As of 2015, the idea that wearables will one day replace smartphones seems crazy. But mark my words, you'll be itching to ditch your smartphone by the time you finish this article.
Before we continue, it’s important to understand what we mean by wearables. In the modern context, a wearable is any device that can be worn on the human body instead of carried on your person, like a smartphone or laptop.
After our past discussions about topics like Virtual Assistants (VAs) and the Internet of Things (IoT) throughout our Future of the Internet series, you’re probably wondering how wearables will play a role in how humanity engages with the web; but first, let’s chat about why today’s wearables aren’t up to snuff.
Why wearables haven’t taken off
As of 2015, wearables have found a home among a small, early adopter niche of health-obsessed "quantified selfers" and overprotective helicopter parents. But when it comes to the public at large, it’s safe to say that wearables have yet to take the world by storm—and the majority of people who’ve tried using a wearable have some idea why.
To summarize, the following are the most common complaints hounding wearables these days:
- They’re expensive;
- They can be complicated to learn and use;
- Battery life is unimpressive and adds to the number of items we need to recharge each night;
- Most require a smartphone nearby to provide Bluetooth web access, meaning they aren’t truly standalone products;
- They aren’t fashionable or don’t mix with a variety of different outfits;
- They offer a limited number of uses;
- Most have limited interaction with the environment around them;
- And worst of all, they don’t offer a substantial improvement to the user’s lifestyle compared to a smartphone, so why bother?
Given this laundry list of drawbacks, it’s safe to say that wearables as a product class are still in their infancy stage. And given this list, it shouldn’t be hard to guess which features manufacturers will need to design to transform wearables from a nice-to-have item to a must-have product.
- Future wearables must use energy sparingly to last multiple days of regular use.
- Wearables must connect to the web independently, interact with the world around them, and offer their users a variety of useful information to improve their daily lives.
- And due to their intimate proximity to our body (they are usually worn instead of carried), wearables must be fashionable.
When future wearables achieve these qualities and offer these services, their prices and learning curve will no longer be an issue—they will have transitioned into a necessity for the modern connected consumer.
So how exactly will wearables make this transition and what impact will they have on our lives?
Wearables before the Internet of Things
It’s best to understand the future of wearables by considering their functionality in two micro-eras: before IoT and after IoT.
Before IoT becomes commonplace in the average person’s life, wearables—like the smartphones they’re destined to replace—will be blind to much of the outside world. As a result, their utility will be limited to very specific tasks or act as an extension to a parent device (usually a person’s smartphone).
Between 2015 and 2025, the technology behind wearables will gradually become cheaper, energy efficient, and more versatile. As a result, more sophisticated wearables will start seeing applications in a variety of distinct niches. Examples include use in:
Factories: Where workers wear “smart hardhats” that allow management to remotely keep tabs on their whereabouts and activity level, as well as ensuring their safety by warning them away from unsafe or overly mechanized workplace areas. Advanced versions would include, or be accompanied by, smart glasses that overlay useful information about the worker’s surroundings (i.e. augmented reality). In fact, it’s rumored that Google Glass version two is being redesigned for this very purpose.
Outdoor workplaces: Workers who build and maintain exterior utilities or operate in outdoor mines or forestry operations—professions that require active use of two gloved hands that make regular use of smartphones impractical—will wear wristbands or badges (connected to their smartphones) that would keep them constantly connected to the head office and their local work teams.
Military and domestic emergency personnel: In high-stress crisis situations, constant communication between a team of soldiers or emergency workers (police, paramedics, and firemen) is vital, as well as immediate and complete access crisis relevant information. Smart glasses and badges will allow hands-free communication between team members, alongside a steady stream of situation/context relevant intel from HQ, aerial drones, and other sources.
These three examples highlight the simple, practical, and useful applications single purpose wearables can have in professional settings. In fact, research has proven that wearables increase workplace productivity and performance, but all these uses pale in comparison to how wearables will evolve once IoT hits the scene.
Wearables after the Internet of Things
IoT is a network designed to connect physical objects to the web primarily through miniature-to-microscopic sensors added or built into the products or environments you interact with. (Watch a visual explanation about this from Estimote.) When these sensors become widespread, everything around you will start broadcasting data—data that’s meant to engage with you as you interact with the environment around you, be it your home, office, or city street.
At first, these “smart products” will engage with you through your future smartphone. For example, as you walk through your home, lights and air conditioning will automatically turn on or off based on what room you (or more accurately, your smartphone) are in. Assuming you install speakers and mics throughout your house, your music or podcast will travel with you as you walk room to room, and all the while your VA will remain only a voice command away to assist you.
