Wearable Hub: Getting the Ball Rolling

Statement

After years of hype, wearable devices are happening. What wearable computing lacks is a way to integrate devices into a broader system.

Disclaimer/Disclosure/Warning

  • For the past two months or so, I’ve been taking notes about this “wearable hub” idea (started around CES’s time, as wearable devices like the Pebble and Google Glass were discussed with more intensity). At this point, I have over 3000 words in notes, which probably means that I’d have enough material for a long essay. This post is just a way to release a few ideas and to “think aloud” about what wearables may mean.
  • Some of these notes have to do with the fact that I started using a few wearable devices to monitor my activities, after a health issue pushed me to start doing some exercise.
  • I’m not a technologist nor do I play one on this blog. I’m primarily an ethnographer, with diverse interests in technology and its implications for human beings. I do research on technological appropriation and some of the course I teach relate to the social dimensions of technology. Some of the approaches to technology that I discuss in those courses relate to constructionism and Actor-Network Theory.
  • I consider myself a “geek ethnographer” in the sense that I take part in geek culture (and have come out as a geek) but I’m also an outsider to geekdom.
  • Contrary to the likes of McLuhan, Carr, and Morozov, my perspective on technology and society is non-deterministic. The way I use them, “implication” and “affordance” aren’t about causal effects or, even, about direct connections. I’m not saying that society is causing technology to appear nor am I proposing a line from tools to social impacts. Technology and society are in a complex system.
  • Further, my approach isn’t predictive. I’m not saying what will happen based on technological advances nor am I saying what technology will appear. I’m thinking about the meaning of technology in an intersubjective way.
  • My personal attitude on tools and gadgets is rather ambivalent. This becomes clear as I go back and forth between techno-enthusiastic contexts (where I can almost appear like a Luddite) and techno-skeptical contexts (where some might label me as a gadget freak). I integrate a number of tools in my life but I can be quite wary about them.
  • I’m not wedded to the ideas I’m putting forth, here. They’re just broad musings of what might be. More than anything, I hope to generate thoughtful discussion. That’s why I start this post with a broad statement (not my usual style).
  • Of course, I know that other people have had similar ideas and I know that a concept of “wearable hub” already exists. It’s obvious enough that it’s one of these things which can be invented independently.

From Wearables to Hubs

Back in the 1990s, “wearable computing” became something of a futuristic buzzword, often having to do with articles of clothing. There have been many experiments and prototypes converging on an idea that we would, one day, be able to wear something resembling a full computer. Meanwhile, “personal digital assistants” became something of a niche product and embedded systems became an important dimension of car manufacturing.

Fast-forward to 2007, when a significant shift in the use of smartphones occurred. Smartphones existed before that time, but their usages, meanings, and positions in the public discourse changed quite radically around the time of the iPhone’s release. Not that the iPhone itself “caused a smartphone revolution” or that smartphone adoption suddenly reached a “tipping point”. I conceive of this shift as a complex interplay between society and tools. Not only more Kuhn than Popper, but more Latour than Kurzweil.

Smartphones, it may be argued, “happened”.

Without being described as “wearable devices”, smartphones started playing some of the functions people might have assigned to wearable devices. The move was subtle enough that Limor Fried recently described it as a realization she’s been having. Some tech enthusiasts may be designing location-aware purses and heads-up displays in the form of glasses. Smartphones are already doing a lot of the things wearables were supposed to do. Many people “wear” smartphones at most times during their waking lives and these Internet-connected devices are full of sensors. With the proliferation of cases, one might even perceive some of them as fashion accessories, like watches and sunglasses.

Where smartphones become more interesting, in terms of wearable computing, is as de facto wearable hubs.

My Wearable Devices

Which brings me to mention the four sensors I’ve been using more extensively during the past two months:

Yes, these all have to do with fitness (and there’s quite a bit of overlap between them). And, yes, I started using them a few days after the New Year. But it’s not about holiday gifts or New Year’s resolutions. I’ve had some of these devices for a while and decided to use them after consulting with a physician about hypertension. Not only have they helped me quite a bit in solving some health issues, but these devices got me to think.

(I carry several other things with me at most times. Some of my favourites include Tenqa REMXD Bluetooth headphones and the LiveScribe echo smartpen.)

One aspect is that they’re all about the so-called “quantified self”. As a qualitative researcher, I tend to be skeptical of quants. In this case, though, the stats I’m collecting about myself fit with my qualitative approach. Along with quantitative data from these devices, I’ve started collecting qualitative data about my life. The next step is to integrate all those data points automatically.

