The Smart Headband and the Wearables Revolution

July 28, 2014

We are living in the middle of a technology revolution.  Like the industrial revolution before it, this revolution will pass through a number of phases (inception, adoption and maturity) and it will include the development of a range of different key technologies, each of which will develop on separate but interdependent time lines.  The phases will also mark the evolution of products as ideas are trialled, fail or succeed, get adopted and are then subjected to further development.  Examples of this evolutionary struggle for survival can be found in the Apple Newton, introduced in the 1990s as the forerunner to the current generation of tablets, or the market’s selection of the technically inferior VHS over the more expensive Betamax video-tape recording systems of the 1980s. 

Currently there is a race to develop “wearable technology”, including smart watches, smart clothing and, of course, the much-heralded Google Glass.  The latest entrant into this market is a product from Microsoft that has been dubbed, in the absence of a product name, the “Alice band” or “smart” headband. 

There is very limited information available about Microsoft’s Alice band, but what is known demonstrates the different approaches that companies take when seeking to develop the next new thing.  Google Glass has taken the approach of developing a product without really knowing how it will be used, or the limitations of its use; naturally, Google Glass was launched complete with some initial applications (including internet browsing, navigation, playing music, recording images and texting), but the expectation is that market demand will determine how the glasses will evolve and be used in very much the same way that it has stimulated the development of mobile “apps” for tablet devices.  

By contrast, Microsoft set out to resolve a problem; how to help visually impaired people navigate around busy cities and find out useful information about their surroundings.  An early prototype of the product was demonstrated in 2012 by Microsoft working in association with Guide Dogs. (A promotional video for that product can be found here.)  The product provides verbal instructions to the wearer through earpieces received from a network of beacons that will provide information describing the immediate location, giving warning of obstacles and providing other programmed information relating to the locale.  The beacons will use Near Field Communications, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to communicate with the product.  BLE beacons have already been used in a number of similar applications, such as at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, to track how festival visitors moved around the site so that it can “shape and streamline the festival in the future”

Naturally, there will be a cost involved to establish the network of beacons required by the Alice band.  These beacons could also be used by products like Google Glass too.  As well as providing the necessary navigational information, it is easy to see that the beacons could also be programmed with information by the sponsor’s products, while gathering information about the user’s movements at the same time and sending it back to the sponsor. 

This raises a common issue with all wearable technology, which is the impact it has on personal privacy.  Much has already been written about the privacy concerns of using Google Glass, but this debate also highlights our fundamental dilemma with wearable technology.  We like the benefit of recording information for our personal use; for example, when downloading and analysing performance statistics from a sports watch, health band or cycling computer, but we fear the possibility of government agencies tracking our movements or ‘big business’ collating our information and using it to manipulate our lifestyles.   

Despite concerns about personal privacy, there are also examples of businesses using wearable technology in a manner that can be seen as beneficial by consumers.  For example, Japan Airlines (JAL) is providing its frontline staff at Tokyo’s Haneda airport with BLE enabled smart-watches so that their movements and location can be tracked and so as to allow the airline to re-assign tasks quickly in response to a need. The assignments appear as alerts on the smart-watch.  Retail outlets could use products like Google Glass to quickly scan bar codes and check stock inventories in response to customer queries from the shop floor and store security staff could record evidence of shoplifting. 

The technology revolution is changing the way that we live and interact and the evolution of wearable technology is one of the many areas where technology starts to fuse with our lifestyles.  It simultaneously generates new risks, challenges and opportunities, but it should be clear that the tide of change is unstoppable.  The law provides some limited redress to the misuse of personal information, but we now live in a world where there is no “off” button.  The millennial generation already recognises this and has adapted to survive life in the information age. 

Stewart James is a Partner at Ashfords LLP