But there’s also a negative to all this: As more and more of your surroundings become connected and spit out a constant torrent of data, people will begin to suffer extreme data and notification fatigue. I mean, we already get annoyed when we pull our smartphones out of our pockets after the 50th buzz of texts, IMs, emails, and social media notifications—imagine if all the items and environments around you started messaging you as well. Madness! This future notification apocalypse (2023-28) has the potential to turn people off IoT completely unless a more elegant solution is engineered.
Around this same time, new computer interfaces will enter the market. As explained in our Future of Computers series, holographic and gesture-based interfaces—similar to those popularized by the sci-fi film, Minority Report (watch clip)—will begin rising in popularity, starting the slow decline of the keyboard and mouse, as well as the now ubiquitous interface of swiping fingers against glass surfaces (i.e. smartphones, tablets, and touchscreens in general).
Given the whole theme of this article, it’s not hard to guess what’s meant to replace smartphones and bring sanity to our future over connected IoT world.
The smartphone killer: A wearable to rule them all
The public's perception of wearables will begin to evolve after the release of the foldable smartphone. An early model can be viewed in the video below. Essentially, the bendable tech behind this future phones will blur the lines between what is a smartphone and what is a wearable.
By the early 2020s, when these phones burst onto the market in droves, they will merge the smartphones computing and battery power with the wearable's aesthetic appeal and practical uses. But these bendable smartphone-wearable hybrids are just the beginning.
The following is a description of a yet-to-be-invented wearable device that could one day replace smartphones entirely. The real version may have more features than this alpha wearable, or it may do the same tasks using different technology, but make no bones about it, what you’re about to read will exist within 15 years or less.
In all likelihood, the future alpha wearable we’re all going to own will be a wristband, roughly the same size as a thick watch. This wristband will come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors based on the in vogue fashion of the day—higher end wristbands will even change their color and shape with a simple voice command. Here’s how these amazing wearables will be used:
Security and authentication. It’s no secret that our lives are becoming more digital with each passing year. Over the next decade, your online identity will be as, or possibly even more important to you than your real life identity (that’s already the case for some kids today). Over time, government and health records, bank accounts, the majority of digital property (documents, images, videos, etc.), social media accounts, and pretty much all other accounts for various services will be connected through a single account.
This will make our overly connected lives much easier to manage, but it will also make us an easier target for serious identity fraud. That’s why companies are investing in a variety of new ways to authenticate identity in a way that doesn’t depend on a simple and easily breakable password. For example, today’s phones are beginning to employ fingerprint scanners to allow users to unlock their phones. Eye retina scanners are slowly being introduced for the same function. Unfortunately, these protection methods are still a hassle since they require us to unlock our phones to access our information.
That’s why future forms of user authentication will not require a login or unlocking at all—they will work to authenticate your identity passively and constantly. Already, Google’s project Abacus verifies a phone’s owner by the way they type and swipe at their phone. But it won’t stop there.
Should the threat of online identity theft become severe enough, DNA authentication may become the new standard. Yes, I realize this sounds creepy, but consider this: DNA sequencing (DNA reading) technology is becoming faster, cheaper, and more compact year after year, to the point that it will eventually fit inside a phone. Once this happens, the following will be possible:
- Passwords and fingerprints will become obsolete since smartphones and wristbands will painlessly and frequently test your unique DNA every time you try to access their services;
- These devices will be programmed to your DNA exclusively when purchased and self-destruct if tampered with (no, I don’t mean with explosives), thereby becoming a low-value petty theft target;
- Likewise, all your accounts, from government to banking to social media can be updated to only permit access via your DNA authentication;
- Should a breach of your online identity ever occur, reclaiming your identity will be simplified by visiting a government office and getting a quick DNA scan.
These various forms of effortless and constant user authentication will make digital payments through wristbands incredibly easy, but this feature’s most useful advantage is that it will allow you to securely access your personal web accounts from any web-enabled device. Basically, that means you can log in to any public computer and it will feel like you’re logging into your home computer.
Interaction with Virtual Assistants. These wristbands will make it that much easier to interact with your future VA. For example, your wristband’s constant user authentication feature will mean your VA will always know that you’re its owner. That means instead of constantly pulling out your phone and typing in your password to access your VA, you will simply raise your wristband near your mouth and speak to your VA, making the overall interaction faster and more natural.
