Building the perfect wearable

Posted on: December 18, 2015 by Wolfgang Thronicke

In this blog I am going to introduce you to some basic design rules for wearables added with experience gained from project work with these nifty devices.

With the hype of wearables the really basic question is: What does it take to create a really successful wearable? Doing a quick query during a discussion with an audience of 200 people with IT background in November 2015 it was noteworthy that only 5 persons had a smartwatch. Nonetheless nearly all had a smartphone. From the technical specs a smartwatch surely is a wearable. It is neither carried or detached from the body like a phone but worn. However, it does not add a lot of new functionality to persons who already own a smartphone. But right now, a smartwatch is not (yet) the perfect wearable. In contrast the market for fitness tracking devices is expected to to $5bn by 20191. They have a dedicated function, are worn inconspicuous, and a long battery life time and do not require a lot of attention while doing their “job”.

So a wearable designer is facing several challenges to create a nice gadget: It must deliver the intended functionality. It must be non-disruptive in the sense that it does not interfere with what the user is doing, unless its interaction is closely tied to the actual situation. For example a fitness-tracker for patients with cardiac problems needs to warn before training thresholds are crossed.

Rule 1: Design the wearable to match the use-case! Technology is the enabler, but the use-case is the driver.

The more functions are realized in a wearable the more energy is needed which leads to a shorter runtime or the need for larger batteries enlarging the device. So it has been a logical step to minimize the display capabilities for fitness trackers for instance. Wearable devices usually are not self-contained. They may operate stand-alone for a while but show their benefit through the connectivity with services and devices which augment the wearable function by being able to interpret and enrich it. Consider life-monitoring vest for firemen: They actually are monitoring sensors, which are comfortable to wear. The real benefit is for the supervisor and the fireman is to detect exhaustion in action and thus protect the life by ordering a break. In a generalized scenario security and dependability of the transmitted data are essential as well.

Rule 2: While designing the communication, always consider the reason for the communication and be vigilant when dealing with personal data!

What is mostly true is that especially in industrial work scenarios wearables are part of a personal eco-system of a worker's devices. In the scenario with a connected worker, the worker not only puts on his work clothes but also a complete wearable IT infrastructure which will accompany him (or her) during the work day. Usually this comes with effects on how work will be performed (in the future), simplified assistance by automatic detection current activities in a work procedure allowing efficient book-keeping in complex checklists. Or in a medical setting the qualified access to monitored vital parameters. Such scenarios require specific attention when collaboration between wearables of different persons, roles and machines is targeted.

Rule 3: Be careful when wearables in work scenarios not only enhance a worker but lead to a change and transformation of the work procedures as well.

Security is a requirement in all IT scenarios. With wearables it becomes an absolute necessity: Wearables are closest to a person besides implants. What they read is direct, immediate and unfiltered. So any dealing with such data requires a responsible design and protection of the individual.

Finally, a conclusion: It is extremely difficult to create a one-size fits all wearable with the constraints set forth in the paragraphs above. Specialized wearables for certain use-cases which are able to participate in a person's IT sphere can create a high impact on the market and the design of IT solutions. The few examples given show that a wearable is part of a solution which extends beyond the person and which requires very close attention, because the solution will be literally on their skins.

  1. Fitness tracker market to top $5bn by 2019
  2. The IT sphere of a person consists of all IT devices a person owns and has in its neighbourhood. Usually a central part of this can be a smartphone which serves as a gateway or small compute hub for wearable devices

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About Wolfgang Thronicke
Chief Technology Officer and member of the Scientific Community
Wolfgang Thronicke is CTO, group and project leader in national and European projects in the German ATOS innovation centre C-LAB. Since 2012 he is member of the Atos Scientific Community. With a 12 year background he is expert for software engineering, project definition and management for public funded and commerical projects. His current work topics include industry 4.0, cloud, IoT, and AI.

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