Humankind 2.0

a book in progress...
Meditations on the future of technology and society...
...to be published in China in 2016

These are raw notes taken during and after conversations between piero scaruffi and Jinxia Niu of Shezhang Magazine (Hangzhou, China). Jinxia will publish the full interviews in Chinese in her magazine. I thought of posting on my website the English notes that, while incomplete, contain most of the ideas that we discussed.
(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

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Wearables: History, Trends and Future

(See also the slide presentation)

Narnia: Another technology that is coming to the mass market in our time is wearables...

piero:

Wearables is another technology that has been around for a long time but remained dormant because it was too expensive and cumbersome. There is an amazing issue of Byte magazine in 1981 whose cover is a smartwatch, 34 years before the Apple smartwatch! In this case, though, the big corporations have been quick to adopt and commercialize the technology.

Thad Starner, a student at the the MIT Media Laboratory, started wearing a self-made custom computer device in 1993. He would eventually graduate with a thesis titled "Wearable Computing and Contextual Awareness". At roughly the same time Daniel Siewiorek at Carnegie Mellon University designed wearable computing devices, mainly for the military, such as the VuMan3. In 1994 Steve Mann, a student at the MIT Media Lab, started experimenting with wearable devices, which years later will make him the hero of the documentary "Cyberman" (2001). In 1998 Mann built the first smartwatch, a watch that ran Linux. In 1994 DARPA and the US Army funded a project called "Land Warrior" to design and make the clothing of the soldier of the future. This project was assigned to Exponent, a Palo Alto-based engineering firm with roots in Stanford University. In 1997 Carnegie Mellon Univ, the MIT and Georgia Tech organized the first IEEE International Symposium on Wearables Computers.

Then came the pioneers of smart clothes. In 1998 Sundaresan Jayaraman's team at Georgia Tech developed the first version of the "Wearable Motherboard", a smart shirt, and Finland's Clothing+ (aka Mikko Malmivaara) developed a heart-rate sensing shirt. In 2000 Reima commercialized Clothing+'s "Smart Shout", a body belt for hands-free mobile phone communications, and SoftSwitch (England) introduced a fabric-control keypad to incorporate audio communications and heating systems into jackets for winter sports. In 2000 a collaboration between Phillips and Levi resulted in the first wearable electronic garment that one could actually buy, the ICD+ jacket, that incorporates a mobile phone and an MP3 music player. In 2002 an MIT Media Lab alumna, artist Maggie Orth, founded International Fashion Machines (IFM) to make digital interactive textiles. In 2003 Burton introduced the Amp Jacket, a snowboarding jacket incorporating an iPod. In 2004 German chipmaker Infineon introduced another smart jacket with a mobile phone and an MP3 player and Los Angeles-based Vivometrics launched its smart shirt "LifeShirt". Adidas demonstrated its "self-adapting" shoes and North Face unveiled a "self-heating" jacket. In 2006 Eleksen (England) launched a wireless fabric keyboard. In 2006 Sensatex (Maryland), borrowing technology from Georgia Tech that was funded by DARPA for the Land Warrior program, introduced its SmartShirt, a shirt with fiber-optic wires that are knit into the clothing and that monitors the person's movement, heart rate, and breathing rate in real time.

There are two forces at work. One comes from the traditional apparel industry: they think that people will be willing to pay more for clothes if the clothes contain some embedded electronics. Today we are used to buy T-shirts for a few dollars. The profit for the companies are very small. Tomorrow we may be willing to spend ten times more for a T-shirt that also has solar panels and WiFi connectivity. The other force at work is the computer industry, that has moved from the giant room-size computer to the home computer and then to the portable computer and then to the smartphone that we carry in our pocket. The next logical step is a computer that we wear all day long just like we wear a shirt all day long. How many smartphones do you own? Presumably, just one. How many shirts do you own? Ten? Tweenty? Fifty? That multiplies the size of the market by 10, 20, 50...