Moreover, advanced wristbands will allow VA's to constantly monitor your movement, pulse, and sweat to track activities. Your VA will know whether you're exercising, if you’re drunk, and how well you’re sleeping, allowing it to make recommendations or take action based on your body’s current state.
Interaction with Internet of Things. The wristband’s constant user authentication feature will also allow your VA to automatically communicate your activities and preferences to the future Internet of Things.
For example, if you're having a migraine, your VA can tell your home to close the blinds, turn off the lights, and silence the music and future home notifications. Alternatively, if you’ve slept in, your VA can notify your home to open your bedroom’s window blinds, blare Black Sabbath’s Paranoid over the house speakers (assuming you’re into classics), tell your coffee maker to ready a fresh brew, and have an Uber self-driving car appear outside your apartment’s lobby just as you rush out the door.
Web browsing and social features. So how exactly is a wristband supposed to do all the other things you use your smartphone for? Things like browsing the web, scrolling through social media, taking pictures, and replying to emails?
One approach these future wristbands could take is projecting a light-based or holographic screen onto your wrist or external flat surface that you can interact with, just as you would a normal smartphone. You’ll be able to browse websites, check social media, view photos, and use basic utilities—standard smartphone stuff.
That said, this won't be the most convenient option for most people. This is why the advance of wearables will likely also bring about the advance of other interface types. Already, we're seeing the faster adoption of voice search and voice dictation over traditional typing. (At Quantumrun, we love voice dictation. In fact, the first draft of this entire article was written using it!) But voice interfaces are only the beginning.
Next Gen Computer Interfaces. For those who still prefer to use a traditional keyboard or to interact with the web using two hands, these wristbands will provide access to new forms of web interfaces many of us have yet to experience. Described in more detail in our Future of Computers series, the following is an overview of how these wearables will help you interact with these new interfaces:
- Holograms. By the 2020s, the next big thing in the smartphone industry will be holograms. At first, these holograms will be simple novelties shared between your friends (like emoticons), hovering above your smartphone. Over time, these holograms will develop to project large images, dashboards, and, yes, keyboards above your smartphone, and later, your wristband. Using miniature radar technology, you’ll be able to manipulate these holograms to browse the web in a tactile way. Watch this clip for a rough understanding of what this might look like:
- Ubiquitous touchscreens. As touchscreens become thinner, durable, and inexpensive, they’ll start appearing everywhere by the early 2030s. The average table at your local Starbucks will be surfaced with a touchscreen. The bus stop outside your building will have a see-through touchscreen wall. Your neighborhood mall will have columns of touchscreen stands lined throughout its halls. Simply by pressing or waving your wristband in front of any of these ubiquitous, web-enabled touchscreens, you’ll securely access your home desktop screen and other personal web accounts.
- Smart surfaces. The ubiquitous touchscreens will give way to smart surfaces in your home, in your office, and in the environment surrounding you. By the 2040s, surfaces will present both touchscreen and holographic interfaces that your wristband will allow you to interact with (i.e. primitive augmented reality). The following clip shows what this might look like:
(Now, you might be thinking once things get this advanced, we might not even need wearables to access the web. Well, you’re right.)
Future adoption and impact of wearables
The growth of wearables will be slow and gradual, mainly because there’s so much innovation left in smartphone development. Throughout the 2020s, wearables will continue to develop in sophistication, public awareness, and breadth of applications to the point that when IoT becomes commonplace by the early 2030s, sales will begin to overtake smartphones in much the same way smartphones overtook sales of laptops and desktops during the 2000s.
In general, the impact of wearables will be to reduce the reaction time between a human’s wants or needs and the web's ability to meet these wants or needs.
As Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and current executive chairman of Alphabet, once said, “The internet will disappear.” By which he meant the web will no longer be something you constantly need to engage with through a screen, instead, like the air you breathe or the electricity that powers your home, the web will become a highly personalized, integrated part of your life.
The story of the web doesn’t end here. As we progress through our Future of the Internet series, we’ll explore how the web will begin to alter our perception of reality and maybe even promote a true global consciousness. Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense as you read on.
Future of the Internet series
Mobile Internet Reaches the Poorest Billion: Future of the Internet P1
The Next Social Web vs. Godlike Search Engines: Future of the Internet P2
Rise of the Big Data-Powered Virtual Assistants: Future of the Internet P3
Your Future Inside the Internet of Things: Future of the Internet P4
Virtual Reality and the Global Hive Mind: Future of the Internet P7
Humans not allowed. The AI-only Web: Future of the Internet P8
Geopolitics of the Unhinged Web: Future of the Internet P9