Has wearable computing found its killer app?

Has wearable computing found its killer app?

Summary: Is there a perfect storm brewing with authentication or just more rain on the wearable parade?


Is wearable computing on the verge of its killer app? Its killer form factor?

While authentication isn't an app per se, it could be the feature and function that straps wearable computers on the mass market.

Just like VisiCalc drove the Apple II, email the personal computer, iTunes the iPhone and Halo the Xbox, if wearable computing wants to go mainstream it needs a sponsor.

Wearable computer Steve Mann circa 1980
Wearable computers circa 1980.

The ability to securely log-on and communicate with devices and applications around you without end-user interaction speaks to users who would like to eliminate their cache of multiple and often insecure and stolen passwords.

Last week's stories on the Nymi wristband, and its promise of a heartbeat authenticator that attaches users to the objects around them, set fingers typing across the Internet and social media.

It joins other options such as InteraXon's Muse, an electroencephalograph (EEG) headband that records brainwaves and could be used as a think-and-authenticate device. Its form-factor, however, is not as stylish as a wristband.

Nymi, by Bionym, uses an electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor, which records the user's cardiac rhythm, which is unique to each individual.

CNET: Nymi bracelet uses your heartbeat as a password

Researchers at the Department of Electrical Engineering at Taiwan’s National Chung Hsing University also are using ECG inputs to build encryption keys to protect data and images, and secure digital communication. The form-factor, however, is not wearable, but could likely piggy-back on a device such as Nymi.

Both the Muse and the Nymi come with an SDK that will need to attract developers. But nothing attracts developers like an engaged mass market willing to spend money.

It seems there would be ample appeal to digital natives and converts, as well as, corporate executive and compliance officers for secure, no-manual-input authentication along with automated file and communication encryption from a device one just simply wears.

With the number of digital devices and Internet entry points expanding, with roaming corporate computing, and the coming Internet of Things a wearable authenticator could be the device to truly upset realities around convenience vs. security. The possibilities for streamlined, secured computer-based interaction are endless - unlock your phone, your laptop and your personal app catalog just by being close to them.

Is this end-user frustration and wearable innovation a perfect storm brewing for a killer app, or just more rain on the wearable computer parade that has been on a wet slog for decades?

Such an authentication device has a much broader appeal than other wristbased wearable computers such as the Nike+ FuelBand, Fitbit Flex, and Jawbone UP, which are finding a home with fitness buffs but are of little interest to couch potatoes.

Cyborg contraptions from the 1980s (see picture) have given way to among others Google Glasses, last year's Pebble sensation, and Meta SpaceGlasses, a safety goggle form-factor with 3-D capabilities whose chief scientist is the father of wearable computers, Steve Mann (who is also helping on InteraXon's Muse).

Mass appeal, however, is elusive. The eyeware has fostered its own set of trepidations, mostly from people who are standing in front of them rather than wearing them. Not to mention how clumsy and obtrusive they look.

Smartwatches, like the Pebble and last week's introduction of Samsung's Galaxy Gear and Qualcomm's Toq, are already being called yesterday's format by some, including my fellow ZDNet blogger Steven Vaughan-Nichols.

All of these form-factors and their applications have hit snags on the way to mass appeal. Is wristband authentication the next sacrificial lamb at wearable's alter, or could an Internet population fatigued by password problems fuel the killer app that loads up the wearable-computer bandwagon?

Topics: Emerging Tech, Security


John Fontana is a journalist focusing on authentication, identity, privacy and security issues. Currently, he is the Identity Evangelist for strong authentication vendor Yubico, where he also blogs about industry issues and standards work, including the FIDO Alliance.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • The monstrosity/contraption in the picture would kill the wearable industry

    if that's what you meant by killer then yes they have found their killer app.
    SJVN has been telling us the Linux Desktop is here... he's not been right yet and he's not about to be right.

    wearable is still a work in progress... perhaps wearable computing underwear will fly... it would be largely unseen which by all measures so far is what wearable should be... unseen. However, it would likely spoil any shot you had at getting lucky.
    • Unseen, yes.

      I agree with you. Without some sort of obscurity, wearable computer users will become targets for thieves. I believe the Nymi folks said one form factor could be in a waistband.
    • Well, one thing about wearable computing underwear,

      it would probably NOT be a target for thieves! Especially if the victim is held at knife or gun point! Hehe! "Here, you can have my Hanes, but you'll need to wash them before using them!"
  • One more thing for NSA to intercept

    Yeah, I'm gonna put my biometrics OTA.
    • Wise thought. But did you know

      that a capacitive touch-screen is actually an antenna array that can read your body field from well over a foot away, and is programmed to respond to it only when it is strong enough to be considered a touch? Because glass is an insulator, it actually makes no difference whether your fingertip is actually touching it or not.