In 2004 Microsoft launched a smartwatch, that Bill Gates in person promoted as the future: it was one of Microsoft's worst failures. The problem was that the smartwatch came out before the Apple iPhone, when the smartphone was still a weird and expensive product, mostly for business people. Microsoft was asking people to jump from the smartphone to the wearable smartwatch but people were still not sure that the smartphone was a good idea. The smartwatch was resurrected a few years laater in Silicon Valley. In 2011 Silicon Valley-based WIMM Labs (acquired in 2013 by Google) introduced the Wimm One smartwatch. 2012 and 2013 saw the debut of mass-market smartwatches such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Sony SmartWatch, both powered by Android, and the Pebble smartwatch. The latter, introduced by Palo Alto-based Eric Migicovsky's garage startup, set a new record ($10 million) in Kickstarter funding, a record beaten later that year by Laurent LePen's Omate for its TrueSmart smartwatch (LePen lives in China but the company was based in Silicon Valley). In 2014 Google introduced the Android Wear platform, and the first Wear-enabled smartwatches came to the market: Motorola's Moto 360, Sony's Smartwatch 3, LG's G Watch and Samsung's Gear Live. Apple introduced its Apple Watch in April 2015, and this quickly became the bestselling smartwatch in the world.

The resurrection of the smartwatch was also due indirectly to the success of Fitbit. San Francisco-based Fitbit is really the company that made "wearables" a reality when in 2011 it introduced the Ultra. Fitbit now offers a full line of fitness-tracking devices and it has a virtually infinite number of competitors, like Jawbone, Misfit and Moov. In 2012 Nike launched its FuelBand.

The next step was to put intelligence in the eyeglasses. In 2013 Google Glass captured the headlines: it coupled a display with a computer and provided the kind of functionalities offered by Internet-enabled consumer electronics. Thad Starner was the mastermind behind Glass, a project largely implemented by Greg Priest-Dorman at Georgia Tech. It was another embarrassing failure by a big corporation. In this case the problem was "social stigma": many people resented the nerds wearing the Google Glass, which were nicknamed "glassholes" (a bad word that combines "glass" and "asshole"). Imagine a complete stranger who turns on his camera in front of you and films everything that you do. You would probably get upset. That's what Google Glass users (the "glassholes") were doing. And this was particularly annoying in the Bay Area, where people were discussing government surveillance. By coincidence, the Google Glass came out at the same time that a government employee, Edward Snowden, revealed a vast government operation to spy on its own citizens and on foreign allies. Google Glass came out right in the middle of a big scandal about "surveillance". From a marketing viewpoint, it was a really stupid idea to introduce a mass-market product for surveillance just when there was a scandal about surveillance. Google Glass failed, but today it has powerful successors: smart glasses that offer augmented reality like Meta Pro, Epson Moverio BT-200 and Atheer One. Google Glass and Moverio BT-200 are the vanguard of the "smart" wearables: devices that can run third-party apps.

By this time, a lot of startups were getting into the fashion industry: Fitbit partnered with Tory Burch, a boutique specializing in women's designer apparel, Google partnered with industrial designer Isabelle Olsson for Google Glass, and Apple hired Angela Ahrendts, former chief executive of luxury British retailer Burberry. In 2014 Tommy Hilfiger launched clothes with solar cells so you can charge a smartphone or your wearables while they are in your pocket. Similarly, the designer Pauline van Dongen launched the "Wearable Solar" collection of clothes, for example a solar shirt that contains 120 solar-cells. I am quite convinced that wearables have only two choices: either they become fashionable or they become invisible. Wearing something ugly is ok for the first year or two of a novelty, but you quickly look really stupid wearing something ugly when it is no longer a novelty.

In 2016 Snapchat introduced its Spectacles, that were simply a more limited version of Google Glass (10 seconds videos only) but much cheaper and with a more ordinary look, almost the counterbalance to Google Glass' alien-futuristic look.

