Invasion of the body snatchers: wearable devices are coming for you

A place in your pocket is no longer enough for mobile gadget makers: now, they want your body.

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A place in your pocket is no longer enough for mobile gadget makers: now, they want your body.

Just last week, Google trotted out Android Wear, its first big push to extend the dominant smartphone OS to wearable devices. The first Android Wear device, an LG smartwatch, was also announced and more are sure to come. They'll add to scores of wearables that have been unveiled this year, starting at International CES in January.

The devices purport to improve lives -- even to help save them -- but not everyone is rushing to buy them. In this untested market, the many unanswered questions include concerns about user privacy and what form-factors will be comfortable and attractive enough for long-term use.

Big Business

It's easy to see what vendors are getting excited about. If wearables take off the way some predict they will, their market potential is huge, and the space is still wide open, with no dominant player.

The wearables business is expected to be worth more than US$1.5 billion in 2014, almost double its value in 2013, according to an October report by Juniper Research. The U.K. market research company said 2014 will be "the watershed year" for wearables.

Vendors' rush to corner the market was perhaps best explained by Kaz Hirai, CEO of Sony, while speaking at CES.

"You have only two wrists and one head; you can't wear 10 different products," he said. "Once you secure someone's wrist with a particular product, they'll usually stick with it."

At CES, Sony introduced "Core," a fitness and activity tracker that links to an Android app to provide users a snapshot of their day: steps taken, distance traveled, GPS maps of the route they took, and even the songs they listened to.

Small Beginnings

The current boom in wearables can be traced back to around 2006 when Nike gave the pedometer a digital twist. Its small Plus device slipped into a running shoe and counted the steps taken and time elapsed on a run. The information was sent to an iPod application and to an online community where people could track and compare their workouts.

Other companies followed, and in late 2008 Fitbit attracted considerable attention with its namesake fitness tracker. It captured the imagination of many because it was small, could be worn easily and silently collected data all day long -- no matter what shoes you were wearing.

What's more, it didn't require a constant connection to a smartphone. It could be worn at work, at home or at the gym and uploaded the data once in range of a docking station. The device matched well with the constant connectivity of the smartphone era that was just beginning.

The Second Wave

Fitbit followed up with additional products. Its latest, the $130 Fitbit Force, is a wristband-type device with a small digital display. It's still based on the concept of step-counting, but the app extrapolates additional data including distance traveled, minutes of activity and calories burned. An altimeter estimates the number of steps climbed. If users keep it on while they sleep, it will even attempt to measure sleep quality.

Jawbone, a San Francisco-based speaker and headphone maker, sells the Up 24, a $150 wristband "lifestyle tracker" that works with an iPhone app. An accelerometer measures activity based on the number of steps taken each day.

Another popular tracker, the $199 wristwatch-style Basis B1, packs several sensors on the back that keep contact with the skin. These add blood-flow, heart rate and perspiration to the usual measurements taken.

Nike has improved its device and currently sells the Fuelband SE. The $150 wristband tracks an entire day of activity and measures performance against user-defined goals. It's set up through a companion iPhone app.

Not to be left out, Adidas is rivaling Nike with the Smart Run, which is also worn like a wristwatch. It has a color display, versus the monochrome B1, and provides information on workouts, including distance traveled and lap times. An accelerometer measures stride, and the device can link via Bluetooth to an optional heart-rate monitor. It will even play your workout music.

As innocuous as fitness trackers may appear, not everyone is comfortable having their every move, and sleep-wake cycles, uploaded to become yet another form of very personal "big data" stored and potentially used in as yet unforeseen ways by third parties.

Next page: Apple on the horizon

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