What wearable tech's past says about Apple's iWatch

Wearable tech is nothing new. As anticipation builds - and rumors fly - over Apple's hypothetical iWatch, wearable tech's successes show us what Apple is targeting.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor on

Man, the toolmaker, has been wearing technology for tens of thousands of years. Tanning, weaving, dyeing, and tattooing are all ancient "wearable" technologies.

Successful modern wearable technologies include:

  • Eyeglasses 
  • Hearing aids 
  • Watches: Pocket to wrist 
  • Headphones/headsets 
  • Prosthetics 
  • Implants: pacemakers, stents, joints 
  • Keys and keychain gadgets: tools, games, flashlights

And lately, some fitness monitors.

These widely adopted wearables give the outlines of what people will and will not put up with, as well as the reasons they choose to do so.

Health and sensory augmentation are the two biggest motivators. Organization (watches) and convenience (headsets and keychain gadgets) are also popular.

With many, the status of the device is also important. Eyeglass frames range from $30 to over $800, and any will hold lenses in front of your eyes.

And don't forget watches. The average watch worldwide sells for $5. But you can spend $20,000 or more on one that is no more accurate.

The Apple method

If you look at the iPhone, what was original? The size, shape, touchscreen, and apps were all on the Palm Pilot. Color screens were common on feature phones. Music players were common.

What Apple did differently was an intuitive user interface, sensors for light, orientation and proximity, some well-done mobile apps, and the care with which the whole product was put together. It was the iPhone's level of integration and ease of use, years of work by smart designers, which made it a worldwide phenomenon.

Jony Ive's design team has no doubt studied the parameters of successful wearable tech in great depth, augmented by rigorous testing. They've also invested in advanced sensor technology, software to use it, and new fabrication techniques — liquid metal, sapphire — to build something that is not only functional but, equally important, desirable.

The challenges

Wrist-based products are nothing new. But the most successful have been single-function — time of day — because of real estate limitations (consider the geeky Casio G-Shock).

However limited a wristlet's visual bandwidth may be, it is well positioned to monitor key vital signs, sleep and activity. The killer app offers data that people — for example, athletes and the chronically at risk (diabetics and hypertensives) — need or want. The rest depends on what sensors Apple is able to embed in the unit.

The Storage Bits take

History tells us that a wrist device that give us visual information isn't likely to be successful. We read email on phones, not wrists.

Most wearable technology to date has either extended our senses, improved our communications, and/or functioned as a social status indicator, like jewelry. Apple will be shooting to fulfill all three.

As with the iPhone, they'll get some things very right and others not. But Apple is in this effort for the long haul.

Given the fact that America spends an absurd amount of money for mediocre health outcomes, Apple has a huge opportunity to improve our dysfunctional health care. Let's hope they have as big effect on health as they have on music and telecoms.

Comments welcome, of course. What would you most like the iWatch to do for your health?

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