The fusion of 3D printing and wearables is a big opportunity for the fashion industry. There are two main components to a product: one is the function and the other one is the "look". When a product is first introduced, we care mostly for the function: it has to do what we buy it for. But later in the years we trust that the function works, and the "look" becomes more important. That's why the fashion industry is so rich. Now that 3D printing is merging with wearable technology, the world of fashion smells a big opportunity. The first major fashion designer to use 3D-printed clothes was Iris van Herpen in 2010, followed by a fellow Dutch designer, Borre Akkersdijk, who 3D-printed garments with embedded electronics. In 2014 a New York architect, Francis Bitonti, 3D-printed a nylon gown based on a mathematical formula, and the following year designed a digital jewelry collection. In 2015 the media was full of news like this. Christophe Guberan, Carlo Clopath and Skylar Tibbits from the MIT 3D printed a "reactive" shoe that changes shape dynamically to provide maximum comfort. A company from Vancouver, Wiivv, launched a service of custom 3D printed insoles for shoes. New Balance 3D printed a high-performance running shoe. London designer Julian Hakes 3D-printed shoes for Olympic gold medal winner Amy Williams. Italian designer Paola Tognazzi 3D-printed garments that changes dynamically as the wearer moved. Behnaz Farahi in California 3D-printed a "helmet" that changes shape in response to the wearer's brainwaves. Yet another Dutch designer, Lidewij van Twillert, 3D-printed lingerie. Nasim Sehat, who lives in Shanghai, 3D-printed extravagant eyewear. 3D printing is reinventing the tailor in the digital age.

And now the wearable technology is also meeting the Internet of Things. In 2014 San Francisco-based Logbar introduced the multi-function ring that can be used to control home appliances.

Exoskeletons are a particular type of wearable that has a long history of its own. In 2000 DARPA decided to fund a project at UC Berkeley's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, to build technology capable of restoring mobility to paralyzed people. These "exoskeletons", named BLEEXes (Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeletons), were artificial legs that helped a disabled person not only to walk but also to carry a heavy load. The first BLEEX was introduced in 2003. In 2005 the director of that laboratory, Homayoon Kazerooni, founded a company, Berkeley ExoWorks (later renamed Berkeley Bionics and then Ekso Bionics), that in 2010 introduced eSuit, a computer-controlled suit to make paralyzed people walk. At the MIT the leader of exoskeleton research is Hugh Herr, who lost both his legs in a terrible accident, and who started building his exoskeletons with the computer-controlled knee of 2003. In 2009 Cyberdyne in Japan had already introduced a similar product, HAL 5, the creature of Yoshiyuki Sankai. A solitary inventor, Monty Reed in Seattle, has been working for many years on his Lifesuit exoskeleton, that he personally uses at the yearly Saint Patrick's Day race, and another solitary inventor, Steve Jacobsen in Utah, has been working for years on his project XOS, that is being tested by the since 2008. In 2012 Claire Lomas, a paralyzed woman, made the news because she completed the London Marathon using the exoskeleton ReWalk built by quadriplegic inventor Amit Goffer in Israel, which is also the only one available commercially. In 2014 Lockheed unveiled Fortis that is being tested by the navy of the USA; and that year the World Cup of soccer was symbolically started with a kick by a paraplegic, Juliano Pinto, wearing a mind-controlled exoskeleton designed by Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University with the collaboration of universities in Switzerland, Germany and Brazil (the "Walk Again Project"). In 2016 SRI International spun off Superflex, a new startup of exoskeletons for helping the disabled and the elderly, another byproduct of a DARPA-funded project to enhance soldier performance. In 2016 Kazerooni founded another startup, SuitX, to commercializea new exoskeleton to help paraplegics to walk.

Narnia: what changes in our lives?

piero:

