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Wearables DevCon: Thought-reading and other reasons why the future will be freaky!

Alexa Weber Morales wearing the Emotiv EEG headset.jpg

Alexa Weber Morales wearing the Emotiv EEG headset

Since wearable computing devices such as FitBit, Jawbone and others are in the news these days, last week I crossed the bay to attend BZ Media’s first-ever Wearables DevCon in Burlingame. The small conference had an informal feel and a small group of exhibitors, but I came away with a sense that the potential for this market is explosive.

I had read about thought-reading for military applications, but like most people, I hadn’t seen it in action. When I saw Jim McKeeth’s talk listed on the schedule, I wondered how anyone would go to see anything else. “Is thought the future of wearable tech input?” was the irresistible title McKeeth, lead developer evangelist for Embarcadero Technologies, had chosen.

Before he spoke, I got a chance to try out the $299 Emotiv EEG device he was demonstrating. In the photo above, I’m wearing it all wrong, like an elfen headdress. In fact, a set of 14 sensor pads are moistened with saline and placed in each tentacle of the device, which is worn more on the back of the scalp. The $500 software development kit lets anyone customize applications that would use the feedback detected by the wet sensors. “If you want to buy one of these, I suggest you wait a few months, because a lot of new models are going to be coming out,” McKeeth said. Similar products include NeuroSky and the nIR HEG headband available through the Biofeedback Institute of Los Angeles.

After reviewing the movie history of “thought-jacking,” McKeeth brought up two volunteers to wear the electroencephalography device and train their thoughts with the accompanying Emotiv software. It was fascinating and a bit frightening to see the volunteers think about pushing a floating cube away, or twisting it, and then see it happen. To be sure, the device isn’t really reading thoughts, it’s detecting the scalp’s electrical activity (aka brain waves) associated with a given conscious thought. The device has to be trained, starting with a neutral state for 8 seconds, followed by a given thought for 8 seconds. A woman who tried the device told me afterwards that you could think anything, for instance “kicking” to push the box away.

These tools have compelling applications for disabled people and, brain training such as finding alpha state. To be sure, the novelty effect is tremendous. But is this the zenith of the quantified self movement? Is self-improvement all there is?

The Tedium of the Quantified Self

The talk by Rachel Kalmar, an engineer with Misfit Wearables, suggested that the future of wearables must go beyond pedometry. She wore several dozen devices on her wrists, belts and even boots, including a Victorian mechanical pedometer and a handful of her company’s Shine device, but they all had one purpose: Detecting physical activity. A graduate of Stanford’s design lab, Kalmar had the room break into small teams and begin designing the future of wearables using brainstorming techniques. Magic was not off-limits, she said.

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Well, when given permission to use magic, I go for it. Here are the two devices I designed: An Art Focus ring (modeled after the giant square ring I was wearing) and a waist cincher/inch-counter for weight loss.

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My partners were both interesting in their own right: Kevin Shaw, CTO of Sensor Platforms, has over 20 years experience in sensors and MEMS and was an engineer at Kionix, a leader in motion sensors and accelerometers, integral in establishing its MEMS process and design. My other partner, Sireesha Chilakamarri, is a Southern California-based senior software engineer at Barracuda Networks who has designed an Android app for signature receipt.

“When you can’t come up with an idea for your device, sometimes it’s good to come up with bad ideas,” Kalmar suggested. My best bad idea for a device form factor was a dental head-gear. I also came up with a cane, which Shaw said was actually a good idea for sensors. He was wearing a discreet Shine device on his right wrist, which he said he liked because “It’s a ‘don’t-care,’ and the battery lasts six months.” However, he showed that telling time on the device was slow and non-intuitive, so he tended to look at the regular analog watch on his left wrist. When pressed, he admitted to checking the Shine activity data on the accompanying app a few times a week, but that it was mainly for entertainment.

A subsequent talk by a Shine product designer describing the elegance and durability of the device left me cold. I found myself thinking this field will become interesting when amazing technology is embedded in very beautiful (fashionable) objects. I love looking at high fashion, and I was thinking recently that fashion is like music in that you have a few unchanging concepts (shirt, pants, hat, socks, shoes), and your job is to come up with new ways to cover arms, legs, feet, etc. that inspire the wearer to adopt it as part of their identity. Similarly, music structure is ancient, but new fashions in sound production inspire the listener to buy something that essentially sounds like what they already know, but is dressed in hip new styles.

