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Your watch is your personal trainer. Your headband is making an action documentary of your life. Your bracelet congratulates you on your daily water intake and suggests eating more power foods. This isn’t a page from a science fiction novel, it’s the next big thing in tech: making computing less about smartphones, and more about being a smart—human. 150 people gathered in San Francisco recently to try on some technology.
On the surface, it’s just like any other tech conference. People exchanging business cards, drinking lots of coffee, and constantly checking their phones. But they’re not just checking their phones.
They’re dressed like this because this is the Launch Wearable Tech Conference. That’s right, wearable tech. And it isn’t just Google Glass.
Damien Miller is the co-founder of a company called Bass Aware.
“We built a subwoofer for your headphones. It’s a vest that you wear and it plays all of the low end frequencies that your headphones can’t replicate. it does it with what is called a tactile transducer on your back so the way that it does this, it vibrates on your back so it plays low end frequencies but the people standing next to you can’t hear a thing. You need to try it,” Miller tells me.
As I wrap the vest around my back and plug my headphones in, I can feel vibrations all along my back as the electronic music is pumping in my headphones. For just a moment I feel like I’m at Burning Man. Or maybe, I am Burning Man.
Wearable Technology isn’t technically new. The year 1975 brought us the Pulsar Calculator watch. In 1979, the Sony Walkman came on the scene, and people could suddenly wear their music wherever they went.
But now, most wearable tech isn’t just for entertainment. Instead, it’s for tracking. And the subject is you. This phenomenon even has a name: the Quantified Self. Nadeem Kassam, founder of a wearable health monitor company called Basis, tells me that, “in a few years it’ll be unthinkable to think back a few years that we had no information on our body, our bodies state, our sleep patterns, our heart how we were doing in the moment.”
He’s a big believer that all this tracking will help us change our health and lifestyle habits over time, and it won’t seem weird for long.
“Just a few years ago it would be ridiculous to think that we would have a super computer in our pocket that would connect us to anyone at anytime or any piece of information in the moment, now we all have iphones,” says Kassam.
He shows me the Basis Band. It looks like a soft rubber watch. But on the back, there’s a bunch of small silver sensors that track things like your heart rate, your temperature, how many steps you take a day, how much you sweat. Right now, it’s a way to monitor your workout. But Kazam tells me that in the future, we’ll be able to measure our emotions with these little sweat sensors.
Knowing your heart rate and how many calories you burn in a day, by itself, probably isn’t going to change your life. But plug into an app that shows you patterns in your habits over time, and the Quantified Self promises that the the truth will set you free. Still, there’s something uncomfortable about it.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously said that the company’s policy “is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” Wearable Tech Makes that line a little blurrier.
“These things are very creepy, they invade people's personal space and they really interfere with intimacy,” Jason Calacanis, the founder of the conference, tells me.
He describes himself as a techno-optimist, but that doesn’t mean that he thinks all wearable tech is good.
“We have to figure out if it is adding to our lives or taking away, and frequently it is doing both concurrently and wearable computers are constantly on and in a position to be taking photos and audio are massive offenders,” he says.
Calacanis tells me about a gadget called Narrative, a life-logging camera. It’s a small square, brooch-like tile you wear clipped to the front of your shirt or jacket, with a small hole in the corner for a camera lens. It takes a photo every 30 seconds. And it’s always on.
In fact, as I stand across from Narrative founder Martin Källström, who is sporting a Narrative as we talk, I realize he’s recording our whole interaction. It’s okay that he’s recording me, because I’m also recording him with my mic. But in everyday life, even he admits that the camera is controversial but he argues it’s really useful in special cases:
“Someone emailed us to say her father came back from the Iraq war with a memory loss, so he can form new memories,” Källström says. “They can include him in the dinner discussions of what they did during the day.”
Källström’s argument is that wearing a camera is less disruptive than taking out a camera and pointing at something every time we want to capture a moment. But I like to opt in to my experiences, and make a choice about whether or not they’re documented. Because once they’re documented, they’re not necessarily private -- personal data has a way of getting out.
But before I put my tin foil hat on, I find Sean Bonner. He works for Safecast, an organization that started mapping radiation levels and building sensor networks after the earthquake and nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan.
“It was really started as a reaction to either government or industry kind of failing to provide that data and the community sort of stepping up to take care of those problems and provide a solution.” Bonner says.
Bonner is wearing all black and is holding a bag full of devices with their wiry guts exposed: cables, circuit boards and knobs--like a radio in a transparent case. These are wearable geiger counters, made to check radioactivity.
“People take them and attach them to bikes or backpacks when they go hiking, carry them around in a bag all day,” says Bonner. “Then they go back and publish what kind of levels they were exposed to during the day and provide that data for other people as well.”
To listen, click the audio player above.
City Visions: December 3, 2012