These sensors are also connected to “gamification”, a tendency I find worrisome, preferring playfulness. Though game mechanics are applied to the use of these sensors, I choose to rely on my intrinsic motivation, not paying much attention to scores and badges.

But the part which pushed me to start taking the most notes was that all these sensors connect with my iOS ()and Android) devices. And this is where the “wearable hub” comes into play. None of these devices is autonomous. They’re all part of my personal “arsenal”, the equipment I have on my me on most occasions. Though there are many similarities between them, they still serve different purposes, which are much more limited than those “wearable computers” might have been expected to serve. Without a central device serving as a type of “hub”, these sensors wouldn’t be very useful. This “hub” needs not be a smartphone, despite the fact that, by default, smartphones are taken to be the key piece in this kind of setup.

In my personal scenario, I do use a smartphone as a hub. But I also use tablets. And I could easily use an existing device of another type (say, an iPod touch), or even a new type of device meant to serve as a wearable hub. Smartphones’ “hub” affordances aren’t exclusive.

From Digital Hub to Wearable Hub

Most of the devices which would likely serve as hubs for wearable sensors can be described as “Post-PC”. They’re clearly “personal” and they’re arguably “computers”. Yet they’re significantly different from the “Personal Computers” which have been so important at the end of last century (desktop and laptop computers not used as servers, regardless of the OS they run).

Wearability is a key point, here. But it’s not just a matter of weight or form factor. A wearable hub needs to be wireless in at least two important ways: independent from a power source and connected to other devices through radio waves. The fact that they’re worn at all times also implies a certain degree of integration with other things carried throughout the day (wallets, purses, backpacks, pockets…). These devices may also be more “personal” than PCs because they may be more apparent and more amenable to customization than PCs.

Smartphones fit the bill as wearable hubs. Their form factors and battery life make them wearable enough. Bluetooth (or ANT+, Nike+, etc.) has been used to pair them wirelessly with sensors. Their connectivity to GPS and cellular networking as well as their audio and visual i/o can have interesting uses (mapping a walk, data updates during a commute, voice feedback…). And though they’re far from ubiquitous, smartphones have become quite common in key markets.

Part of the reason I keep thinking about “hubs” has to do with comments made in 2001 by then Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the “digital lifestyle” age in “PC evolution” (video of Jobs’s presentation; as an anthropologist, I’ll refrain from commenting on the evolutionary analogies):

We believe the PC, or more… importantly, the Mac can become the “digital hub” of our emerging digital lifestyle, with the ability to add tremendous value to … other digital devices.

… like camcorders, portable media players, cellphones, digital cameras, handheld organizers, etc. (Though they weren’t mentioned, other peripherals like printers and webcams also connect to PCs.)

The PC was thus going to serve as a hub, “not only adding value to these devices but interconnecting them, as well”.

At the time, key PC affordances which distinguished them from those other digital devices:

  • Big screen affording more complex user interfaces
  • Large, inexpensive hard disk storage
  • Burning DVDs and CDs
  • Internet connectivity, especially broadband
  • Running complex applications (including media processing software like the iLife suite)

Though Jobs pinpointed iLife applications as the basis for this “digital hub” vision, it sounds like FireWire was meant to be an even more important part of this vision. Of course, USB has supplanted FireWire in most use cases. It’s interesting, then, to notice that Apple only recently started shipping Macs with USB 3. In fact, DVD burning is absent from recent Macs. In 2001, the Mac might have been at the forefront of this “digital lifestyle” age. In 2013, the Mac has moved away from its role as “digital hub”.

In the meantime, the iPhone has become one of the best known examples of what I’m calling “wearable hubs”. It has a small screen and small, expensive storage (by today’s standards). It also can’t burn DVDs. But it does have nearly-ubiquitous Internet connectivity and can run fairly complex applications, some of which are adapted from the iLife suite. And though it does have wired connectivity (through Lightning or the “dock connector”), its main hub affordances have to do with Bluetooth.

It’s interesting to note that the same Steve Jobs, who used the “digital hub” concept to explain that the PC wasn’t dead in 2001, is partly responsible for popularizing the concept of “post-PC devices” six years later. One might perceive hypocrisy in this much delayed apparent flip-flop. On the other hand, Steve Jobs’s 2007 comments (video) were somewhat nuanced, as to the role of post-PC devices. What’s more interesting, though, is to think about the implications of the shift between two views of digital devices, regardless of Apple’s position through that shift.

Some post-PC devices (including the iPhone, until quite recently) do require a connection to a PC. In this sense, a smartphone might maintain its position with regards to the PC as digital hub. Yet, some of those devices are used independently of PCs, including by some people who never owned PCs.

