The week of September 14, 2014

The problem with wearable tech

By Chris Osterndorf

Depending on who you ask, 2014 is the year of wearable technology. Last week, Apple moved to give that claim some legitimacy, with its reveal of the Apple Watch (a.k.a. the “iWatch”), alongside the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, immediately after which words like “revolution” were thrown around in description.

That said, for everyone ready to sign off on wearable tech as the greatest thing ever, there’s someone else who’s not buying it. It should come as no shock that the Apple Watch has already disappointed some, as is always the case when Apple unveils its much-hyped new products.

On the one hand, there is evidence that wearable tech can only be the next logical step for our gadget-obsessed world. Samsung tried to beat Apple to the punch with it last year, when it introduced its Galaxy Gear (essentially a Samsung version of the Apple Watch). Then there’s GoogleGlass, the eyewear that has never left the news, despite perhaps not catching on quite yet. Amazon is also betting on wearable tech, with launching a store devoted solely to it, and Intel has plans to invest in wearables as well.

So far, wearable tech has been put to use in everything from military outfitting to disease research, although it’s in fitness innovations that it seems to really be making its mark. Trying to peg down every advancement in wearable tech is a difficult task, however. There aren’t just bracelets and watches anymore. There are solar sundresses now. Even Pinterest has wearable tech boards.

On the other side of all this, wearable tech has not been implemented in most Americans’ lives with any regularity. It’s almost as if the discussion around wearable tech might be ahead of its time, and not in a good way. Let’s not forget that it was just a few years ago that motion control technology was touted as the next big feature coming to every American home, a prediction that, for the moment, remains unfulfilled. Of course, with wearable tech, part of the problem is simply that many find it it ugly and unfashionable, although this is beingworkedon.

Sadly, as the attacks on Google Glass wearer’s illustrate, wearable tech also makes one a walking target. After getting assaulted for sporting Google Glass, Business Insider’s Kyle Russell lamented that “the easiest way to spot a techie is to look for the guy or gal equipped with the kind of ridiculous gadgets we’re always trying out.” In some ways, this represents a strange standoff in current culture—too much technology, and you’re a source of ridicule, but not enough, and you’re a source of fear.

There’s a strange standoff in current culture—too much technology, and you’re a source of ridicule, but not enough, and you’re a source of fear.

That’s what’s really holding wearable tech back more than anything: fear. And without a doubt, this makes a lot of sense, as there is always fear inherent in new technology. Remember, the Apple Watch announcement is coming on the heels of the company’s recent privacy disaster.

But specifically, it is the fear of being tracked and monitored that has made people cautious of wearable tech, to the point where some companies are going in the opposite direction. British clothing line the Affair have just designed a moveable pocket to prevent users’ cellphones from cataloging their every move. And as Forbes’ Connie Guglielmo pointed out, “Google Glass augmented-reality spectacles, which can record video discreetly, have already been banned from some restaurants, casinos, movie theaters, strip clubs and hospitals.”

However, the main question tied to wearables and smart clothing isn’t whether they’ll be able to track us. The answer is yes, they will, and they can; sooner or later, everyone who is actively involved in the Internet age must admit that modern living means giving up some amount of privacy. The main question is who’s going to be doing the tracking, and how much easier will wearable tech make it to monitor us in this already surveillance-prone society?

That some clothing companies have started to put radio frequency ID (RFID) tags into their items has prompted the most paranoid to talk about government spying. This is getting ahead of ourselves, but other concerns about wearable tech are pretty warranted. It’s understandable after all why some parents wouldn’t want some unseen force tracking their children, even if the reasoning behind this force is about safety.

For now though, the chief concerns with wearable technology (like with most technology) stem from anxiety surrounding information security. In one of the most alarmist reactions to the Apple Watch, Time’s Lev Grossman claimed: “Wearables will make your physical self visible to the virtual world in the form of information, an indelible digital body-print, and that information is going to behave like any other information behaves these days. It will be copied and circulated. It will go places you don’t expect. People will use that information to track you and market to you.”

Tatiana Melnik, an attorney who works in healthcare IT and data security echoed this sentiment at TechRepublic, telling Senior Editor Teena Hammond, “A lot of the devices now are GPS enabled. That means you’re giving a third-party company the ability to track your every move.”

