Wearable technology, or wearables, is the next frontier of personal computing and stands to revolutionize not only how we take care of our health but also how we live and work. Like the laptop, tablet and smartphone before it, wearables are quickly becoming commonplace among consumers from using basic activity trackers that count steps and calories burned, to clothing with sensors woven into the fabric to detect the body’s vital signs like a second skin.

Wearables of all kinds are increasing in demand. There were 500,000 smartwatches sold in 2013 and an expected 5 million to ship in 2014. ABI research found 30 million ‘wireless health devices’ were shipped in 2012 and by 2017 predicts 170 million will be sold, growing at an average rate of 41 percent per year.

Financially, worldwide spending on wearables will hit $1.4bn in 2013 and grow to $19bn by 2019. Research by the University of London found that 71 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Brits said wearable technology has “improved their health and fitness.”

Activity trackers including Fitbug, Fitbit, Jawbone, BodyMedia and Nike Fuelband are helping people with their health and fitness goals by providing real time information on their movement and diet.

The big players in the wearables space

Nike’s CEO Mark Parker realizes the importance of technology to the company and said in a Fast Company interview’ “The digital and physical worlds are starting to come together more seamlessly [and] it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s coming.”

Nike isn’t the only large multinational that is investing in wearable technology however. Google with its optical head mounted display Google Glass is another large behemoth that sees the future of technology is wearable.

Google Glass

Google Glass

Glass is still going through its testing period and some commentators are skeptic about it receiving widespread consumer adoption but already it’s being trialled in the medical operating theatre allowing medical professionals to monitor a patient’s vital signs and react to changes without taking their eyes off the procedure or patient.

While Apple has yet to commit itself fully to wearables or digital health (not publicly anyway) it has certainly made a number of interesting moves that allude to it having a vested interest in both areas.

In July 2013 it made a number of hires of board experts in sensors that monitor the human body from companies like AccuVein, C8 MediSensors and Senseonics.

In November 2013, it acquired Israeli 3D sensing company PrimeSense for a reported $350m. PrimeSense operates in a number of markets including mobile and health, and is best known for licensing the hardware design and chip used in Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing system for Xbox.

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Early in 2013 Apple patents wearable sensor technology. Source: Apple Insider

A company known for style as well as substance, Apple has made two recent hires from the luxury fashion world. Former Yves Saint Laurent Group CEO, Paul Deneve, was hired in July 2013 to work on special projects with Apple CEO, Tim Cook and Burberry CEO, Angela Adrendts, will join the company in 2014 as a Senior Vice President.

While just speculation, wearables of the gadgetry kind such as wrist watches and activity trackers, Apple has the skills and heritage to make something people will proudly wear. Clothing is an entirely new industry for the company and the hire of these two luxury-clothing heavyweights may be a move in the direction of technology and fashion collide, or what has been aptly titled smart clothing.

Smart clothing

Using wearables such as wrist devices or head mounted displays require you to get in to the habit of wearing them. In the not too distant future remembering to put your wearable device on may be a thing of the past as new companies look to introduce health sensors in to items we already wear such as underwear, t-shirts and socks.

OMsignal makes clothing with embedded sensors that continuously track the wearer’s biometrics to monitor ECG, heart rate, breathing and activity, and displays the data on an app on their smartphone.

First Warning Systems is a breast health screening bra which separates healthy from unhealthy breast tissue by using a series of sensors embedded in the cups that monitor the breasts by alerting the wearer of temperature changes found in growing tumours. Three clinical trials by the maker, involving 650 women, brought results of 92 percent accuracy of benign, abnormal and suspected abnormalities. Routine mammograms have shown to be 70 percent accurate.

First Warning Systems breast health screening bra

First Warning Systems breast health screening bra

While the First Warning Systems bra may not be ready to buy over the counter just yet, technology of this kind is an indication of what’s to come from consumer clothing. Economies of scale will ensure that the sensor technology will become cheap and inclusion of such technology in to clothing will be at an affordable cost.

Since clothes don’t last forever, users will be able to simply sync a new item of clothing with their smartphone via wireless technology such as Bluetooth and carry on where the old item of clothing left off.

Sensor enabled clothing isn’t always for the more serious issues of cancer detection however and numerous companies have developed smart clothing designed to help people improve their fitness or sport of choice.

Sensoria Fitness Socks are, according to its website, “infused with textile sensors and paired with an electronic anklet that not only tracks steps, speed, calories, altitude and distance but goes well beyond that to track cadence, foot landing technique and weight distribution on the foot as you walk and run.”

Smart socks that you can throw in the washing machine and dryer

Smart socks that you can throw in the washing machine and dryer

Athos is a US start-up which makes connected wearable workout clothing which has sensors throughout that monitor muscle exertion from the chest, shoulders, arms, back, quads, hamstrings and glutes, plus heart rate and breathing. The module insert transmits the data over Bluetooth to a smartphone. This is where fitness wearables become more that just tracking daily activity and provide thorough data on variables important to the dedicated enthusiast or professional.

The Athos wearable sensor

The Athos wearable sensor

The Future of Wearables

We really are just at the early forefront of wearable technology and today’s crop of wearables will be seen as primitive compared to what the future holds. The term ‘wearables’ will become obsolete as technology embeds its way in to every item of clothing unobtrusively and at collecting data passively. This won’t be without problems however and the path to mainstream adoption may take some time before it is fully accepted, much like technologies before it; ecommerce, social networking and online dating to name a few.

Lots of new innovative and downright bizarre wearable devices and clothing will be introduced, many of which will fail. It is likely a big multinational such as Nike, Apple and the rest will have the financial backing, R&D facilities and marketing clout to really push the concept of wearables in to the mainstream. The start up scene however will be where the true innovation lies and subscribers to the crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo will be the first to see small companies capturing the imagination and pushing the boundaries of what wearables can and will be capable of.