Where the wild wearable things are

By: 
July 18, 2014


I've been to many conferences in my day and, let's be honest, I don't often come away saying, "Wow!" Well, there were more than a few wow moments at Wearable Tech LA: Where Entertainment and Health Meet Wearables, which was held in Pasadena, CA, on July 17, 2014. From the most incredible implantable device I've ever seen to a hip hop band jamming with fans across the world sending them their heartbeats via smartphone, this was one rocking event.

I discovered a number of innovators at Wearable Tech LA that I will profile in the coming days on PlasticsToday, but for now, I want to share some impressions while they are still fresh in my mind.

Dude, what is that thing sticking out of your head?

Neil HarbissonNeil Harbisson stands out in a crowd. It's not the blindingly bright orange jacket paired with skinny incandescent yellow jeans that get stares—not in Los Angeles, anyway—it's a curved tubular device sprouting from the back of his head and bending up and over the middle of his forehead. The device is a Bluetooth-enabled antenna implanted in his skull that converts sounds into colors.

Harbisson was born colorblind. After attending a lecture on cybernetics, he approached the speaker about starting a cyborg project, which ultimately gave birth to the eyeborg, as Harbisson calls the device. It allows him to perceive up to 360 different shades of visible and invisible colors via sound waves. "What color am I?" was a common question that conference attendees asked him. The device also allows him to connect to nearby devices and take phone calls.

Often called the world's first cyborg, Harbisson is a fascinating artist who uses his device to convert Amy Winehouse songs to color patterns and to produce sonochromatic portraits of the likes of James Cameron, the director of Titanic and Avatar. He founded the Cyborg Foundation to encourage other humans to become cyborgs and promote the use of cybernetics in the arts.

Yo, can you hear my heartbeat?

Nadeem Kassam, the founder of Biobeats, tells a compelling story. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, where he sold oranges on a street corner as a teen, he became a high-tech entrepreneur in Canada, where he founded wearable fitness device maker Basis. He sold that company to Intel earlier this year for "let's say between $100 million and $150 million," he told attendees. Now, he's behind Biobeats, which conjugates crowd-sourced heartbeats and music.

One of the company's happenings had hip hop group Far East Nation performing while its fans across the world showed the love by placing their fingers over the light and camera of their smartphones to transmit their heartbeats during the broadcast. The website showed where the heartbeats were coming from in real time. Here is the video.

Gimmick? Well, says Kassam, the exercise generated data points from a young demographic that sees itself as invincible and is disinterested in health data. The technology is an example of how healthcare and entertainment can come together to produce audience engagement and retention, and ultimately aggregate health metrics on a global scale.

Drowning in data

One thing that came up time and again during panel discussions at Wearable Tech LA is the disconnect between the quantity of data that is being produced and putting it to meaningful use. We are presenting so much data to users, but making no effort to make it meaningful to them, said Mikko Malmivaara from Clothing +, a Finland-based pioneer in the integration of sensors in clothing. "Without context or some sort of understanding, knowing that your heart rate is 130 beats per minute is meaningless to the user," he said. Therein lies the real challenge for developers of wearable tech products, concurred Davide Vigano, a former Microsoft executive who is now CEO of Sensoria (Redmond, WA), which makes smart sports bras, socks and other clothing that tracks biometric data. "We need to inject wisdom. There is so much data, but the user has to be able make sense of it." It's up to product designers and developers to find the solution. Electrozyme seems to have that figured out.

A developer of printed biochemical sensors, Electrozyme's device, which can be worn like a tattoo or integrated into a device, senses lactate, electrolyte, and hydration levels in body sweat, and the results can be displayed on what looks like a fuel gauge. The user instantly recognizes if he or she is running on empty and instinctively knows how to respond. The beauty of the technology is that it can be configured to detect any number of biomarkers. "There are some 800 biomarkers in sweat," noted Electrozyme CEO Joshua Windmiller.

Wearable technology isn't just cool, it's a booming business. As we reported in PlasticsToday earlier this year, analysts predict that it could be a $50 billion market within the next five years. Clearly, it has the potential to transform our society and make it far less cluttered than it is today. One of my favorite remarks at Wearable Tech LA was made by lawyer to the stars Ken Hertz, who monitored a panel on wearable entertainment and Hollywood: "Our grandkids will look at pictures of us holding all these mobile devices and ask, 'What's that?'"

Norbert Sparrow

Norbert Sparrow is Senior Editor at PlasticsToday. Follow him on twitter @norbertcsparrow and Google+.

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