Wearable Tech

Imagine a world where you could be browsing Knowledge Jam, open up this article to read, and see the words pop up right in front of your eyes, the text following your gaze as you walk to work. Now imagine that that world already exists. With the rise in popularity of 'wearable tech', or gadgets that feature technical power while being portable enough to be attached to your person, we are truly getting close to the future.

These gadgets attempt to combine technical prowess with wearability and style, a necessary consideration if these companies want consumers to actually go out in public wearing their products. To attract buyers, devices such as Google Glass and the Avegant Glyph market themselves as being able to pass as fashion pieces. Glass just released four new designs for their glasses, including the ability to include your personal prescription, adding a level of functionality to the form. The increased emphasis on aesthetics drives developers towards designing both appealing and functional tech. And even though all of these devices require a smartphone, it doesn't feel like you're tied down. With these, you can use these anywhere, on the go (depending on battery life of course). Google Glass reportedly offers up to 5 hours of battery life, but with constant usage (taking photos and video kills the battery extremely quickly) users report around getting around 2 hours of usage before needed a recharge, which takes anywhere from 3 to 5 hours depending on the device. A Pebble smartwatch can last for up to two days without needed a charge.

Photo by Jared Mitchell

Photo by Jared Mitchell

Many of these tech devices exist in headset or goggle form, such as the Oculus Rift, Google Glass, and Avegant Glyph. There are also many variations of smartwatches available, such as the Pebble. Kickstarter has proven to be an extremely viable option for garnering both interest and capital for companies to produce their wearable tech. Avegant and Pebble both achieved their funding goals well within their time limit; the Pebble Kickstarter broke $10 million dollars pledged, and the Avegant Glyph Kickstarter has raised $900,000 in just over a week. 

The sustained interest of early adopter communities is really what continues to fuel the upward rise of wearable tech. By encouraging dev teams to create apps and games compatible with these devices, companies truly connect with their users and can see their creations achieve potentials they might not have considered. There are thousands of people who create games for use with the Oculus Rift, and Oculus has even promoted some to increase outreach. Seeing a game come alive and being able to interact with it is what drives gaming developers to create a more fully immersive experience for all. Some of the unique pros to wearable tach, as described by Scott Thigpen, a graphic designer with UAB Digital Media are that "it's a very nice and polite way to check your messages at a luncheon or meeting without being too obvious". However, he also notes that "while it is impressive, it's not revolutionary.  It's still a rather buggy piece of software as the Bluetooth does not always sync up correctly and sometimes the steady stream of buzzes that come onto your wrist gets old."

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I had the opportunity to try out the Oculus Rift at the ETLab (or Enabling Technology Lab) at the UAB School of Engineering, and as a gamer it was a thrilling experience to envision the possibilities for the next generation of technology that could be used for gaming or other outlets. The ETLab also offers simulations for military paramedics to practice situations where they might come under fire, or other real-world applications.

The Oculus Rift (1st gen) Kit

The Oculus Rift (1st gen) Kit

The Oculus Rift system itself looks like a pair of goggles with a box attached to the front. That 720p box ends up giving off a screen-door effect, or a visible pixelation overlay. The second-gen 'Crystal Cove' version of the device will not have this effect as it will feature a much higher quality screen. The system is definitely weighty to wear, and would probably cause a bit of a neck cramp if worn for more than an hour at a time. Fortunately the visor fit neatly over my glasses, but contacts would definitely be more comfortable. 

View from the TV where the Rift was hooked up

View from the TV where the Rift was hooked up

From the perspective of an outsider, you can see what the Oculus user sees on the accompanying monitor, in this case a demo of a Tuscan resort. Using a mouse to move around, you can look in a 360 degree view, just as you would if you were actually walking around the building. Walking up stairs in the demo was a little disconcerting at first, instead of just the stability of lateral movement, but my brain quickly reoriented itself. However, there is a definite uncertainty and a little bit of nausea that I felt while using the Oculus Rift. 

This technology has developed at an extremely rapid pace, such that even more improvements are likely to come within five years or so. The world of wearable tech just keeps getting better and better. As Scott Thigpen predicts, "in 10-15 years everyone will have some form of wearable tech in their clothes, wrist, back pocket, or embedded".

 

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