Wearable Computing: It's the Data Exchange That Matters

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 5/15/2014 | 18 comments

David Wagner

Wearables are taking a beating right now, because of the rather tepid response in the market. But the era of Wearables 2.0 is on the horizon, and it already holds lessons -- not only for people in that market, but for anyone thinking about the Internet of Things. At the crux of Wearables 2.0 is the data exchange between user and product.

The wearable devices with the most penetration right now are exercise-related ones, mostly wristbands and pedometers. The knock on them (and why Nike has had to lay off many people in its wearables division) has always been that no one wants to spend a lot of money on a standalone piece of hardware. There's a good reason for that: For the most part, early-generation wearables only record data. They don't exchange it.

This data collection is great for scientists. Health researchers are getting larger datasets than ever, and they're using the sets to gain deep insights into what low-level activity means for our overall health. Until recently, scientists could track high-level activity rather easily. For lower-level activity, they had to rely on surveys.

All that data collection only goes so far for those shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a wristband measuring their activity. So a new generation of wearables is giving data back to the users

Here's one example: Jawbone, which makes a wearable fitness band, has joined forces with Automatic, which makes software that tracks cars. They're creating a software layer for the exercise band that does a surprisingly effective thing: It tells how much weight the user would have lost by walking to a destination instead of driving there. The band can tell whether the user is in the car (by measure the speed the user is traveling). And it measures the distance traveled in steps, so the user can see the effect of being more active.

That product, specifically, sounds pretty miserable to me. All I need is more guilt for driving everywhere. Now, imagine if these companies also partnered with a company that told you how much carbon you used for the same trip, along with how many trees you would need to plant to make up for it. More guilt. Imagine if the device also tracked the gas you used and the money you could have saved for your vacation instead. More guilt. And imagine if it constantly told you how close we were to depleting the world's oil supply, and how much nearer you brought us to peak oil. More guilt.

All that guilt adds up to the kind of information that may prompt people to change their lifestyle. Maybe they start walking, or they buy a Tesla, or they get solar panels. Whatever. The point is that, suddenly, a product that did one thing (track data) now does a more important thing (exchange data).

Now, imagine the same data exchange concept applied to a shirt. Don't we all have a lucky shirt? I wear the same shirt to play softball every week. I'm convinced I play better in that shirt. What if my clothes compiled my batting average in every shirt I wore to play softball? Or what if we applied it instead to the game of love, and the clothes told me how often I got a second date when I wore a lucky shirt on a first date?

The need for such user-centric data exchange isn't limited to wearable computing. It could take form in any Internet of Things device. Early IoT devices are being designed to do one thing (smart thermostats that track a home's temperature, for example). The 2.0 move is to pull datasets to contextualize and exchange data and processes to add value.

If you're entering the Internet of Things arena, you can't stop at data gathering or performing a process. That's only the beginning. You need to think about how to provide and contextualize data to help improve users' lives. If you aren't doing that, you're just offering an expensive, single-use product.

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