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The most promising exhibit I saw among the vendors was Boogio, a foot sensor. That’s Jose Torres pictured above, the co-founder of the Seattle-based company. When I aimed my phone camera at the flat Y-shaped circuit tape that another man behind the exhibit table had revealed to me, he quickly covered the box and told me, “You can’t take a picture of that.” Apparently, the final product will be in an insole, so the precise wiring of the sensors detecting pressure on the ball of the foot, the edges of the foot and the heel won’t be visible to consumers.

It’s a very creative take on detecting activity based on the center of gravity and other movements. What can Boogio detect? Stair-climbing, cycling, posture, skateboarding, baseball, gaming, yoga, gait, walking/running, jumping, kicking, squatting, distance, balance, dancing and load detection (weight lifting?). My thoughts immediately turned to music and dance. Keeping the beat or even playing an instrument with your feet is common in music. Bluetooth page-turning is already a no-brainier for Boogio. However, the nascent start-up hasn’t yet finalized the entire device, and the prototype the co-founder was wearing was still bulky at the ankle, with a cumbersome cable. It’s also not waterproof.

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Among other vendors, common themes were chips, antennas and other connectivity or networking components. Similar to the embedded market, the wearable computing market will be one where software and hardware go hand-in-hand, but the number of available hardware platforms is exploding. Below is an image of an antenna that is printed on the inside of a watch housing.

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Freescale Semiconductor offers WaRP (www.warpboard.org), an open source platform for developers interested in rapid prototyping. It contains a main processor and add-on daughtercard for sensor aggregation and wireless charging (the coil pictured below is for placing the device on a charging pad). It comes with an LCD or low-power e-ink display with touchscreen. The operating system is Android 4.3. Sensors include accelerometer, magnetometer and pedometer. Power management is critical for wearables, so this platform can go into deep sleep mode while still monitoring sensor data. The company also suggests you don’t have to go it alone: It offers an ecosystem with assistance from Revolution Robotics and Kynetics for experienced product design.

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HZO.com‘s coating can waterproof all the components of your device. Be careful, however, that you put gaskets on all connections. The man demonstrating the waterproof iPhone and motherboard mentioned that at a previous conference, they put the devices in a tank of yellow Gatorade and the capillary action of the HDMI connector sent sports drink all the way into the TV, frying it completely.

The expensive man-toy pictured above is a compass that has been waterproofed. I asked what needed to be waterproofed on a compass, and they pointed to a bulky battery that powers a back-light. Hmmm.

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This Xensr could be used for sports motion tracking, gaming, medical or engineering applications, according to founder David Troup. It comes with the TruMotion SDK to incorporate the motion data into other applications.

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This electric bike, the Turbo E-bike from Specialized, looks cool. It can go 30 MPH, and detects how much you’re pedalling so it can help as much or as little as you want. At $6000, I’m sure someone would gladly steal it from me.

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I want this lens. It talks to your smart phone, obviating the need for an expensive hipster DSLR.

What’s ahead for wearables?

The name may be getting new attention, but much of what is powering the wearables market comes from mobile development or the embedded computing market, which has been around for decades. Interestingly, this may be a new intersection point where the mobile operating systems such as Android and its apps make it possible for a new class of developer and device to spring up. One problem is redundancy, in my opinion: No one wants a smart watch when you have to also carry a smart phone. Another problem is that the love affair for the smart phone is still peaking. The pocket computer form factor is incredibly compelling, and the marketplace of apps addictive to consumers.

Meanwhile, sensor technology and algorithms must still mature for more meaningful data to be exposed and mined for ideas. I’m looking forward to learning more about that from Sensor Platforms, for example. Finally, I found myself thinking in the conference: What about robots? Weren’t robots the future?

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2 thoughts on “Wearables DevCon: Thought-reading and other reasons why the future will be freaky!

  1. Algorithms are key. The “killer app” for wearables is one that gives you actionable information.

    When a watch notifies you of a pending heart attack that’s when you’ll see some adoption.

    • Excellent point, Jonathan! Sensor Platforms, the company whose CTO I met at the conference, is working on just that. They have some interesting algorithms such as Pedestrian Dead Reckoning (PDR) for indoor navigation, activity monitoring, and location-based services in mobile devices. That’s going to facilitate Minority Report-style position results inside stores using only the mobile device sensors, without the aid of GPS, Wi-Fi, or maps.

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