Article / SD Times

SD Times: What makes wearables work for consumers?

By Alexandra Weber Morales

SD Times, July 2015

Regina Dugan, former director of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, paced the stage, about to unveil a dizzying array of technologies developed by her new employer, Google’s Advanced Technology and Project group (ATAP). But first, attendees at the 2015 Google I/O conference needed a little background.

“We’ve been talking about wearables for two decades, maybe longer,” said Dugan. “Whenever I’ve seen a field where many smart people have worked for a long time and we’ve struggled for big breakthroughs, it’s been because there’s one underlying scientific principle that we’re missing, and if we can find it, it might unlock new strategies or opportunities.”

In asking this question about wearables, her team discovered 1954 research from Paul Fitts, a psychologist at the Ohio State University, entitled “The Information Capacity of the Human Motor System in Controlling the Amplitude of Movement.” The work, subsequently validated in 2012 by Google’s technical program lead Ivan Poupyrev, demonstrated the load on the human motor cortex system, measured in bits per second, required for doing increasingly precise finger-tapping activities on smaller and smaller areas.

Dugan continued: “Now there were controversies and nuances to it, but that science taught us something interesting about wearables… If we look at the limit that is imposed by the system that goes from the shoulder to the tip of my finger, which is the system that I used to control most consumer electronics, we see something interesting… As the screen size shrinks to the point where we can put it on our body, we are approaching the limit of our ability to interact with it.”

Google ATAP has been working on two ways to deal with the smartwatch conundrum of how to interact with a powerful computer via a tiny screen. One, Project Soli, uses a tiny radar system to detect complex finger gestures near—but not touching—the device’s screen. The other, Project Jacquard, provides a larger surface area via conductive fabric that can be woven into clothing and used to interface with devices.

These projects are still in early testing stages, and Google can afford long-term R&D successes and failures (such as the currently dormant, possibly defunct Google Glass, whose primary drawback was a lack of social acceptance by consumers). Of course, other wearable technologies have successfully been launched, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers.

The lifespan of a smart device startup, however, can be brutally short. Enter HAX, whose tagline is “The first mentorship-driven seed funding hardware accelerator program.”

‘Shark Tank’ meets Kickstarter
The popular television show “Shark Tank” gives entrepreneurs and inventors the chance to pitch products to a panel of venture capitalists in hopes of gaining an investment in exchange for equity. Many of the products seem forgettable, but the process has proven highly addictive to the viewing public.

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