TORONTO – There are billions of dollars riding on 2015 being the year of wearable technology.
The release of Apple’s long-awaited Watch has been promised for next year and while smart-watches have not yet captured the mainstream market’s imagination, Apple could change that overnight.
Wearable tech will also allow consumers to don a headset to look around in virtual worlds, use a heartbeat-reading wristband to pay for purchases, and strap on an armband to control a computer or drone with a wave.
“Technology is beginning to wrap around us and cater to our needs, we’re moving more toward a natural experience, whether that is through motion and gesture — moving your hands through the air and being able to have those movements tracked — or from a neural capacity and being able to use your brain to control an experience,” says Helen Papagiannis, who researches augmented reality and virtual reality trends.
At the forefront of the looming virtual reality trend is the company Oculus VR, which in 2012 launched a crowdfunding campaign to get its Oculus Rift headset put into production. This March, the company shocked the tech world by announcing it had been acquired by Facebook in a US$2 billion deal. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called it “a new communication platform.”
“We have a lot more to do on mobile, but at this point we feel we’re in a position where we can start focusing on what platforms will come next to enable even more useful, entertaining and personal experiences,” Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.
“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the Internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together. I can’t wait to start working with the whole team at Oculus to bring this future to the world, and to unlock new worlds for all of us.”
When a user puts on the Oculus Rift — which looks like a very large futuristic set of goggles — they see a video screen that simulates the experience of being in a virtual world. Turn your head and the video being played by the Oculus responds smoothly as if you were actually there.
“I think it’s going to have a huge impact. The minute you see it you know this world is going to change profoundly, it’s incredible, it’s absolutely incredible,” says Thomas Wallner, founder of the digital production company Deep 360.
In tandem with the recently aired TV documentary “The Polar Sea,” Wallner helped create a virtual reality companion piece that can be experienced on devices like the Oculus Rift. In one scene, the user is set on a beach in the Arctic while the northern lights glow overhead.
“This medium has the ability to fascinate and convert people upon contact,” Wallner says. “It’s an experience that is entirely new, it breaks the fourth wall for the first time in the history of any medium and people are just fascinated by it and enthralled and awed.”
It’s expected that virtual reality headgear will eventually connect with sensors connected to other parts of the body.
A Canadian company, Thalmic Labs, is working on gesture-based technology that isn’t yet connected to virtual reality, but can be used for controlling computers, mobile devices and drones with a wave.
“Science fiction (movies) got one thing right, they got gesture-control technology kind of mapped out and figured out,” says Chris Goodine, developer evangelist for the Kitchener, Ont.-based company.
The company’s Myo armband, which it plans to ship in the new year, uses sensors to detect arm motion and muscle activity. The Myo can use arm gestures to flip through pages in a presentation, play games, or control music players. In one of its most impressive demos, the Myo is used to launch and control a drone.
“The founders were thinking about interfaces of the future, how would we control the next type of computer, the next smartphone, the next thing — whatever that is,” says Scott Greenberg, who works in developer relations for Thalmic Labs.
“It’s definitely not going to be the keyboard and mouse, it’s likely not going to be a touchscreen, it’s going to be something that’s very intuitive, very easy, and natural for people.”
Another Canadian-made wearable device expected in 2015 is the Nymi wristband, which reads a user’s heartbeat and uses it as a form of password.
“Your cardiac rhythm, your electrocardiogram, is a unique biometric like a fingerprint. A person’s electrocardiogram is a unique biometric because the shape of your heart and the position of your heart is unique and that expresses itself in this electrical signal,” says founder Karl Martin of the company Nymi, which was until recently known as Bionym.
“We put recognition technology in the wristband so it works for you but no one else.”
MasterCard invested in the Toronto-based company this year and is partnering with Royal Bank in a pilot project involving the Nymi.
Shoppers with a Nymi will be able to pay for purchases with a tap of their wristband, in the same way that some credit cards and smartphones use near-field communications (NFC) for transactions.
The Nymi could also be used to unlock mobile devices without having to type in a password, or access secure locations in place of entering a security code, says Martin.
“If you think about it, how many times a day do you have to prove who you are to an entity? How many times do you have to unlock your phone? It’s crazy, you keep this thing in your pocket and every time you take it out you have to prove to it you’re the one who should be accessing it and it’s not someone else who picked it up,” Martin says.
“Over and over in your day you have to prove who you are and if you add all of that up it leads to bad experiences, lost time, wasted energy, in terms of trying to remember passwords and PINs.”
Martin knows many companies will be competing for a place on consumers’ wrists, so Nymi is open to integrating its technology into other products.
“Our philosophy is not about necessarily us owning the space on your wrist or owning the hardware, long-term we do see our capability could be integrated into third-party wearables,” he says.
“The reason why we made another wristband is because our view of the wearables space is it’s still really early.”