Even the most casual fan of Doctor Who knows about his sonic screwdriver. After all, what’s cooler than a tool that looks like a screwdriver on steroids, that's capable of solving an unending variety of problems? With a nod to the increasingly hot trend of wearable technology, this season the screwdriver has been replaced by sonic sunglasses.

While ultra cool shades are causing a stir in the Whoniverse, it’s just one of the many places where wearables are pushing the boundaries of human experience. Here’s a look at what’s been happening with the wearable tech trend.

Calling Dick Tracy

The ability to communicate handsfree goes to the heart of our wearable tech attraction — both in art and in real life. Apple’s smart watch takes us back decades when the coolest gizmo around was comic strip detective Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio. Like Tracy’s long ago device, today’s Apple watch is as much a cool fashion statement as it is a technology breakthrough. The elegantly constructed Apple Watch has dozens of styles in different sizes and colors, plus interchangeable bands. 

But just as with the wrist radio, the Apple Watch’s reason for being is improved communication. As one reviewer put it “Smart watches may one day be the future of phones or any number of connected devices.”

The Star Trek communicator was already pretty cool when the hand held version served as an inspiration for the Motorola flip phone, and then it morphed to a badge that clipped to the uniform. Now wearable startups are focusing on commercial communicator badges

Orion Labs (originally OnBeep) says it is combining the best feature of 2-way radios and walkie talkies for team collaboration. The Container Store piloted wearable communicators from Theatro inside their retail stores to let employees very quickly toggle communications between different types of listeners and track listener location. And CommBadge has been working on a patent pending wearable Bluetooth 4.0 speakerphone touting it as a headset replacement and “much more.”

Not to be outdone, The Big Bang Theory’s Penny Blossoms episode gave a comic shout out to wearable tech. When considering how to expand the market for Penny’s rhinestone hair barrettes, Howard suggests they add Bluetooth communication to appeal to men, because as Sheldon explains “Everything is better with Bluetooth.”

The Future of Wearables

Comedy aside, it would seem that Bluetooth is the future of wearables, especially with the advent of Bluetooth Low Energy that extends battery life. This technology protocol sips incremental power and conserves energy by shutting down when it’s not in use. Software advances too will play an important role in the future of wearables. For example, the Apple Watch currently only lasts about a day without a recharge, but the Jawbone Up24 fitness tracker uses software to reduce power consumption. As a result, its previous battery life of seven days is doubled to 14 with a new firmware update.

Imagine what growth and innovation might be possible with a seemingly endless source of power for our wearables? This year eMarketer estimates more than 39 million US consumers will purchase wearable devices. Cisco Systems forecasts 177 million wearable devices by 2018. This presumes growth in adoption of current devices but also the introduction of new devices and form factors, as well as new applications for wearables. Features like Low Energy are going to be especially important for wearable devices like wristwatches, eyeglasses and other body sensors to fulfill their communications destiny.

In Sickness and In Health

Recent surveys reveal there’s been a dramatic increase — from 37 percent to 52 percent — of Americans who believe wearable tech devices are the next step to enhancing people’s lives. In fact, health and fitness is often cited as the place today’s wearable tech movement began and enjoyed much of its early growth. In his post, Rodney Brown credits Nike+ technology as giving wearables their start, leading to Fitbit and Jawbone and other fitness wearables.

But a big concern for fitness wearables is that they will end up abandoned in much the same way that our gym memberships or in-home treadmills meet their ultimate lonely fate. A study by Endeavor Partners found that one in 10 Americans over the age of 18 own some form of wearable tech, but about half stop using their device within three months. Lauren Goode makes the point that there could be hope, because the leader of the free world has yet to ditch his Fitbit even after eight months. But even Fitbit's co-founder and CEO struggles with how to “keep people using the darn things.”

In What is Your Brand Running On?, I wrote about the Nike+ sports training experience, focusing on how it connects digitally enabled footwear with digital services, essentially putting Nike in the analytics as a service business. With the Nike+ app, a small sensor in your Nike shoe connects with your iPhone and tracks your run or workout. You can upload the run or workout on the Nike+ website where you can join the Nike+ community.

The Nike approach clearly fosters long-term engagement and is a perfect example of how content marketing can leverage big data and social media to impact brand. It is also an example of how wearables might become an integral part of daily life.

For insulin-dependent diabetics in Europe (and hopefully soon in the US) wearables have become just that — indispensable to daily life. The FreeStyle Libre is a 14 day patch with sensors that measure glucose in the interstitial fluid via a small filament inserted just under the skin. A scanner is passed over the system to get a reading. This is in stark contrast to the continual pin pricking that today’s monitoring requires. And, in the future this monitoring may also be accomplished by Google’s smart contact lenses with embedded sensors that interact with tear fluid to determine a number of health-related factors, including blood glucose levels.

Not Just for Humans

The decidedly non-human Doctor Who has his new sonic sunglasses. But he is the last of the Time Lord race, so admittedly not a rich target demographic. Fortunately a much larger set of non-humans exist that are potential wearable technology consumers — our canine companions. Microchips to identify dogs have been around for many years. My multiple generations of Golden Retrievers have all been chipped with RFID devices, the size of a grain of rice, implanted just under the skin. They draw enough power from scanners to transmit the microchip's unique ID number so no battery or recharge is required. 

But the large number of new products for our “best friends,” which are very much like the latest in human wearable technology, surprised me. They have some serious applications and some highly creative branding; including:

  • FiFO, an ultrathin and fashionable bluetooth smart tag
  • WonderWoof, a dog tracking app and wearable device that monitors daily activity
  • CLEO Collar, a PetWearable that tracks and analyzes vital signs and reunites lost pets with their owners
  • FitBark, a doggie activity tracker

The most interesting to me as a marketer is the FitBark. Credit to them for their highly appealing web site. Both the site and the branding model closely to FitBit, but FitBark has also included persona profiles for doggies (and their owners). My only criticism is the seemingly glaring omission of Golden Retrievers on the site (Note to FitBark — my GRs are available for photos and interviews).

Wear This, Not That

As Joel Bloom recently asked in his article Getting Personal with Big Data, “If you knew that by always wearing a sensor you were contributing to your own health and safety and possibly contributing to that of others, would you wear it?" Probably yes if it was helpful information, but maybe not if that same wearable generated data also caused your health insurance to classify you as higher risk.

As with any technology innovation, questions will arise with wearables as adoption increases, including where we might need to enforce security measures or protect personal information with privacy guidelines. And we will need to consider which wearable technology each of us will want to wear. Which wearables are essentially just expensive toys, which ones might improve our own lives, and which ones when embedded in networks or the IoT might even generate significant and sustainable social impact for good.

In the meantime I think I might invest in a teal FitBit for me and a matching FitBark for my best friend.

Title image via FitBark