Computer technology used to be separate from us and confined to a room. When i was studying, the computer was a monster that occupied an entire floor of the university. There was a secure door to protect it. Only people in a white uniform were allowed to enter the room and work with the computer. To run a program, you would punch holes in some rectangular cards and then bring the deck of cards to these people dressed in white. Then you would come back in a couple of hours to pick up the print-out with the results of your program. After graduation i started working with a PDP minicomputer that was "only" the size of half a room. This time i was allowed to see and touch the computer. My interaction with the computer was via a video terminal called VT100. A few years later i was sitting at a desk in front of an Apple II. People think that progress has been "exponential" (the word that Ray Kurzweil likes so much) but for about 30 years not much changed in terms of size and interaction. In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s i was still interacting with a minicomputer via a keyboard and a screen, and using a computer sitting on my desk (or on my lap). The brands and the models changed rapidly, but fundamentally for more than 30 years there was the same form of human-machine interaction. In the 2000s we started "carrying" the computing technology in our pockets, thanks to the smartphones. Finally in the 2010s the interaction changed completely: today we can "wear" the computing technology. The new trend is the integration of anatomy and computing technology. Originally there was only one sense for the communication with computing technology: we used to type and "read" the communication. The smartphone allowed us to introduce the voice in our communications with the computing technology. Wearables literally allow our bodies to "sense" the computing technology, and viceversa.

There are four reasons why wearables are appealing 1. Quantify ourselves (mostly for fitness purposes); 2. Document our lives; 3. Augment ourselves (exoskeletons, smart shoes); 4. Express ourselves (smart clothes, smart jewelry). Psychologically, they are irresistible: "vanity + health care" is a winning formula.

Narnia: What is the future of wearables?

piero:

The future is to put chips and sensors into clothes just like we are doing with the Internet of Things. Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), established by the US government in 2016 and directed by MIT's professor Yoel Fink, is a program to help the textile industry embed microscopic electronics into the fabric of clothes. This electronics will be used to build wearables that can see, hear, communicate, store energy, warm up or cool down the body, monitor the wearer's health, and who knows what else. The USA military is experimenting military uniforms that can change color (to camouflage in the environment) and absorb light (to become invisible). In 2016 Joseph Wang and Patrick Mercier at UC San Diego unveiled a flexible wearable device called "Chem-Phys Patch" that is capable of monitoring both biochemical and electric signals in the human body, like an electrocardiogram, and communicates wirelessly with a remote computer or phone. It can be used by physicians, for example, to monitor patients with heart disease. Lilypad Arduino consists of electronic kits (basically, sensors) that can be sewn into clothes to create "interactive garments". An application built on Lilypad Arduino is the Climate Dress (2009) that detects carbon dioxide in the air. Cityzen Sciences in France built the D-Shirt that includes a heart-rate monitor, an accelerometer, a built-in GPS, and an altimeter. Electricfoxy has the Ping Dress that responds to programmable gestures and alerts via haptic devices built into the garment's mechanics and can activate social media. The Synapse smart dress is fitted with biosensors to take bodily and environmental measurements and to react to the data. Studio Roosegarde in Holland has the Intimacy Dress, made of fabric that changes color and visibility. Even the shoes can become intelligent. You can see the shoes as the "vehicle" that takes us around. Shoes use our eyes to decide which direction to take and how to avoid obstacles. Blind people cannot use their eyes. That's when the shoes need to be intelligent. That's what Lechal does.

AiQ, Hexoskin and OMsignal make "biometric garments" that measure vital body functions. OmSignal is a smart shirt from Montreal that collects heart rate and breathing data and then sends you suggestions to improve your physical exercises.

We used to document our lives with letters, diaries, memoirs... then with photo albums... then with videos... These are all technologies that a) require you to use your hands and b) cannot react to what you are doing. In the future we will be able to document our lives without using our hands and with devices and apps that can react to what we are doing. Future generations will not be happy with just writing a diary: they will want a device/app that writes the diary for them (it will probably be a video, not written words) and also will provide some advice, or, technically speaking, real-time actionable data. CarePredict monitors the activities of the person who is wearing it on the wrist. It is connected wirelessly to the cloud where the data are collected and analyzed. The app is supposed to be smart enough to understand the daily routine of the person. When it senses a change of behavior (e.g. the person is not getting up at the usual hour), it sends an alert to family members.

There are many devices whose purpose is to prove your identity. For example, Nymi makes a biometric wristband that identifies who you are by measuring your heartbeat. Some day we will get rid of passwords and access cards.

The next step will be the integration of neurology and computing technology. Devices are beginning to communicating with our brain waves. Then there will be the integration of computing technology with internal organs, thanks to microscopic and nanoscopic devices.


This interview was complemented with these interviews:
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