Post-Smartphone Hubs

It’s possible to imagine a wearable hub outside of the smartphone (and tablet) paradigm. While smartphones are a convenient way to interconnect wearables, their hub-related affordances still sound limited: they lack large displays and their storage space is quite expensive. Their battery life may also be something to consider in terms of serving as hubs. Their form factors make some sense, when functioning as phones. Yet they have little to do with their use as hubs.

Part of the realization, for me, came from the fact that I’ve been using a tablet as something of an untethered hub. Since I use Bluetooth headphones, I can listen to podcasts and music while my tablet is in my backpack without being entangled in a cable. Sounds trivial but it’s one of these affordances I find quite significant. Delegating music playing functions to my tablet relates in part to battery life and use of storage. The tablet’s display has no importance in this scenario. In fact, given some communication between devices, my smartphone could serve as a display for my tablet. So could a “smartwatch” or “smartglasses”.

The Body Hub

Which led me to think about other devices which would work as wearable hubs. I originally thought about backpackable and pocketable devices.

But a friend had a more striking idea:

Under Armour’s Recharge Energy Suit may be an extreme version of this, one which would fit nicely among things Cathi Bond likes to discuss with Nora Young on The Sniffer. Nora herself has been discussing wearables on her blog as well as on her radio show. Sure, part of this concept is quite futuristic. But a sensor mesh undershirt is a neat idea for several reasons.

  • It’s easy to think of various sensors it may contain.
  • Given its surface area, it could hold enough battery power to supplement other devices.
  • It can be quite comfortable in cold weather and might even help diffuse heat in warmer climates.
  • Though wearable, it needs not be visible.
  • Thieves would probably have a hard time stealing it.
  • Vibration and haptic feedback on the body can open interesting possibilities.

Not that it’s the perfect digital hub and I’m sure there are multiple objections to a connected undershirt (including issues with radio signals). But I find the idea rather fun to think, partly because it’s so far away from the use of phones, glasses, and watches as smart devices.

Another thing I find neat, and it may partly be a coincidence, is the very notion of a “mesh”.

The Wearable Mesh

Mesh networking is a neat concept, which generates more hype than practical uses. As an alternative to WiFi access points and cellular connectivity, it’s unclear that it may “take the world by storm”. But as a way to connect personal devices, it might have some potential. After all, as Bernard Benhamou recently pointed out on France Culture’s Place de la toile, the Internet of Things may not require always-on full-bandwith connectivity. Typically, wearable sensors use fairly little bandwidth or only use it for limited amounts of time. A wearable mesh could connect wearable devices to one another while also exchanging data through the Internet itself.

Or with local devices. Smart cities, near field communication, and digital appliances occupy interesting positions among widely-discussed tendencies in the tech world. They may all have something to do with wearable devices. For instance, data exchanged between transit systems and their users could go through wearable devices. And while mobile payment systems can work through smartphones and other cellphones, wallet functions can also be fulfilled by other wearable devices.

Alternative Futures

Which might provide an appropriate segue into the ambivalence I feel toward the “wearable hub” concept I’m describing. Though I propose these ideas as if I were enthusiastic about them, they all give me pause. As a big fan of critical thinking, I like to think about “what might be” to generate questions and discussions exposing a diversity of viewpoints about the future.

Mass media discussions about these issues tend to focus on such things as privacy, availability, norms, and usefulness. Google Glass has generated quite a bit of buzz about all four. Other wearables may mainly raise issues for one or two of these broad dimensions. But the broad domain of wearable computing raises a lot more issues.

Technology enthusiasts enjoy discussing issues through the dualism between dystopia and utopia. An obvious issue with this dualism is that humans disagree about the two categories. Simply put, one person’s dystopia can be another person’s utopia, not to mention the nuanced views of people who see complex relationships between values and social change.

In such a context, a sociologist’s reflex may be to ask about the implications of these diverse values and opinions. For instance:

  • How do people construct these values?
  • Who decides which values are more important?
  • How might social groups cope with changes in values?

Discussing these issues and more, in a broad frame, might be quite useful. Some of the trickiest issues are raised after some changes in technology have already happened. From writing to cars, any technological context has unexpected implications. An ecological view of these implications could broaden the discussion.

I tend to like the concept of the “drift-off moment”, during which listeners (or readers) start thinking about the possibilities afforded a new tool (or concept). In the context of a sales pitch, the idea is that these possibilities are positive, a potential buyer is thinking about the ways she might use a newfangled device. But I also like the deeper process of thinking about all sorts of implications, regardless of their value.

So…

What might be the implications of a wearable hub?

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