      Half the problem with a touchscreen system is cleaning up the signal enough to get precision eg averaging filters to scrub the interference off. Interference caused by the running of your body, effectively an EEG/ECG - from a distance at that.

      I wouldnt worry about wearing personal information like a sign, your body already does that naturally. This device uses it to activate itself and transmit keys to your other devices when they are nearby using existing security protocols, it doesnt transmit your EEG, or otherwise circumvent whatever measures you might have to stop the government's mind probes. ;)
      • The question is ...

        How touch screen driver software cuts through the noise to pick up specific gestures.

        The simplest and most efficient way is to detect which pixel, or group of adjacent pixels, has a clearly more powerful proximity signal than the rest of the screen; in the case of one finger gestures, track that location as it changes without dropping out; and in the case of multiple finger gestures, detect and track those peaks separated by non-peak areas.

        So yes, although the touch-screen pixel "elements" theoretically pick up capacitance signals at a distance, the information is buried in the "noise" of the other hand, other fingers, torso, head, etc. signals.

        In order to track gestures at a distance, active sonar or passive 3D picture analysis (such as what NASA wants to put on the next generation of rover robots) are a better and more accurate input medium.
        • Better maybe but not exclusively.


          Picking up the signal is the easy part, filtering out non-human IF would be the hard part.
          I've been using CapSense library for years and experimenting with recognising a specific person for a few less months after I noticed that my signal is unique from both my daughters when viewed on an oscilloscope.

          Arduino only has a 40MHz processor and detects the presence of a body field from up to 5 feet away (although this is unreliable) using a simple insulated foil patch as an antenna.

          Granted it cant get a direction or read a gesture but it doesnt need to, it just has to sample my signal and compare it with the others its seen. I was pointing out that this technology is available to anyone and is already buried in touchscreens. Its been buried in capacitive light-switches and bedside lamps for decades, and all personal electronics is shielded against our massive and noisy EM fields. Radio equipment needed to be completely sheilded before digital PLL tuning provided an environmentally stable solution to the external LC circuit they used before.

          You'd be amazed what luminous beings we are viewed in the EM spectra. ;)
  • How would this differ from carrying around a SecurID token?

    A SecurID token is "wearable" (i.e. attach it to a key chain). Or how about using your cell phone? Or a fingerprint reader? Being wearable doesn't really change much.
    • Its an active scanner that transmits a key, not a key in itself.

      You wear the device, the device authenticates you. The device only works on you, and your other devices only work with that device nearby.

      Its like an RFID key that only works in contact with your body so it cant be stolen and used by another person.
  • Google Glasses are "clumsy and obtrusive"?

    There are two things to remember about Google Glass that make that comment by the author seem snobbish and whiny:
    1. Google Glass is in its first generation. I would expect either v2 or v3 to start having the ability to just clip onto an existing pair of glasses.
    2. How clumsy is a pair of glasses? As an interface device (it is really just a wireless display and camera for your spartphone) it is a pretty minimalistic design.
  • I just have to say...

    Resistance is futile! You WILL comply!
    • Becareful for what you wish

      The method of our compliance may not be what you expected.
  • Form factor

    I think it will all come down to form factor. I wear a Jawbone Up now and I like it because it doesn't look ugly and it does something useful to me. The Samsung watch though looks like an old style calculator watch - and aint gonna get any traction with female wearers! I hold out hope with that Apple engaging designers from the fashion industry they will be able to bridge the gap between form and function more successfully. On the other hand (or wrist!) I do worry that we could end up with armfuls of wrist bands! One only compatible with your house, another only compatible with your car, yet another one only works with Android phones, etc.

    I do like the idea of authentication from something you wear - be it wrist band, ring or key-chain though. Be interesting to see how this space evolves - I mean if you can micro chip my dog, what is so bad about micro chipping me!!!
    • Or male wearers who want to meet females!

      The "calculator watch" form factor unfortunately yells "geek" or "nerd" whether worn by a man or a woman, admittedly more so for a woman; but definitely not fashionable at formal leisure occasions (cocktail parties and date nights, for example). Heirloom and fashion watches are more appropriate for those social events, and unfortunately their slim cases are already jam packed with original technology! For men, if the smartwatch could be hidden in the "buckle" of a retrofitting BAND, it might be workable, but ladies' watches in particular usually have matching, and extremely thin, "bracelet" bands.

      Outside of the office and the fitness environment (gym and track), the wrist is obviously out of the running as a place for a smartwatch. If long gloves ever come back for ladies, a second "watch" could be covered by a sheer glove, but that is not going to work for men. Maybe a LARGE ring (Super Bowl ring size) would work; I could imagine a complementary set: HIS ring and HER glove-covered bracelet.
  • Wearable technologies and privacy

    Here is an article on the impact on privacy rights of wearable technologies (http://www.gamingtechlaw.com/2013/09/top-fashion-legal-topics-1-wearable.html). I believe it will become more and more relevant with the development of these technologies.
    Giulio Coraggio