call notifications and workout information and provide flight information for those headed to an airport, provided they have a compatible Android phone nearby. A wrist-based computer, i.amPuls, can even take calls independently from your smartphone. Last March, Facebook spent $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, the maker of a wearable head-mounted display for gaming. But getting a device right isn’t easy: Google decided to end sales of Google Glass, spectacles that project a computer screen in the wearer’s field of vision. The company plans to retool the product.

The Background

Wearable tech isn’t new. There are hearing aids, of course, and night-vision goggles have been used in military and law enforcement settings for years. But many of the first consumer devices, like Sony’s smartwatch, have failed to gain traction. Fitness-tracking devices such as Nike‘s Fuelband, Fitbit Charge and the Jawbone Up popularized the concept with people who used to need doctors’ help to monitor their health. A range of devices to monitor glucose levels, heart rates and other data have been made for years by companies from Abbott to Medtronic, but these have been aimed at the chronically ill. Now, they’re likely to enter the mainstream, as consumer-electronics companies are turning out wearable gadgets that anyone can buy — and increasingly on the cheap. Health and fitness devices are expected to dominate this market in the next few years. About two dozen wearable tech companies exhibited products at the 2015 CES.

The Argument

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said wearable devices will get technology out of the way, so we’re not scrambling to find our ringing phones while driving or out on a dinner date. Google’s own shift away from the consumer-oriented product suggests that the commercial opportunities may at first be greatest in business: Professionals such as surgeons were among the first users of Glass, which let them look up X-rays, videoconference with colleagues and answer questions from medical students while keeping their hands free for surgery. In this view, eventually everyone from waiters to repair technicians to kids could use wearable tech to complete tasks faster and better. In response, two prominent researchers argued that we’re more likely to run off the road while our hands are free but our brains are not. A growing number of states agree and are considering banning Glass for motorists. Separately, privacy advocates say devices like Glass present dangers like surreptitious recording and instantaneous facial recognition, and they have been banned from some casinos and other private businesses. As wearable devices become part of everything we wear and carry, the going assumption will be that a computer is always looking on — a cool or a creepy thought, depending on your point of view.

The Reference Shelf

First Published Oct. 31, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Olga Kharif in Portland at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at