Remember, the Apple Watch announcement is coming on the heels of the company’s recent privacy disaster.

But obviously smartphones have GPS, too. What makes a feature like this scarier for wearable tech is the way that it links to smartphones and other devices, and whether, with the way companies like Apple are pushing wearables lately, security between these two platforms is going to be up to par.

“It’s a typical technology development scenario,” Brian Brown, VP of technology and security for the consulting company RenewData, told Hammond in the aforementioned article. “You have speed to market with the technology, then you have to balance your risk and cost of developing that technology and all those factors combined into a security profile of a device. Most of the wearables are not standalone devices. A lot of them back into a mobile phone of some sort, so you have other ways to compromise that data.”

The next issue with wearables is about implementation. Keep in mind that a huge selling point for this technology is supposed to be its ability to scan your body in an attempt to make sure you are as fit as possible. But what happens when your smartwatch leaks what it finds, and your insurance rates go up? As Hammond astutely put it, “There are a lot of people who are maybe okay with sharing … their heart rate with their doctor, but not with an advertiser or a pharmacy.”

Guglielmo relayed one particularly disconcerting instance of this type of practice. She wrote, “Grocery chain Safeway has a voluntary program for nonunion employees that charges a heftier premium if they fail certain aspects of a biometric screening test, with their drop in health costs being hailed in Congress.” She also quotes privacy advocate Pam Dixon (who has testified before Congress on data brokers) as saying, “I’m really hoping to get some standards set for these guys. … Consumers need to have a really clear choice about information that’s shared outside the company, even if it’s an employer program.”

There’s a weirder, half-subconscious level of fear that wearable tech is birthing too, and it has less to do with being monitored, than with the way we’re being monitored. Lisa Calhoun at Wired reckons that wearable tech’s struggling image has something to do with the idea that “most people won’t buy something in the present simply because it’s from the future.”

But if anything, it goes beyond that. Guglielmo took the title of her Forbes article, “The Case Against Wearables, Or Why We Won’t All Look Like The Borg This Year,” from chief technology officer of Deloitte Consulting, Bill Briggs. As Briggs joked, “We’re a ways away from the Borgification of the consumer.” His reference here refers to the “Borg” race in the Star Trek universe, a people who became soulless through their physical integration with technology.

The main question is who’s going to be doing the tracking, and how much easier will wearable tech make it to monitor us in this already surveillance-prone society?

The wearable tech blog Smartiplex claims that “there was a time, maybe 2 decades or so ago, when people associated wearable technology with surreal, movie-like creations—cyborgs, Terminator-like machines and so on.” Except evidence suggests people still associate wearable tech with a surreal kind of fear towards the future. Outside Online’s Joe Jackson observed as much back in January, when he wrote, “From awesome fitness bracelets like the LG Lifeband to the insane Lady Gaga flying outfit, I’m left with the question, ‘How far is wearable technology going to go? Have we predicted our own cyborg future with movies like RoboCop?’”

Most terrifying of all is the assertion by Grossman that “this isn’t just a new product, this is technology attempting to colonize our bodies.”

Grossman’s viewpoint presents a sort impending uncanny valley scenario, wherein technology is now longer tracking and monitoring us, because there’s no us left to track and monitor; we’ve become a part of the technology itself.

There are days when it does feel like the lines between humans and technology are being crossed in unsettling ways. For example, there’s a German company who’s designed an app for Google Glass to detect human emotion. Granted, a lot of this sounds like science fiction right now, but science fiction does have a longstanding relationship with real technology. Consider, the slightly beautiful, fairly haunting Samsung ad campaign, displaying futuristic depictions of watches through the ages (fittingly scored with a typically melancholy tune from LCD Soundsystem) up to Galaxy Gear, the culmination of all these images.

Wearable tech continues to seem more at home in movies than on anyone in real life. The 1984-ish quality to it is palpable. But like any new technology, we ultimately have to take the good with the bad when it comes to wearables. They’re in their infancy, and we don’t fundamentally know where they’ll lead yet.

Before we get too excited, it’s worth recalling that the year 1984 has long come and passed, and we’re still here. In the meantime, all we can do is to try and keep each other safe through the raging technological storm. If we can’t at least do that, we might as well give up and let ourselves turn into the Borg right now.

Photo by Becky Stern via Fickr | Remix by Max Fleishman