In Depth: The wearable tech that got pulses racing at CES 2014

In Depth: The wearable tech that got pulses racing at CES 2014

Look back at the best gadgetry of CES 2013 and there are clues to the technology trends that will shape the year ahead.

Last year’s show embraced gaming, with the promise of console-challenging Steam boxes from Valve, Nvidia’s Project Shield, and a Virtual Reality reboot thanks to the amazing Oculus Rift. Last year also alluded to super-smartphones with eight-core mobile processors, while 4K Ultra HD OLED screens rubbished our 1080p HD tellies.

Some tech trends are driven by manufacturers. In its press conference at this year’s CES, Samsung boldly declared 2014 to be the year of curved UHD TVs, bendable TVs and tablets. We haven’t even adopted 4K and Sharp is already touting an 8K set, while laptops are, inevitably, ever-so-slightly slimmer, lighter and longer-lasting than their predecessors.

Chances are, the biggest technology trend of 2014 will be one of the smallest. So small that you can strap it onto your wrist, pin it to your jacket, see through it, or plug it into your ears.

Wearable technology

It might not look like it, but we stand on the verge of another mobile revolution, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Apple launched the iPhone in 2007. Give it a year (maybe two) and wearable technology could be everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, and capable of far more than counting steps or guessing how well you slept last night.

Wearable technology isn’t a new idea. You might remember the Casio DataBank – a digital watch with a built-in calculator. Or the Fossil Wrist PDA. You might already own a Nike Fuelband SE, a FitBit Force or a JawBone UP. These fitness/activity trackers are the first stage in a tech trend that has captured the imagination of consumers.

A cluster of new products at CES 2014 give us a glimpse of where wearable technology is heading next and how devices are moving beyond wristbands with limited functionality. The LG Lifeband Touch, for example, has a touch-sensitive OLED display that will track how far you’ve walked, your steps taken, while keeping a digital eye on your heart rate.

LG Lifeband Touch

Yet the Lifeband Touch is more than just a fitness sensor. Like the chunky Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, it can be paired with an Android or iOS smartphone via Bluetooth to show you phone call and message alerts. You can even use it to control your music player remotely.

If the Lifeband Touch is any indication, the next wave of wrist-mounted tech will broaden its functionality beyond calorie-counting and try out new designs. The devices that stand out are those that offer wearable computing with a twist.

Enter the Razer Nabu, a water-resistant wristband that’s crammed with sensors to track movement and sleep quality. It can also be paired with a smartphone to show phone, message and email alerts. But it catches our eye thanks to its dual screens, one of which is a discreet notification display, which keeps your data away from prying eyes.

Razer Nabu

The Garmin Vivofit might find it hard to compete – it’s a fitness band first and foremost. But it looks to offer a stiff challenge to the likes of the Jawbone UP and the FitBit Force. That’s not to say it’s without its appeal. The chunky wearable features a curved, always-on display that shows personalised daily goals, steps, calories burned, distance travelled and, of course, the time.

Garmin Vivofit

Sony’s new Core product is a better indication of advanced wearables to come, in that the sensor is being designed to fit inside a range of different accessories.

Its first outing at this year’s CES might be in a traditional wristband and it is capable of tracking your activity plus alerting you to new texts or phone calls when paired with a phone.

Straight to the core

Yet the Sony Core idea isn’t confined to fitness tracking. Sony plans to launch a life-logging app alongside the sensor, encouraging you to keep tabs on the music you’ve listened to, the photos you’ve snapped and the tweets you’ve sent. This is wrist-tech with a twist.

Sony Core

These aren’t the only wearables on show at CES 2014. Pebble has updated its smartwatch with a new Pebble Steel model that encases the e-paper display inside a stylish stainless steel casing. The announcement of an official app store for the Pebble smartwatch will extend its considerable functionality even further. Watch this space.

Pebble Steel

Google Glass offers another wearable computing option, although with a significantly higher price tag. It’s why Epson has unveiled its cheaper Moverio BT-200 smart glasses at CES, featuring a transparent 960 x 540 resolution display. Built-in motion sensors detect the movements of your head, while Dolby Digital surround sound pumps noise into your ears.

Epson glasses

Other companies are taking different approaches to body sensing and wearable technology. The Withings Aura is a dedicated sleep-tracking system, not so much one you wear, but one you lie down on. The padded sensor is designed to be slipped underneath your mattress, where it records your heart rate, body movement and breathing while you sleep.

Red alert

The Netamo June doesn’t track your activity at all. Neither can it alert you to phone calls or text messages that arrive on your smartphone. Instead, this plastic sensor monitors your exposure to the sun and alerts you if you need to take action – like putting on sun cream. Taking a leaf out of the Core’s book, the sensor can be worn on a bracelet or pinned to clothing.

The best wearables will be those that solve a specific problem. The Memini camera is one such gadget, a wearable high-definition video camera that constantly records what it sees, giving you the option to save the last five minutes of footage.

Its creators call it ‘Recall’ – the ability to "save moments in high definition video, after they happen – because we understand that the best moments in life tend to happen without warning."

Intel headset

Not convinced that wearables are poised to be the next stage in the evolution of mobile? The fact that technology behemoths like LG and Sony are jumping on board speaks volumes. Intel is also convinced that wearable gadgetry has a big, bright future.

It used CES 2014 to reveal several technology concepts, including Jarvis (a voice-activated virtual assistant baked into a Bluetooth headset) and fitness-tracking earbuds.

What’s in it for Intel? Just as Intel pushed the idea of Ultrabooks powered by its nimble Core processors, the chip-maker has developed a new class of mobile computer that’s ideally suited for small devices. According to Intel, its new Edison product is a "a full Pentium class PC the size of an SD card." It’s already been demonstrated as part of a wearable baby sensor.

Of course, wearable technology faces some stiff challenges. Functionality remains limited and battery life is often poor.

But the smartwatches and rubbery fitness/activity trackers of today point the way towards a future where our relationship with technology will become significantly closer.

  • It’s not just wearable tech at CES 2014, here’s what else is on at the show.